Netflix has become the absolute mecca for cult television viewing. It has taken niches and carved them out into much larger niches and has allowed the fandom of shows to expand well beyond the expiration date of their network tenure. This is not a newly discovered fact, however, the steps taken by them in recent months has proven once and for all that they herald the death of traditional television.
I am, of course, referring to the resurgence of Arrested Development.
Shows like this, for me, often fly under the radar. Until about two years ago, I had given up on sitcoms. I’d had my fill of bland humor in the nineties and wanted nothing to do with the same old jokes being told by different people on different sets in different ridiculous situations. I was tired of laugh-tracks being cued by the stereotypical lead characters dealing with a problem in the most “wacky” way possible while their sarcastic neighbor/friend made sarcastic comments which may or may not result in a catch phrase being printed on a t-shirt and marketed at Spencer’s or Hot Topic.
Sitcoms were not my friend. Most of them are very poorly written and are dragged out far too long, fading into obscurity before drawing former fans back with some heart-wrenching series finale which promises to be everything like the show you once fell in love with and not at all like the faded over-played tragedy it had become. I think I’ve shown enough of my disdain for one day.
When a good friend of mine recommended Arrested Development, it was prior to talk of the Netflix revival. I had, being a denizen of these fair internets, heard of the show and the plight which its fans suffered due to its abbreviated length. He told me that it would be my kind of humor and he was right. I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as happens with a Netflix revival, devoured the entire show within a week only to find that much to the disbelief of its continually expanding fan base, Netflix itself was involved in producing new episodes.
Shows like Arrested Development, along with other cult shows too numerous to list, are the Netflix cash cow. AD, Firefly, Galactica, every Star Trek series… these, 90% of the time, are why people subscribe. If there’s nothing else to do, you have every episode of these shows that you love on-tap and ready to go.
I realize I’m not telling you anything you didn’t know and I also realize that my blog is not, nor should it be, a Netflix commercial. What I am here to talk about is how Netflix changed the game by grabbing an otherwise discarded network show from the dead zone and resurrected it and how exactly that changes the game.
Network television, known for years to be yellowing their drawers over the encroaching crush of the interwebz, should now loose that fateful turd square into their panties over the fact that Netflix was able to put a show like Arrested Development back together for another season without any backing from the Old Boys Club. If internet-only sitcoms such as The Guild (as well as the rest of the Geek and Sundry lineup) and dramas like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries pulling down cult followings, awards, and millions of views on shoe-string budgets were the death knell for network TV, then Arrested Development Season 4 is the funeral.
YouTube and now, to some extent, outlets like Netflix have made it possible for new ideas to be brought to the fore without running the Hollywood gauntlet. It allowed for shows like FreddieW’s Video Game High School to be created and made public in a wider and more sociable forum. No offense to Freddie and his wonderful product (really, love the show) but if this were pitched to say NBC Universal Comcast Kabletown TGIFridays (or whatever they’re calling themselves now) it would have wound up on one of the backwater niche channels on digital cable that no one ever sees and would have received less views than it did on YouTube or FreddieW’s network, rocketjump.com. It would have also received less exposure. Case-in-point, here I am, talking about this awesome show and I’m able to link you to it directly. If it did wind up on that heretofore unheard of cable network and I mentioned it to you here, you’d still never see it because you’d have to a) determine if your cable provider carries the channel, b) find the channel somewhere in the vast labyrinth of the untouched numbers of the upper-hundreds, c) time it correctly to actually watch the show, and if that weren’t possible, d) condemn it to your DVR until such time as it is either potentially watched (could be months) or discarded in favor of the latest episode of Top Chef.
To clarify, I am not saying that all network television is horrible. I watch many shows on television (some network, mostly cable) and, though indie can be a wonderful thing, it is not the end-all-be-all. It would be impossible for someone to do an adequate Game of Thrones adaptation without the support of a major pay channel. HBO, however, hands over the keys to the kingdom and tells the creative types to lock up when they’re done. They are brave in that they will throw almost anything at the wall for at least one season to see if it sticks. Sometimes you get The Sopranos, sometimes you get Luck, either way it offers more freedom to the creators than the aforementioned Hollywood process, which is why HBO is consistently generating amazing programming. They, too, are making good use of the internet as they will soon (if they don’t already) allow people to subscribe to their HBOGO service; everything they have available on-demand, online, anywhere. First-run episodes of new shows are available as soon as the Eastern time-zone show is over, and they’re telling you that you don’t even need cable to watch it anymore.
Other networks operating on that sort of “take-it-and-run-as-long-as-the-ratings-are-good” philosophy are AMC and FX. Given a slightly longer leash than their network counterparts as far as the content of their programming, they are empowered to make edgier, quirkier, and ultimately more interesting shows that give a glimmer of hope for drama and storytelling within a bottomless abyss of reality shows about pawn shops, storage auctions, and trailer-dwelling creatures who believe they are beyond reproach.
I look forward to the day that channels like these take the Netflix route. They could strike out independently or partner up with a well-known distributor and make the shows they want to make as well as making the shows fans want them to make. I often love to see lists of show ideas that were shot down before being given a chance, especially spinoffs of cult ideas (I would have watched every episode of Starfleet Medical). So much potential was cast aside by fat-cat executives so out of touch with entertainment in general that they think Henry Winkler and Scott Baio are still Fonzie and Chachi hanging out at Arnold’s rather than standing in front of a jury as Bob Loblaw trys to prove that Barry Zuckerkorn can’t reach a doorknob of a schoolyard fence without the alleged use of a step-ladder. Any number of those shows once callously discarded may now face revitalization, provided the licences are available.
Arrested Development and the way it has drawn one fanbase to the internet should have the networks shaking and rethinking their strategy. Indie shows and films on the internet should have them watching their back. Cable networks continuing to expand their influence should make them take notice.
The obituary for traditional television is being written by a man who blue himself and no amount of forget-me-nows can make it go away.
Life is a roofie circle.
Keep fighting the good fight.