Netflix Is Defining the Canon for an Entire Generation

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 10 2013 7:19 AM

The New Netflix Canon

My students love quality TV but barely know who Tony Soprano is. Why? Netflix.

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The split between Netflix and non-Netflix shows also dictates which shows can/still function as points of collective meaning. Talk to a group of thirtysomethings today, and you can reference Tony Soprano and his various life decisions all day—in no small part because the viewing of The Sopranos was facilitated by DVD culture. Today, my students know the name and little else. I can’t make “cocksucker” Deadwood jokes (maybe I shouldn’t anyway?); I can’t use Veronica Mars as an example of neo-noir; I can’t reference the effectiveness of montage at finishing a series (Six Feet Under). These shows, arguably some of the most influential of the last decade, can’t be teaching tools unless I screen seasons of them for my students myself.

The networks have long depended on a concept that scholar Raymond Williams dubbed “flow”—the seamless shift from show to commercial to show that creates a televisual flow so natural it’s painful to get out. Netflix does this as well, creating what one of my students has called “inertia problems.” One episode ends, and the countdown to the next begins in the corner. One season ends, and the next one pops before you. One series ends, and it’s ready with fairly accurate suggestions as to the type of programming you’d like to try next. The more you consume Netflix, the more you’ll consume Netflix.

And it’s not like it’s going to run out of content. As the Hollywood studios have tried to play hardball with what films they will and won’t lease, Netflix has turned its focus to television. And it’s not just quality and quasi-quality television: It’s flush with children’s, reality, and British television, with more seasons—and shows—added every month.

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So maybe the HBO shows of the golden age fade into the distance, referenced but mostly unwatched, the 2000s equivalent of Hill Street Blues or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So what? As I wrote last week, I have little interest in fetishizing “quality” television, especially as a means of reifying gendered, classist divides between “our” television and that television.

And the people at HBO love that division—they’re the ones, after all, who pioneered the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” They’ve also stubbornly resisted any technology that makes their shows broadly available. You can’t get them on iTunes for months; you can’t use HBO GO unless you’re a service subscriber, and you generally can’t subscribe to HBO without also paying for extended cable—at least a hundred-dollar cable bill. I get why they only want rich people watching their shows. I get how exclusivity, in and of itself, is one of the ways that HBO ascribes quality to its programming.

But you know what separates the “good” from the “significant”? Exposure. Not just initial exposure, like the hoopla surrounding the relatively unpopular Girls, but endured attention and familiarity. Viewers of broad ages and classes and tastes watching. Syndication used to do some of this work for us: that’s how I consumed M*A*S*H, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, classic Saturday Night Live, original Star Trek, and even MacGyver. It was MTV reruns, for example, and not ABC, that made My So-Called Life a cultural touchstone: The two words “Jordan Catalano” stand in for a host of dude-related agonies and ecstasies. Granted, you could watch Sex and the City on TBS, and The Wire on BET. But those were Frankenstein edits of the originals—and what little extended cable this generation does watch, it’s generally new content.

Netflix, and other forms of cheap streaming, thus take up the role formerly occupied by second-run syndication. Only unlike the reruns of M*A*S*H I’d watch every night at 7 p.m., these reruns are there whenever I want them and without commercials. With the rise of streaming services, we’ve avoided the term “rerun” and its connotations of the hot, bored days of summer. But apart from its foray into original programming, that’s what Netflix is: a distribution service of reruns. And as with second-run syndication, what’s available is what gets watched; what gets watched becomes part of the conversation. It’s not a question of quality, in other words, it’s one of availability.

HBO has always prided itself on being the cool kid in high school. It’s fine having only a few friends, so long as those friends are rich and influential. But no one can stay in high school forever: Eventually your world changes, whether you want it to or not. And you know what happens when the cool kid goes to college? He gets lost in the crowd. There’s no one to remind everyone that he’s so cool or exclusive, of what the last decade of his life meant, or why he should be respected and feared today. Even if he throws a really excellent party, he’s still one of many doing the same.

For coolness and distinction to endure, it needs an indelible sense of legacy. HBO’s not in danger of losing that any time in the near future—at least so long as most of the people writing about television are those of us reared on the DVDs of its golden age. But think of the next generation of critics, whose tastes are guided, and will continue to be guided, by streaming availability. For them, Louie and Scandal will always be more important than Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Newsroom.

This summer, HBO execs finally gave credence to rumblings that they’d offer HBO GO as a stand-alone subscription service. It may happen next year; it may happen in five. But each year they wait, each year that hundreds of thousands of viewers choose what’s at their fingertips over what’s not, their legacy fades. Perhaps that’s for the best? I mean, let it be said: I’m super-OK with more people watching Friday Night Lights than Hung. But some, if not all, of those shows deserve better.

Ignore Al Swearengen at your peril.

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This essay originally appeared on Dear Television, a Los Angeles Review of Books blog.

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