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.

Screencap courtesy of Netflix.
If a show's not on Netflix, does it even exist?

Screencap courtesy of Netflix

This essay originally appeared on Dear Television, a Los Angeles Review of Books blog. Visit the LARB for smart daily essays on books, TV, and culture.

When I was an undergrad, my professor would talk about stars and directors by showing us actual slides of them, all loaded up into the Don Draper “carousel.” Clips were on actual film, with actual projectionists, or an assortment of badly edited VHS tapes. When a professor recommended a film, I’d go to the video store and rent it for 99 cents, the standard fee for classic movies. I never missed a screening, because it would be nearly impossible to find many of the films on my own, let alone someone with a VHS that wasn’t in the common room at the end of my dorm floor. It was the good old analog days, when film and media studies was still nascent, the Internet only barely past dial-up, and Internet media culture as we know it limited to a healthy growth of BBS, Listservs, and AOL chat rooms. It was also less than 15 years ago.

My four years in college coincided with dramatic changes in digital technology, specifically the rise of the (cheap) DVD and the personal computer DVD player. Before, cinephilia meant access to art house theaters or a VHS/television combination in addition to whatever computer you had. By the time I graduated, most computers came standard with a DVD player and Ethernet, if not wireless, connectivity. That fall I signed up for Netflix. I envied those with TiVo. Two years later, the growing size of hard drives and bandwidths facilitated the piracy culture that had theretofore mostly been limited to music. Then YouTube. Then streaming Netflix. Then Hulu. Then Apple TV. Then HBO GO. Or something like that.

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Today, we live in a television culture characterized by cord-cutters and time-shifters. Sure, many, many people still appointment-view or surf channels old-school-style. I know this. I also know people watch the local news. Yet as a thirtysomething member of the middle class, I catch myself thinking that my consumption habits—I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and full cable; I still appointment-view several shows—are somewhat typical.

I’m so wrong, but not in the way I might have expected. My students taught me that. They watch Netflix, and they watch it hard. They watch it at the end of the night to wind down from studying, they watch it when they come home tipsy, they binge it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Most use their family’s subscription; others filch passwords from friends. It’s so widely used that when I told my Mad Men class that their only text for the class was a streaming subscription, only one student had to acquire one. (I realize we’re talking about students at a liberal arts college, but I encountered the same levels of access at state universities. As for other populations, I really don’t know, because Netflix won’t tell me (or anyone) who’s using it.)

Some students use Hulu, but never Hulu Plus—when it comes to network shows and keeping current, they just don’t care. For some super-buzzy shows, like Game of Thrones and Girls, they pirate or find illegal streams. But as far as I can tell, the general sentiment goes something like this: If it’s not on Netflix, why bother?

It’s a sentiment dictated by economics (a season of a TV show on iTunes = at least 48 beers) and time. Let’s say you want to watch a season of Pretty Little Liars. You have three options:

1) BitTorrent it and risk receiving a very stern cease-and-desist letter from either the school or your cable provider. Unless you can find a torrent of the entire season, you’ll have to wait for each episode to download. What do you do when it’s 1:30 a.m. and you want a new episode now?

2) Find sketchy, poor-quality online streams that may or may not infect your computer with a porn virus. (Plus you have to find individual stable streams for 22 episodes.)

or

3) Watch it on Netflix in beautiful, legal HD, with each episode leading seamlessly into the next. You can watch it on your phone, your tablet, your computer (or your television, if it’s equipped); even if you move from device to device, it picks up right where you stopped.

It’s everything an overstressed yet media-hungry millennial could desire. And it’s not just millennials: I know more and more adults and parents who’ve cut the cable cord and acquired similar practices, mostly because they have no idea how to pirate and they only really want to watch about a dozen hours of (nonsports) television a month. (Who are these people, and what do they do after 8 p.m. every day?)

Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: There’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.

When I ask students what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available on Netflix.

Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.

It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows—it’s that with so much out there, including so many so-called quality programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy—and arguably just as good or important—right in front of you?

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.

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.

Anne Helen Petersen teaches media studies at Whitman College. Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin Press in 2014.

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