Must-Click TV: The Top 5 Netflix Original Series (2015)
Never before in the history of television have we had so much choice. Not only is there more content than ever before, we are also spoilt for choice when it comes to how and when we choose to watch. The situation was very different during the earliest years of television when viewers only had a choice between two or three channels. This made the process of deciding what to watch relatively easy, if not somewhat limited. Over the years, however, our options have dramatically increased. Most of us have access to a vastly expanded broadcast spectrum of hundreds if not thousands of channels, as well as various free or subscription based streaming providers such as the BBC iPlayer, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix. And then there are the more illicit avenues such as Pirate Bay or live streams of sporting events.
What to Watch? The Problem of Choice
Most would probably agree that this expansion of choice is a step in the right direction. Not only does it appeal to consumers who are increasingly used to having everything “on-demand”, but it also creates competition. However, too much choice can be overwhelming. John Ellis, a colleague of mine at Royal Holloway, first described this phenomenon in his book Seeing Things: Television in an Age of Uncertainty back in 2000. Whilst online television was not yet a reality at that point, Ellis coined the term “choice fatigue” to describe the increasing amount of time people spent flicking through TV stations and scrolling though electronic programme guides [EPGs] trying to decide what to watch.
This problem of “choice fatigue” certainly encapsulates my relationship with television today. Luckily, Netflix seem to be aware of this issue and have designed their interface to minimise choice fatigue by minimising choice itself. Rather than displaying the entire catalogue (which varies from region to region, but is in the thousands) it uses sophisticated algorithms to push a small but tailor-made sample of its collection to the surface. Nevertheless, viewers (such as myself) can still spend (or rather, waste) a large portion of their time browsing the catalogue instead of actually streaming content.
Thankfully there are a growing number of resources designed to help viewers circumvent choice fatigue. For example the website A Good Movie to Watch features a “random suggestion” generator for when you just can’t decide. The unique selling point for this particular site is that its generator only recommends films that meet its three (somewhat unusual) eligibility criteria: all films must have been released after Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982), have a rating above 7 on IMDb AND 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, and should be “little-known”. Why Michael Jackson’s Thriller should be the cut-off point is anyone’s guess, and what actually constitutes a “little-known” film is also debatable. Regardless, sites such as these have become popular amongst more indecisive viewers – their very existence as evidence of the growing problem of “choice fatigue”.
In addition to dedicated websites such as A Good Movie to Watch, there are also plenty of “top 10” lists published online on a daily basis. However, given the nature of Netflix’s ever revolving catalogue of content (with titles regularly disappearing without warning), and due to significant regional variations, these recommendations can have a very limited shelf-life and geographical relevance.
Luckily, Netflix Originals are exempt from the complex digital and geographic rights that can cause other programmes to disappear without warning. As the list below only includes Netflix Originals, it should have a much longer shelf-life and geographical relevance than other lists and recommendation tools.
What Makes a Netflix Original?
Before I begin my list, it’s worth briefly defining what constitutes a Netflix Original. This may seem a little pedantic but Netflix have a habit of taking programmes that have been produced and/or broadcast in one territory, before rebranding and passing them off as their own in another. They’re not the only guilty party when it comes to this rather misleading practice of rebranding content. For example, the US streaming service Hulu.com have a list of “original productions” that includes Misfits (E4) and Moone Boy (Sky 1) amongst many others. In the UK, Netflix recently rebranded AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-), a spin-off of Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013) as its own “original series”.
This will explain why some notable series didn’t make it onto my shortlist – UK viewers, for instance, might be wondering what happened to Better Call Saul which, for the record, is one of the best programmes on Netflix at the moment (the UK version of Netflix anyway). It’s also worth noting that the list below only includes “series” rather than films or one-off productions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the reviews below are not reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, in keeping with the economic, industrial and technological focus of this blog, I’ve offered some thoughts about each these series and their place within the broader context of the contemporary television industry.
With all of that in mind, here are my recommendations…
Netflix Original Series: The Top 5 (IMDb ratings correct as of August 2015):
5. Orange is the New Black | IMDb Rating 8.4
First up is one of the series that has put Netflix on the map when it comes to original productions. While it’s proven to be one of their most popular original series, Orange is the New Black is in many ways the least “Netflixy”. It’s excellent television, but is probably the most conventional series that made it on to this list. This isn’t necessarily surprising if we bear in mind that this was one of the company’s first ventures into original production – commissioned at a time when they were still relatively new in the market, and perhaps a bit more conservative with their choices.
Structurally, OITNB reminds me a great deal of a number of recent major network quality dramas. Specifically, it relies heavily on flashbacks to create what is known as thematic parallelism. This is a trope that was seen most prominently in series such as Lost and is used here to great effect.
OITNB would have featured higher in my top 5 but for me its most recent third season felt a little tired. While the critical consensus was generally positive, IMDb voters seem to be less convinced. Whilst the second season had an average rating of over 8.4, this fell to just over 8.2 for the third season. Granted, this is only a very small decline in the rating, but few series seem to improve with age.
A fourth season is scheduled for release in 2016.
4. Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day of Camp | IMDb Rating 7.9
This prequel to the 2001 cult film Wet Hot American Summer is incredibly immature, but for that reason, is incredibly fun to watch. It probably helps if you’re a fan of The State (MTV, 1993-1995) where many of those involved in the original film and its prequel series first made their names (Michael Showalter, David Wane, Michael Ian Black, and Ken Marino to name just a few). It also doesn’t hurt that many of the actors that appeared in the original film, and who make their return here, have achieved varying levels of stardom (Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler).
For Netflix, a series such as WHAS is therefore a relatively safe bet. Not only does it feature a series of “A list” Hollywood stars, but the franchise already has a small yet dedicated cult following (read: guaranteed audience). Importantly, Netflix also has streaming rights to the original film and making-of documentary, adding further value to its existing content.
To illustrate the pure joy of this series, here’s a promo featuring the excellent Paul Rudd, whose character is one of the highlights of WHAS…
— Netflix UK & Ireland (@NetflixUK) July 31, 2015
3. Grace and Frankie | IMDb Rating 8.2
A critic in The Guardian recently described Grace and Frankie as a show that “just falls short of television greatness”, likening it to an apple pie that could have been the best pie ever if only it had a dash of nutmeg. I’m not sure that I agree. Grace and Frankie is a wonderful dramedy that feels very honest, intimate and is often very moving. I don’t think it would be a spoiler to outline the basic premise (but please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know): two ageing lawyers (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) have been in love for the past twenty years and, wanting to take advantage of the recent legalisation of gay marriage, finally decide to come out to their wives (played by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda). Whilst at first they have very little in common, Tomlin and Fonda’s characters begin to see past their differences, developing an unexpected friendship based on their mutual abandonment and subsequent need for support.
In many ways, the premise screams “conventional sitcom”. Two opposing characters forced together due to circumstances beyond their control: comedy ensues. However, Grace and Frankie somehow feels different to the usual major network fare. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine something as bold and daring as this being broadcast on ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX. The obvious explanation for this is the fact that major networks tend to avoid dealing with issues that polarise the nation (in this instance, gay marriage). Add to this television’s continued marginalisation of elderly audiences, and suddenly Grace and Frankie doesn’t look like an attractive prospect for major network TV. This marginalisation is largely driven by the fact that ratings are still primarily concerned with the 18-49 demographic – despite the fact that elderly audiences make up an increasingly large part of the television audience.
As a result of this combination of forces, Grace and Frankie has much more in common with sitcoms you might expect to find outside of the major networks (for example, the more controversial fare found on HBO or Showtime). Indeed, all of the titles that made this list have that much in common – they all seem different to “mainstream” offerings and for that reason have found a good home on Netflix.
2. House of Cards | IMDb Rating 9.1
With four Primetime Emmys and two Golden Globes amongst its ever expanding trophy cabinet, House of Cards has been a significant critical success. More importantly though, the series has been an integral part of Netflix’s successful attempt to break into the already highly competitive marketplace of original television production. This was their first foray into this unknown territory. But in purchasing the exclusive rights to House of Cards, Netflix were arguably just as cold, calculated and assured as the series’ central character, Frank Underwood (played excellently by Kevin Spacey). According to the company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos, the decision to back House of Cards was heavily influenced by the vast bodies of data generated by Netflix viewers; data which suggested that the unique combination of star(s), director and genre would prove to be a winning formula. It looks like they were right.
House of Cards is therefore not only notable for its significant critical success (including the accolade of being the first online-only original web series to receive a major Emmy nomination), but will also go down in history for pioneering a new economic approach to television in which “big data” is used to inform purchasing and commissioning decisions.
1. Bloodline | IMDb Rating 8.3
I’m sure many will disagree — and Bloodline could well fall down my list depending on the direction it takes in its upcoming second season — but for the moment this series deservedly gets the top spot.
Bloodline bears all the hallmarks of a quality television drama. It’s dark, complex, nuanced and original. It features incredible cinematography and excellent performances (from a cast that includes Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Chloë Sevigny, Sam Shepard, and the hugely talented Ben Mendelsohn). What more could you want?
So far, this list has allowed me to explore a number of ways in which Original Netflix series are distinct from the rest of television (particularly major network TV). One thing I haven’t mentioned, however, is the fact that the Netflix “all-at-once” model gives us freedom over the pace at which we choose to watch. In that sense, Netflix is not only distinct from network TV, but also from the kind of basic and premium cable quality TV to which it is inevitably compared.
Bloodline, perhaps more than any other title on this list, really benefits from binge viewing. Its complexity and subtlety wouldn’t be as effective within the weekly broadcast schedules of the majors, or even HBO, AMC, or any of the other cable networks. Given that Hulu recently declared their commitment to the weekly scheduling of original online content, Netflix is the probably the best home for a series as complex as Bloodline. Even Amazon Instant have shown a preference for weekly “broadcasts” (or rather streams) of original online content. As such, Bloodline highlights a fundamental difference between Netflix and the rest of this new breed of streaming services – one that may well shape the kinds of programmes it produces in the future and how we experience them.
Before I incur the wrath of Dare Devil and Arrested Development fans, I should point out that I enjoyed both of those series (although Dare Devil less so) and that they only narrowly missed out on my top 5.
As the slate of Netflix Originals is set to expand significantly over the next couple of years, choice fatigue will only increase. At that point, I’ll revisit this list. Until then, happy bingeing.
Posted on August 20, 2015, in AMC, Bloodline, Grace and Frankie, IMDb, JP Kelly, MTV, Orange is the New Black, The State, Top 5, Wet Hot American Summer and tagged Bloodline, Choice, House of Cards, Internet, JP Kelly, Netflix, Orange is the New Black, Royal Holloway, Scheduling. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.