Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The dawn of the Netflix original series began a struggle for the soul of television

The dawn of the Netflix original series began a struggle for the soul of television

Graphic: Natalie Peeples

In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019. Today: 2013 and Netflix Originals.

On February 1, 2013, Netflix released its first-ever original series, House Of Cards. While the streaming service had previously offered the fish-out-of-water gangster comedy Lilyhammer as an exclusive to its subscribers, that was a co-production with a Norwegian broadcaster; the simultaneous premiere of House Of Cards’ first 13 episodes marked Netflix’s entry into the unexplored territory of generating content all on its own. In a famously data-driven decision—Netflix having noted its users taste for political thrillers and the work of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey (the last of which has probably diminished in recent years)—the company purchased an adaptation of a 1990 BBC miniseries executive-produced by the Se7en director and starring his erstwhile John Doe. Launched with a massive ad campaign and tremendous fanfare, it was an instant cultural phenomenon, critically acclaimed and widely popular (not that Netflix will ever verifiably quantify that popularity). Orange Is The New Black, following in July, had a similar reception; unfortunately, only scholars and bad-TV aficionados will likely memorialize the in-between release of Hemlock Grove.

Aside from its pioneer status, House Of Cards may have a more nebulous legacy: It was the advance team for a transformation that destabilized the very notion of TV itself. While much was made of the radical decision to release a season of a new show all at once, DVD box sets and on-demand libraries had already made binge-watching a staple of TV consumption. The other shifts that House Of Cards signaled were just as significant, if not more so: No time constraints on episode length. Created to stream online. Playable on laptops, phones, and tablets. Is TV still TV without the TV?

For 80-plus years, the definition of a “TV show” was fairly straightforward: programming created for broadcast—and then cable—television, audio-visual entertainment beamed into homes and businesses via ever-evolving methods of electronic transmission. Eleven years after the BBC broadcast its very first TV drama, TV programming became its essential self when a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies was proceeded by a 10-second plug for Bulova watches—the very first televised commercial. Advertising gave the medium an entrenched format, one that went largely unchanged and unchallenged until the dawn of the internet.

Things evolve more quickly in the digital age: It took several decades after the widespread availability of personal computers before the majority of homes in the United States had one, yet smartphones went from a cool idea to being owned by two-thirds of all U.S. citizens in eight years. People were increasingly living their lives—and finding their entertainment—online, and the kind of programming once exclusively found on broadcast TV was migrating to the internet, as broadband proliferated and early, clunky streaming-media players were replaced by the likes of iTunes and YouTube.

By the time Netflix announced it would begin creating original series, the digital writing was already on the televised wall. The company downplayed the DVD-delivery arm of its business as its number of streaming subscribers grew and warmed to the ease and simplicity of accessing movies and shows through internet-enabled devices. And with roughly 1% of Netflix’s film library—approximately 1,000 titles—making the jump from DVD to streaming, those subscribers were drawn to the relatively wider breadth of TV on offer.

But what would happen when the studios that made (or came to own) those movies and shows got wind of how much Netflix was profiting off their creative labor? At the end of the 2010s, we’re starting to see: Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal are beginning to pull content from Netflix in order to stock their own competing streaming services. But as the company’s leadership continues to emphasize, they developed House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black and Stranger Things (and BoJack Horseman and GLOW and The Kominsky Method and 13 Reasons Why and The Umbrella Academy and Ozark and Russian Doll…) in order to head off an exodus of your other television favorites. But are they still “television favorites” if they’re so technologically and structurally divorced from the very device that gives the medium its name?

The simplest explanation is that the experience of streaming programming is familiar, even if the technology behind it isn’t. When we sit down at a screen, fire it up, and hit “play,” we’re not doing anything terribly different from pulling up a show on our DVR, or even tuning in at the appropriate time to watch a live broadcast. “TV” is the generic term that exists for ongoing, serialized storytelling in video form with sufficiently high production values and running times analogous to the half-hour sitcom or the hour-long drama. Following those rough outlines was probably smart for the first offerings, as it gave viewers a comfort and ease of recognition as to what they were watching. Hey, it’s just like TV!

Production values and budget (and running time, to a lesser degree) really do seem to be the sole remaining dividing lines between what we think of as webseries vs. television, as the line grows ever more blurry. Something shot on the cheap, without the aesthetics and traditional look of TV and film, is more likely to be termed a webseries—especially if its episodes run shorter than 15 minutes, or what the Emmys, for example, relegate to the “short form series” category. In a Vox explainer about the arcane system that dictates the Emmy nomination process, former A.V. Club TV editor Emily VanDerWerff notes that Netflix originally had to convince the academy that House Of Cards was more like Breaking Bad than Strong Bad, an argument that seems ridiculously self-evident now. “Basically, if you are on a national television network or a streaming service that makes shows that seem like TV… then you are probably okay,” she explains—a distinction both weirdly obvious yet simultaneously lacking any firm justification. Much like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, we know a TV show when we see it.

Given such vague parameters, streaming has allowed the nature of a “TV show” to become profoundly malleable. As with cable, there’s a lack of commercials—an interruption around which the entirety of televised storytelling was originally based. The act breaks generated by regularly scheduled advertising established a model by which writers would craft stories, the better to make the best possible use of pacing. More importantly, there was the imposition of a universal scheduling format: Shows could be a half hour or an hour, as befit the genre. This allowed for a simple way to catalogue and publicize shows—everyone understood that you tune in at a certain time, have a story unfold for either 30 or 60 minutes, and then it would be over. TV Guide could easily lay out the nightly listings.

And while most online TV series continue to use such conventions (Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, one of the newest arrivals to streaming, is swimming in old-school TV structures), more shows are increasingly playing with the possibilities of the open-ended time frame. Witness Netflix’s Mindhunter, an hour-long drama, but which also included a midseason episode of only 34 minutes long. The centerpiece of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is a bravura black-and-white mini movie featuring single shots that run straight through traditional act breaks, obliterating any sense of five- or six-act structure. (The whole season, really, is a deconstruction of the network-TV format.)

The binge-watch model has also encouraged experimentation. Netflix had one of the most high-profile of such experiments with its pickup of Arrested Development, the fiercely beloved but low-rated comedy that was canceled after three seasons on Fox. When the series was revived for a fourth season on the streaming service, showrunner Mitch Hurwitz used the playful potential of bingeing in creatively unusual ways, though not as playful or unusual as his initial (and ultimately backtracked) suggestion that the season’s time-hopping narrative could be watched in whatever order the viewer pleased. Reception was muted at best, and Hurwitz wound up “remixing” those 15 episodes of varying lengths into something more closely resembling the Bluth family’s primetime exploits: 22 installments telling a story, chronologically, 22 minutes at a time. But in some ways, the fourth season’s original form was an antecedent for yet more experimental storytelling: The 2018 Black Mirror episode “Bandersnatch” was a full choose-your-own-adventure story, a garden of forking paths where viewers crafted their own narrative—an impossibility for traditional TV programming. It won a pair of Emmys, nothing if not confirmation that this, too, is TV.

It’s a disservice to both film and television when the artists behind new streaming-TV series roll out the hoary old “It’s more like an X-hour movie than a TV show!” line, but it’s more forgivable when you realize they’re often just attempting to articulate a difference between older TV formatting and newer ones. We’ve yet to formulate a language for integrating new TV formats into the paradigms and typology of the medium. Without clearly defined composition, running times, or even number of episodes to dictate what constitutes a season (or a show—the battle over how to categorize anthology series during awards season continues apace), these structural changes demand new assessments and more expansive divisions of form, if only to help viewers make sense of the ever-expanding kinds of television programming available.

Last year, for the first time, the number of Netflix subscribers surpassed cable TV subscriptions in the U.S. (76% to 67%). And despite FX head John Landgraf’s ongoing proclamation that the peak-TV bubble of too many shows will pop any day now, it still hasn’t happened. That might be the biggest legacy of Netflix and the streaming TV revolution: infinite sources for infinite television content. Moving online means a bevy of new streaming services, with more being added each week, all with their own offerings of series, specials, and more, all to entice the consumer to sign up for yet another service with a monthly fee. It’s far too much for even TV critics to keep track of, let alone the average viewer. Contraction is an almost certain inevitability—Landgraf is right—but despite the prognostications, it’s really anyone’s guess what the TV landscape will look like five years from now. And it’s even more uncertain what might constitute a TV show. Viva la revolución.