A couple of years ago I aired my gripes about Netflix in a post I headlined “Five Reasons to Dump Netflix.” I did drop the streaming service, at least for a while. But now that we’re chained to our TV sets because of the coronavirus lockdown, I’m back onboard. Not happily.
Like everyone else, I’m culling through those lists of favorite neglected Netflix films, searching for binge-worthy series I passed up earlier, revisiting some favorite old movies. I’ve watched two episodes of the much-buzzed-about documentary series Tiger King (in terms of timing, maybe the luckiest miniseries in the history of television). I enjoyed one season of Broadchurch; found Unorthodox worth the relatively compact four hours; and am very happy to have discovered Snowpiercer. The movie, not the series.
Yet, immersed in the streaming world, I am coming to realize, more than ever, what a passive, desperate and alienating viewing experience it is.
I used to write about television back in the ‘80s and ‘90s — the Pleistocene era, when three or four networks still dictated most of what we watched, and when we watched it. A lot of the programming, to be sure, was bland, mass-audience fare; people still called it the “boob tube” back then. But at least you had to make sure you were in front of the TV set at the appointed hour; time your snack breaks to synchronize with the commercials; and pay attention. (No DVR do-overs.) Most important, you felt part of a communal experience, watching the same episode of Dallas or thirtysomething along with the rest of the country. It would be nice to have something like that at the moment.
Now you don’t even have to flick a finger when you come to the end of an episode before the master controllers at Netflix or Amazon force-march you directly to the next one. (No chance to even watch the credits.) Yes, we’re in control of our viewing, but the choices are skewed by those mysterious “Because You Watched” algorithms, and organized into confusing, redundant categories (“Binge-Worthy TV Shows,” “Popular on Netflix”) that seem devised by some crafty stage mentalist to steer everyone into watching at least one episode of Outlander.
The sheer overwhelmingness of the streaming-TV experience has led me to look for old-fashioned, real-time viewing opportunities. I’m watching HBO’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America on Monday nights (disappointing; too slow and underpowered, with John Torturro as the least convincing rabbi ever portrayed on television), and Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children on Sundays (mainly because it was a crime story I lived through, when I was covering television for the Atlanta Constitution.)
The amazing thing to me about our communal binge-watching experience is that no one I know, or follow on Twitter or Facebook, seems to be watching a single traditional network series. The days when a thirtysomething or Ally McBeal or The Good Wife carried a little bit of cachet with the tastemakers really are over. And that’s a shame. I may have to break down and watch a couple of episodes of This Is Us. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.