Why are an awful lot of people bingeing an awful lot of terrible TV?

During lockdown we have spent a lot of time glued to our televisions, and the streaming sites have been our enablers. They provide some vital comfort TV — but we need more than that from them.

There are ten episodes of Emily in Paris on Netflix, and plenty of people have seen them all. Many of us are enjoying it — we can’t really travel right now, and Paris does look fantastic in the show. The pain au chocolat in episode one? Incroyable! Some viewers, though, cannot stand it and, aghast at the xenophobia and the acting, grit their teeth until they’ve binge-watched it all. Why? Good question. Shows they don’t hate are readily available, and boosting the numbers for Emily in Paris only ensures more programming like Emily in Paris gets made. It is the most ridiculed show in memory and will almost certainly get a second series.

Lockdown and the purgatory that followed have done strange things to us all. Some of us turned to gardening, but an awful lot of people have watched an awful lot of bad television. The R rate for this “hate-watching” is now well over 1. It’s not just Emily in Paris that has become a big hit, even in France, apparently; she follows in the recent footsteps of Tiger King (tawdry), Selling Sunset (tacky) and Love Is Blind (twaddle). A tweet I saw in April ran: “I hate Gangs of London. Clichéd plot, porno violence. Still, must press on. Episode four.” Which sums it all up really, this revelling in rubbish, and I am not being an awful snob here — I have sat through every show I have mentioned so far, and not read any Proust.

During lockdown, television audiences largely lost the plot — and the off button — drowning in choice and letting the streamers’ menus choose for them. When there were just two channels in the UK, in the first half of the 1960s, nine million Britons watched the Play for Today: inventive and often challenging drama by rising stars. They wouldn’t do that now in such numbers, even if they had the option. This year has seen some drama of a very high quality, of course, such as Normal People, Quiz and I May Destroy You, but these are the exceptions. More typical have been shows that meet the need for a therapeutic brain-emptying at the end of what have been testing days. Come 9pm, Emily in Paris appeals for the very reason that it doesn’t make you think.

This shift towards hate-watching has been in motion for longer than lockdown, though. Think of the 21st-century boom in reality TV, from Big Brother to Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Love Island, via The Apprentice. We enjoy these shows because we cannot stand the people in them — and that has reset our viewing habits. We are so used to not enjoying any of the people we are watching that we care less about what is in front of us.

It’s a long way from the golden age of TV, even though it ended only last year with Game of Thrones. That was the last of a line of classics that started in 1999 with The Sopranos and led to the mind-boggling sequence of The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. All are great series that have dominated the cultural conversation, if not the ratings. We still have long-form drama of high quality, but these shows often have relatively low viewing figures, such as Succession, and get so buried behind the headline-makers on the streaming platforms that they become invisible.

Did you know, for example, that Borgen and Peaky Blinders are on Netflix? Have you seen Sacha Baron Cohen being excellent in The Spy? It’s unlikely, unless you decided to search for them specifically. Otherwise, they exist in a swamp of thousands of shows and films, or rather a “library” — which is what Netflix and the other streamers have become. You enter, and certain titles, usually mainstream ones, are paraded at the front; you have to know what you are looking for to find much else. And who has time for that? Inevitably the more advertised titles become the most watched and then top the charts, which leads to their getting even more views.

For example, a couple of months ago, I watched The Stranger, based on the Harlan Coben novel. It was a big-budget star vehicle at the top of the Netflix home page. The opening minutes were interesting, the rest a mess, but I watched three episodes because that is how the model works. It lures you in, then as the episode ends you have a few seconds to switch it off. Miss that, and your brain just accepts that you will watch more, until it is 1am and you have ingested all of Emily in Paris.

Hate-watching, though — or, to be kinder, the lazy-watching we all do — is driving the future of commissioning. Television has become like pop music. Thanks to Spotify, pop operates an oligarchy of top artists, who are pushed in more places than the smaller acts and, therefore, exponentially add to their streaming stats, and that leads to labels wanting more of the same.

Two years ago, Charlotte Moore, then director of content at the BBC, gave a punchy speech about the likely future of television under “Faang” — the acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. “I worry that the insatiable greed for data-gathering is serving the wrong master,” she said. “That entire businesses are focused on what they can take from audiences, instead of what they can give back… I don’t believe any amount of data can tell you what to commission next. Data simply won’t deliver you A Very English Scandal.”

A drive for data and subscriptions is surely behind the decision of Apple TV+ to commission documentaries about Bruce Springsteen and Billie Eilish. You could not focus-group two more different artists, yet what they share are vast and extremely dedicated fanbases who will sign up to the nascent streaming service regardless of how good the film about their hero is. After all, it worked for Netflix with the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana this year, and for Disney+ with the Beyoncé film Black is King in the summer. Apple TV+ wants a slice of the pop pie too.

There is, after all, not really any great financial incentive for the big streamers to make the type of great long-haul drama that dominated the first two decades of this century. Netflix has dabbled with House of Cards and The Crown, but the former petered out, while the latter’s viewing figures are low for a show so endlessly discussed — 21 million worldwide, compared with 64 million for Tiger King.

Some popular series, such as Ozark, are still designed to be followed carefully over multiple seasons, but they are an anomaly. The much-loved dramas Unorthodox and Unbelievable were, true, made by Netflix, but both were self-contained and short, easy to catch up on if you missed the launch. The same goes for a hit sitcom such as Schitt’s Creek, whose 20-minute episodes are easily blitzed. Not even its most ardent fans would claim Schitt’s Creek is the novel of its era, as many did with The Sopranos or The Wire, but it’s this very density that makes these heavyweight shows unpopular among commissioners. Success for the streamers involves an instant buzz for all the addictive goodies they put at our fingertips; there was nothing instant about laconic drug dealers wandering around a decrepit middle-sized US city and occasionally getting shot.

Up for debate is whether the streaming giants could make excellent long-form drama even if they wanted to. Think of the best-loved, most enduring such shows of recent years — Succession, Big Little Lies, Girls, Fargo, Better Call Saul, The Americans. All came from the more traditional networks, which have had talent drain away to the upstart platforms with loadsamoney.

A few years ago, Andy Harries, executive producer of The Crown, explained why streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are so popular among creatives: they interfere less. “They are attracting all this talent, because they are saying, ‘Come and make stuff for us. You can do it the way you want to do it. We are going to finance it, you make it.’ And that is what talent wants… [It is a] more refreshing, dramatically direct and less interfering approach — and that is the future.”

Anybody who saw the episode of The Crown in which Prince Philip dreams about the moon would certainly believe nobody interfered in the making of that — at least not anyone with an idea of pacing — but this lack of a firm hand on the tiller is problematic. Ryan Murphy, maker of the blockbuster shows Glee, the superb The People v OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, moved from Fox to Netflix to huge industry fanfare and for a hefty US$300 million. The money helped, but so did the promise of creative control. Over the past year, though, Murphy has produced The Politician, Hollywood and Ratched for the platform — all, put in the kindest possible terms, receiving mediocre reviews.

Idris Elba and Gary Reich, meanwhile, were given creative control for Turn Up Charlie, their Netflix show last year. “There are not many production companies that know how to and can afford to orchestrate what we did,” Reich beamed. It got bad reviews and was cancelled after one series, which is something Netflix tends to do: shows such as The OA and Glow, for instance, have been pulled before their time. I have heard that series three onwards of a show rarely attracts new subscribers, which seems fair. Only lockdown will give you the time to catch up.

But while The OA and Glow were not blockbusters, they were not unpopular either, and fans adored them. Passion is crucial in art, yet by opting for fast-food TV at the expense of a fine meal, it is clear where priorities of contemporary commissioners lie.

Ironically, Netflix is having its best year yet for offering invigorating films, while Apple TV+ and Disney+ are no slouches when it comes to movies either. On Netflix you can see Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, one of 2020’s greatest and strangest films; next month David Fincher’s Mank will be available. It is also showing films it didn’t make, such as Enola Holmes. Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, meanwhile, is on Apple TV+, and Disney+ will debut Pixar’s Soul on Christmas Day. Expect even more come the new year. When you consider that services such as Mubi and Curzon already offer top-quality fare, this is a big bonus, especially when cinemas are locking their doors.

Yet there is, as ever, a business reason for streaming sites turning to films. They are easy to wolf down if you missed them the first time around — just two hours of your time, usually. These are films that might win Oscars whereas, conversely, little on Netflix should really be bothering the Emmys. Does that matter? Probably not. Being talked about, it seems, is good enough at the moment. It doesn’t seem to matter if the chatter is negative. Hate-watching and comfort TV are here to stay. But wouldn’t it be nice to have some television that stirs your soul?

Great shows to dig for

Call My Agent!
It’s the anti-Emily in Paris, but it too has a newbie making her way in a chic office full of tricksy Parisians (above). Featuring real French film stars as themselves, behaving badly, the show has it all: wit, romance, intrigue, hilarious sex.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Spy
The week where the comedian regrettably goes back to Borat is a fine time to remember his acting chops. He is excellent in this mini-series about a Mossad spy.

Cheer
This documentary charts the trials and many tribulations of the young Texan students desperate to win big cheerleading prizes. Heartwarming and tough by turns.

Ramy
This comedy on Starz about a young New Jersey Muslim (creator Ramy Youssef), straddling his traditional community and a more louche modern life, should start to bite here. (TVNZ OnDemand)

The End of The F***ing World
Netflix picked up this quirky series about a likely psychopath (Alex Lawther) and a lonely teenager who run away together.

Ozark
Jason Bateman and Laura Linney head this crime drama, a rare Netflix show to be gifted more than three series — a fourth is in the works.

High Score
A fine history of video games, this breezes through culture’s most dominant art form, and introduces experts and novices to a cast of wild characters.

The Last Dance
Reminds us of superstar basketball player Michael Jordan’s swagger, with excellent footage and exclusive interviews — never better than when the number 23 is chomping on a cigar, berating a former, lesser rival.

Fargo
The TV series has not embarrassed the film’s brand. The first series, with Martin Freeman, is good; the second, with Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, even better. (Neon)

Dead to Me
Christina Applegate and ER’s Linda Cardellini invest an unlikely premise — a grieving widow’s life is turned upside down by a stranger at a grief counselling group — with emotional ballast and wry humour.

Giri/Haji
A mash-up of yakuza antics, fish-out-of-water romance and family drama as a Tokyo detective goes to London. It has the best TV performance of last year: Will Sharpe, as a gay sex worker.

When They See Us
Ava DuVernay’s series about the Central Park Five, wrongly accused of the rape and assault of a jogger, is a passionate analysis of a great injustice and the system behind it.

Top Boy
The third series brought the east London gangs to Netflix, but the first two series are there too. Beautifully realised and poignant.

On Netflix unless stated otherwise.

Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London

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