Broadcast First, Think Later: Why Quality Isn’t Yet King at Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube

by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine

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Paris is older than the movies. That means that Paris – like London, although neither are as abused a setting as New York – is typical and the story has been told. And re-told. And told some more, maybe with a different lens or some new hue – sepia or in black and white – so it looks like it wasn’t the movie you just watched a week ago.

Americans now, they want to move to Paris or go to Paris because they’re aware the Twenties existed, when that great keg of artists and intellectuals – red-blooded writers like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, the more sensitive socialite-y writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, the violently talented Pablo Picasso and Matisse, and hundreds others, many of whom made their fortunes in France between the Wars, some of them who soaked up the scene and made it after, and the vast majority of whom never made anything, like any Hemingway character not named Jake Barnes – descended upon the world’s most liberal, grandest city.

Paris was progressive and it was erupting, both from wild economic freedom and physical freedom – from the war-torn years between 1914 and 1919, before the Great Depression and the Nazis would slam them back down to something below Earth.

But the irony is, the movies weren’t around then either. Not like we know them now. So as soon as somebody could write a script where the city of Paris was the film’s biggest star, the formula was already pretty stale.

It hasn’t mattered though. We go back to it again and again anyway. Paris is easy to digest and an even easier to swallow. The city is as comforting as its food and its wine. A search for the best movies set in Paris takes you to The Guardian, their selections coming from a wide sample between 1943 and 2005, bookmarked by An American in Paris and Last Tango in Paris. We know now that the world’s obsession with the city still exists, from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – from 2011 – and Jay-Z’s Niggas in Paris, a single released that same year. And don’t forget about Ratatouille or Hugo, and 2004’s Before Sunset, the sequel to Vienna-set Before Sunrise, where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpe wander around the Seine, talking about writing and unsatisfaction and love, starting the whole thing off at the world-famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in the Latin Quarter. Honestly, you couldn’t write a film more ‘Starbucks’ than Before Sunset, and somehow it still works. That’s due mostly to the directing of Richard Linklater, the charm of Hawke, and the magic of Delpy, but it’s also due to the skyline and the buildings behind them.

So the city’s role as an A-lister is timeless, even if it isn’t.

Perhaps that was the motivation behind The Cosmopolitans, a new pilot and hopeful series from Amazon. The online behemoth has released a whole slate of ‘Episode 1’s for its fall season and, like any studio does with any film about Paris, the company changed the script just a little bit to convince you their original material is just different enough from Netflix, or Yahoo, or the millions of content creators on YouTube.

Amazon is creating TV. And it’s letting viewers choose which shows stay.

All they have to do is vote, although that’s never as easy as it sounds. (TV has already been doing this for half a century, though. The ratings have determined which shows stay and which shows go, even if we love to complain that Freaks and Greeks and Arrested Development and Community never had the run to match their fandom. But those fans could have, in fact, just turned on their sets and voted that way.)

It’s a fresh idea from Amazon, but I can’t consider it anything more than a fresh marketing ploy.

Because The Cosmopolitans won’t pick up anyone who wouldn’t watch it anyway. I, personally, love films about Paris. So it’s the one I went to. I have no interest in apocalyptic nods to the Bible (like Hand of God) or stuff about viruses, fatal strains, or mysterious medical things that happen to dying or dead people (like Hysteria, which I already think I know the plot for even though I haven’t read the abstract, because it’s called ‘Hysteria’). Of course, anyone who’s into crap like that probably looked at The Cosmopolitans and saw it starred Adam Brody and thought, “Oh great. He’s going to blabber on, use big words, fawn over girls even I can’t see the appeal in, make fun of jocks and blonde guys like he did on The OC, and some whining, entitled citizen of Generation Y will lap it up and tell me I just have to see it.”

I imagine Baptists think the same thing when they read the words, “by Seinfeld creator Larry David” or when they see Lena Dunham accept an award. Of course, they’d have only discovered the awards show by accident, and then they’d pretend to mock it while they watch all three hours of it.

I watched the first episode of The Cosmopolitans, but not in the way Amazon wanted me to, I’m sure. I couldn’t watch it on Prime – their streaming service, where every pilot is posted and watchable for free – because I’m Canadian. That’s another very practical challenge for the Internet’s pioneers, the horsemen at Amazon or Netflix who claim to be discovering a borderless terrain. Because there are real borders that limit their excellence, like the 49th.

So I watched it on YouTube. But I won’t embed it here, because I wouldn’t want it to get taken down before the rest of you can find it yourselves.

But the issue for shows like The Cosmopolitans or Transparent – another Amazon pilot starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender parent, meaning it will be labelled ‘groundbreaking’ before anyone has the chance to see it, certainly us unworthy Canadians – or Orange is the New BlackHouse of CardsBoJack Horseman, and documentaries like Mitt (all of those last few from Netflix) is that the quality, at this point, isn’t necessary.

Netflix doesn’t need to make each season of House of Cards better than the last. (And having watched both seasons, it seems they know that, too.) Netflix didn’t have to make Mitt anything more than the PR-ish look behind the barely peeled-back curtains it was. And Amazon doesn’t have to make The Cosmopolitans anything more than a cut and pasted fusion dish combining the soul of Woody Allen and the unhumorous humour of Girls.

The pilots can all be great, but that’s a combover. The energy goes into Episode 1, to hook you into keeping it. And then all the showrunners have to worry about is the first season’s finale.

Head to YouTube, where you have a lot of talented comedians, journalists, and style gurus building up bigger nightly audiences than Bill O’Reilly, but their wit and their honed skill is still raw. It’s undeveloped. The jokes aren’t jokes – they’re just feel-good slams of Republicans and Justin Bieber.

Broadcast first, think later.

That’s why we love House of Cards. Because it was Netflix’s first hit original series and we were surprised by it, and they made it all for us. They knew we wanted to binge-watch the whole thing in the first 48 hours it would be available. And we overreacted to it, somehow thinking it should compete for Emmys with Breaking Bad or Mad Men.

But really, if House of Cards was on AMC, would you have stuck around?

I doubt it, and certainly not if it was on HBO, where the epic, amazing Boardwalk Empire won’t last past its fifth season finale. On HBO, Deadwood died off faster than the actual town in South Dakota. And Empire is as stripped of hope as its setting, the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me in my love for Empire.

“It’s never been anything less than gorgeous to look at, but, with one notable exception, it’s rarely been great to watch,” writes Andy Greenwald, columnist at Grantland. “Many series have been able to overcome bumpy beginnings, but Boardwalk has persevered despite the hole in its heart: It’s a show built around a hero with nothing much to do living in a town in which nothing much happens.”

But I’d ask, how is that different from House of Cards, where Kevin Spacey speaks in only metaphors and an intentionally slithery Southern accent, where the most earth-shattering crime in Season 1 was death by carbon monoxide poisoning? In Breaking Bad, you’ve got Bryan Cranston killing drug dealers while on lunch from his teaching job, blowing up nursing homes, running over rivals in his Pontiac Aztec, and turning an old beat-up car into the weapon from hell.

Sure, Boardwalk Empire has cost HBO millions upon millions of dollars – not made, but cost – and that is truly the challenge of taking a Martin Scorsese project and putting it on TV. But what the show has been able to do – weaving history and legendary figures together with the landscape of the Roaring Twenties, all while creating its own original plot and characters – has been an astounding challenge met.

But look at the trailers for Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. Absolutely nothing is said, absolutely nothing happens. It’s all Kevin Spacey smirking and saying shitty stuff, and the women in the prison dance and high-five. Only a year in, each show is so self-aware of what the audience was charmed by 12 months earlier, the script now gets off on itself. The writers are a slave to what they’ve already done. They’ve lost all freedom to create.

That’s a dangerous symptom for a TV show – it’s the first sign the series will jump the shark one day, when the directors know Fonzie is the main character and not Richie, ditto for Ari Gold in Entourage and how absurdly idiotic Joey is on Friends. At some point, what made those characters loveable becomes too obvious, and the plot fizzles because the backup goalie has to start 60 games a year, not come off the bench and shatter your expectations.

Now, I hope the best for the future, and my future’s gonna happen online. So I support and I applaud what Netflix and Amazon have done so far, and for what Yahoo seems to be attempting, as well. But “so far” are the key words there.

Eventually, the Internet will swallow whole the networks. Eventually, shows like House of Cards will actually earn their critical praise. But for now, I’m just watching because it’s cheap.