Got A Brain? Keep It To Yourself.
When did having a brain become a liability?
It seems everyone made the same friend during the lockdowns; Netflix could do no wrong. The streaming service rendered DVDs obsolete as it kept refreshing its catalogue. It put out a more diverse range of product than any other service. It produced originals, part-funded co-productions and bought in content that would otherwise not have been seen. It added documentaries, world cinema and European shows, and usually did so with a choice of dubbing or subtitles.
We preening liberal elitists lap up the world content, conveniently forgetting that it’s entirely unrepresentative of what most viewers watch. They’re watching cooking shows, soaps, makeovers, cop shows, fun teen stuff. If I’m not watching a German political thriller I’m probably reading a book (the fascinating ‘We Are Bellingcat’ by Elliot Higgins, if you must know) and priding myself on my urban elitism.
Except I’m not. I’m getting annoyed. I sat through ‘Behind Her Eyes’, based on a book by a friend of mine, and felt insulted. Not just because of its homophobic ending but because it breaks the cardinal rule of the genre in much the same way that ‘Lost’ did. In pursuit of ratings it treated its audience as morons.
Netflix’s captive audience is leading to it reversing the creative process. Rather than writers pitching original ideas, demographic fan service is giving viewers what they want in a self-feeding loop. In some instances this is clever; ‘Bridgerton’ takes the boring old history out of historical drama and reduces it to a cosplay Barbara Cartland potboiler with admirably colourblind casting. ‘Emily in Paris’ might as well be set on Mars for all it has to do with the City of Light, all Eiffel Tower twinkles and the Tuileries; to get some sense of the real Paris, watch the enthralling thriller ‘Les Misérables’, set in modern-day Montfermeil, the setting of Victor Hugo’s novel, where cops seek justice by holding meetings with local imams.
But we’ve been heading this way for a while; Documentaries with staged re-enactments and imagined conversations, true films which are nothing of the kind, a blurring of fact, fiction and fantasy that makes everything and nothing believable. The cleverly marketed trash novel, all hook and no skill, the demographically commissioned series with pleasure bumps every ten minutes, let’s strip away everything that drove someone to create original work and go for clicks.
Obviously private companies are in it for the profit, and no amount of me wittering on about how wonderful the Curzon streaming service is will affect that. Yet the last half dozen hit drama series I’ve watched have been from Norway, Sweden, Spain and France, and have managed to be exciting, original and intelligent.
When did having a brain become a liability, or worse a niche market? TV is a populist medium. After a hard day the last thing most people want is to sit down in front of a Korean drama, and I can’t blame them. (Yet I do; last night’s viewing for me was ‘Forgotten’, a Korean film on Netflix with an astonishing premise.) Why pursue some doomed Reithean mind-improving mission when it’s not what people need?
When I was a child, Sunday night was intelligent television night on the BBC, subjects of gravitas analysed by old men in suits. God, it was dull. So, contradicting myself, I approve of the modern approach. Rather than indicating the end of civilisation as we know it, I think ‘Bridgerton’ is a great idea; a guilt-free soap that’s pretty and light-hearted and full of positive role models.
But in its own way it is outrageous for denying the history upon which it’s based, and in doing so ties itself in ideological knots. Its women are rich, beautiful and empowered, the men emasculated, so it denies the historical setting which is its theoretical raison d’être. But as I look around the fiction bookshelves I see nothing brave, nothing experimental, nothing new, nothing outrageous. As much as I read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘All The Light We Cannot See’, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr, it’s comfort food. I like to be challenged, just not all the time, so it was fine.
And there is a problem; reading and watching exist in a learning curve that lasts your whole life. When I was a kid I happily watched ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ without an inkling that it would one day make me feel appalled. You learn and grow, and there are others just starting out.
Netflix has introduced something new. Content offering endless comfort. Strung-together clichés that keep up the eyeball count. Theatre bookers have a mantra; five nights of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ will pay for one performance of a new play. People want something new so long as it’s familiar, so give the people what they want. But for God’s sake give them something new as well.