Television

The Golden Age of television is giving way to a period more gilded, but streaming giant Netflix has still bankrolled some worthy viewing this year, in the form of Dumplin’ and American Vandal. By Helen Razer.

The gilded age of Netflix

Elsa Pataky (left) and Charlotte Best in Tidelands
Credit: Jason Boland / Netflix

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Or so the philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote when interned during the time of Mussolini’s barbaric rule. It may not be proper to lift these words from a prisoner of fascism to describe the crisis facing television, but it is fairly instructive.

Television’s Golden Age is dying, and the medium faces an uncertain future. If the new program Tidelands is any guide, its present is very barely gilded. Released last week, the first Netflix-produced Australian drama is sure to be the last chance viewers will give the “Sexy Bisexual Mermaid” subgenre of the supernatural. Earlier this year, US pay television channel Freeform thought to defile Hans Christian Andersen with a little discernment and some semblance of story in Siren. With Tidelands, the creators of Network Ten’s uneven interactive experiment Secrets & Lies bring us very little more than an adults-only adventure fishing expedition.

Unlike True Blood, to which some critics have very generously likened the show, Tidelands doesn’t bother with a neat high-concept. In place of the proposition “What would it mean for vampires if human blood could be synthetically produced?” we have “What would it mean for mythic female sea monsters if we made them about as interesting as day-old bream?”

Much like the joyous 1995 film Showgirls, Tidelands maintains such unstinting focus on boobs, plot is a secondary concern. Ergo, some reviewers have declared a so-bad-it’s-good case could be made for this misogynist tinsel. As one critic advised this week in The Sydney Morning Herald, “Stick with it, and you might get hooked.” One could say the same for methamphetamine, or the speeches of Mussolini.

In short, Tidelands is a disappointment and not, in my view, as useful to the holiday period as the thumbnail pornography of RedTube. It is a disappointment, and not only for Australia, a nation that badly needed an endurable drama after the ABC’s tacky encomium to US military capability Pine Gap. It is a disappointment to anybody who has enjoyed the excellent respite provided from life and all its morbid symptoms of decay during the previous 15 years of pretty good telly.

There will be no more Breaking Bad. In its place, there will be Xanax-mermaid erotica. The Gilded Age has begun.

It is largely agreed that television was revolutionised by HBO with The Sopranos. Things could only get better, most assumed. Not an unreasonable expectation when Netflix, the true giant of streaming TV, popped $US13 billion into telly in 2018, spending more on original content than all the US free-to-air networks combined. Per Goldman Sachs’ predictions, it will raise its content spend to $US22 billion by 2020. Yet it ended the year with an objectively awful show about horny amphibians.

Netflix can, of course, commission a truly affecting delight, such as this year’s Dumplin’ – a hot-pink, body-positive teen romcom that quite runs away with the heart. The film features Jennifer Aniston as a disappointed former beauty pageant winner, the music of Dolly Parton, and a makeover montage overseen by drag queens most appreciatively drawn. Netflix also proved it had the nous to make actually agreeable cooking shows – notably Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, hosted by Samin Nosrat, a chef with a smile even warmer than Nigella’s and a cooking framework she can describe to us everyday people in words. But Netflix also proved itself entirely capable of upchucking the thinnest and most aspirational culinary gruel with the competitive fine-dining series, The Final Table. This is a food fight for another Gilded Age.

That our current era, beyond television, is an interregnum – a time between times – is hardly news. If you missed the past year’s worth of stories that have used the Gramsci observation as their starting point, then there is always Trump to remind you of political putrefaction. This is a time of normlessness or anomie, a term first used by anthropologists of the Gilded Age. Next year, The Gilded Age will also be the new drama from Julian Fellowes, showrunner of Downton Abbey.

In the Gilded Age, Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb; he stole it, and invented Thomas Edison. He raised the price of his electric light, then crashed the price of gas. It was the worst of times to be an ordinary worker, but it was best of times to be their most diverting myth. In short, the period was not so far from the present, with its noisy tech sector braggarts and its most uneven wealth.

For some of us in these uneven economic times, an interest in the market has emerged. Some have fretted since a – not unexpected – drop in the Netflix share price this past quarter, which they fear signalled the streaming leviathan just can’t keep spending as it has been. Even television reviewers are worried about it. Especially television reviewers.

We shouldn’t worry much, though – the Golden Age of TV will not be immediately over. The signs of atrophy are there but it will still take a few years before one of the giants – likely Netflix – kills all the others and begins to decay in a state of insoluble contradiction. Further, and as Thomas would agree, wealth inequality is marvellous for escapist entertainment. Just as J. P. Morgan helped Edison finance his crude moving picture machine, the kinetoscope, Goldman Sachs will keep issuing its research notes that confirm Netflix – one of the globe’s most highly valued media companies – is seriously undervalued. This seems right to me. Certainly, during my next spell of underemployment, I’ll watch Dumplin’ three or four times and permit it to reunite me with the self from which money has me miserably estranged.

The reality, for the foreseeable future at least, is that the quality of our TV will be determined, in large part, by where Netflix decides to pour its fictional capital. Sadly, a bit of its $US13 billion went to the Obamas, who will reportedly use the funds to produce scripted documentaries. These are bound to be sincerely dreadful Washington Consensus lifestyle shows masquerading as empowerment. It will be gilded, and it won’t be golden.

But Netflix documentaries all have that frustrating veneer of quality. If you’re half-asleep, they sound and look like somebody uncovered an injustice and got so seriously cross that they thoroughly investigated their subject and social conditions. If you’re conscious, they’re dross. Whatever one’s view on the affiliations of Syria’s White Helmets, Netflix’s documentary The White Helmets looks like Hallmark Goes al-Nusra.

In coming years, we can expect more Netflix original docuseries from Duplass Brothers Productions. Sure, these blokes know their way around a screenplay, and offer an agreeably melancholic view of life in their series Togetherness, but the alienation they depict as universal belongs to me – a white, midlife Gen X-er grappling, and usually failing, to find a theoretical framework to understand the interregnum. It is likely that this pair will confuse the intimate and personal for the very broadly political, leaving us with the facade of understanding, without any effort. The Duplass brothers will offer the same simulated reality likely given to us by the Obamas. 

With each additional 90 minutes of talking heads and drone shots released by one of these established or emerging streaming companies, it becomes clearer we’re not to trust a single one of them with the production of documentaries.

In January, the original documentary Dirty Money was made available on Netflix. In this, the year in which Netflix became the most prolific single source of screen entertainment in the US and the hungriest consumer of downstream traffic worldwide, in which it grew its Australian subscriber base to well over seven million, the streaming platform purported to take an unflinching look at big business.

Dirty Money could only have been worse had Sarah Ferguson presented it. Netflix documentaries are not much brighter but they do seem less servile than those at the ABC. Those yet to view this six-part denunciation of corporate greed should congratulate themselves for the oversight. Reward yourself by rewatching all the diner scenes in Dumplin’.

It is such bleak cowardice to describe the systemic violence created by profit as the work of bad people with flashy, narrow tastes. A bit like calling the gilding “shiny”. Dirty Money is a waste that borders on madness. All that money spent on directors and baleful middle-brow synthesiser music just to say, “big business is not bad – we just need to have nicer people on boards”. This, from a company that will, like all companies, fight to the death with the others until the day they have no competition.

Of course, we can’t expect Netflix to show us under its skirts. It needs to appear as though it’s a loner visionary full of electrifying thoughts, in order to hold on to its gilded-era success. It must appear to be inventing the future that others just can’t see. Like Steve Jobs and his iPhones or Edison and his lightbulb myth, Netflix must now transcend the everyday. Bullshit is the fertile ground from which a 20-year-old company can rise like an unproven start-up.

Still. You can’t fail all 13 billion of your dollars. This year, American Vandal series two was just as good as the show’s first series and its use, again, of the mockumentary form was an inspired means of evoking a teenage world view. The seriousness with which an adolescent apprehends their immediate environment is expertly captured in this vulgar show, which this time turns its handycam to an incontinence mystery at a private school. There is so much more to adore in a show about poisoned lunch than in one about libidinous mermaids.

Innovation and creativity are momentarily possible. We have a cycle that brings us season one of House of Cards or The Break with Michelle Wolf. Then we have Hope, Change and the false consciousness of the Obamas. We have a cycle in which Steve Jobs consolidates a decade’s worth of innovations into an iPhone. Then we have Tim Cook and his stock buybacks and his single “technological” innovation, the animated emoji.

Netflix will create many more junk bonds to sell than great television programs to watch in coming years. In many sectors in this interregnum, there’s always another horrifying story of fictional capital waiting to be written, and this putrefaction will, at some point in the production cycle, always overtake the product itself.

Even if, by some miracle of ambition, Netflix and its competitors remained golden, this Gilded Age is already upon us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Gilding the telly". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.