Streaming puts hundreds of thousands of hours of television at our fingertips – but how do we choose what to watch? By Morris Gleitzman.

How to choose from a streaming smorgasbord

David Attenborough in David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.
David Attenborough in David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.

At first I thought SBS was crazy, branding themselves as “On Demand”. Why would an exciting new broadcasting initiative want to remind us of unpaid bills and night feeds? Then the age of streaming got a spurt on and it was us doing the demanding, gods of all we digitally surveyed, even when the rest of our lives were deflated by pandemic powerlessness. How good did those demands feel? Except the times I’d wake up on the settee, ears ringing from three missed episodes, lounge-fluff in my mouth, and once again, ironically, 3am dribble on my shoulder.

But I’m not complaining. When future civilisations unearth the recommendations we scribbled for each other on the back of No-Doz packets, they’ll marvel at the sheer volume of available screen content. Though they’ll probably also note, if told about our recurring cry of “just one more ep”, that we didn’t really seem that content at all.

And we’re not. FOMO grips us as we ricochet around the thumbnail grids of the streamers. Not like the old days, when we ambled through bookshops and libraries, inviting the gentle but firm embrace of a book that for a few hours would feel like the only book in the world. Today, so much on our screen reminds us of things we haven’t even seen yet.

Thank you, showrunners, for trying to help here. Your streamlining efforts are much appreciated. Fitting a 60-minute episode into 30 minutes was an inspired idea, and in many cases you’ve managed it brilliantly. Modern Love (Amazon Prime), for example. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quality screen drama more exquisitely time-managed. Sure, the source material – essays for The New York Times by readers about their falling in and sometimes out of love – would have had the rambling bits and defamatory observations chopped out by the subs, but still. How often have we seen stories try to be as complex and nuanced as these humble episodes, only to bloat up and push movies over the two-hour mark and viewers over the brink.

All the more impressive when we remember that for decades the 30-minute slot was mostly the province of the sitcom, which only needed time for plots and jokes. The time-consuming and franchise-warping arc of character change was forbidden. Whereas in half an hour of Modern Love, at least one and often two humans are changing faster and in every way as convincingly as their climate.

Many of these dazzling digital miniatures come from a new type of auteur. I spotted recently that Zack Snyder’s “Ultimate Director’s Cut” of his movie Watchmen (Netflix) is streaming at three-and-a-half hours. I don’t mean that type of auteur. I’m thinking more of the ones who know how to set their phone alarm at 29 minutes.

Michaela Cole, for example, whose powerhouse drama series I May Destroy You (Binge) – a gut-wrenching and utterly captivating encounter with sexual jeopardy and violence in contemporary London – was created, written, co-directed and performed by Cole, all superbly. At our place we were left blinking at the end of each episode, in complete thrall to her luminous, multilayered portrayal of the main character, and stunned that 30 minutes had passed, rather than what felt like only three. Until we unpacked what we’d just seen: then we were amazed we hadn’t been watching for something closer to Zack’s three hours.

The great thing about A-grade time-efficient viewing, even allowing for the conversations that take place after each episode rather than during them, is that we’re left with plenty of time for other important things. Booking holidays, for example, or watching more series.

After quickly agreeing that this year we’d holiday in our own state, the part of it that lies at the southern border of our TV, we discovered another impressively time-frugal small screen auteur, this one Australian. Scott Ryan’s Mr Inbetween (Binge) occupies a familiar genre – ruthless killer-for-hire with a heart of gold in his own time – done very much better than most. Toe-curlingly good dark humour, drier than the soil from which it grew, and characters that live on in your mind (even the dead ones) and, bonus, a timely exposé of the gig economy via the stresses of juggling work, parenting and a Glock.

Scott Ryan’s stellar scripts and performance, and his determination to do both himself, having done neither before, must surely have made him the darling of the global film-school circuit. His calling card for his main character, Ray Shoesmith, was a movie written, directed, performed and edited by him, and made for a reported $3000. (Scott, I hope you don’t mind, I’ve given your number to Zack Snyder’s financial controller.)

The first of Mr Inbetween’s three seasons screened in 2018, but I heard of the show only a few weeks ago. I guess that goes some way to explaining the aforementioned FOMO. You chance on something like Mr Inbetween, then lie awake at night wondering how many other gems are lurking in the several hundred thousand hours of streamables awaiting our demand. Or maybe you don’t even go to bed. You stay up and frantically sample 30-minute first episodes until you pass out.

What a night that was. My viewing notes are hard to read, because that’s the thing with compressed quality viewing, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. I scrawled I Am Not Okay With This, which might be a reference to Jonathan Entwistle and Christy Hall’s pithy and engaging short-form Netflix adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel. Or maybe it’s a comment I made about Big Mouth (Netflix), the animated coming-of-age show whose loveable and complex adolescent characters swap dialogue so sexually explicit the title must refer to our dropped jaws.

I also scribbled SBS, probably an abbreviation for Short But Superb, which applied to much of what I sampled (Hacks, After Life, Rosehaven), but also a reminder that in my frenzied desire to see it all, I eventually strayed into On Demand’s home turf, territory I usually avoid on account of the ads and the SBS algorithm that inserts them while watching the clock rather than the plot.

I’m so glad I did, because since I was last there, that SBS algorithm has developed a sense of social responsibility. Take, for example, Monogamish, an excellent no-nonsense series about a group of Swiss–German citizens working hard to make a go of things with their partners, and discovering how tragically awry long-term relationships can go in 23 minutes.

The first ad popped up before the opening titles. It was for an industry super fund, and SBS’s Algy had placed it so thoughtfully. Its final caption delivered not only a legislated warning, but a beautifully compact and useful reminder to the characters about the theme of their series: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

Algy may have been sharing that message with us too, regarding our intimate but perhaps too-trusting relationship with our long-term streaming services. Some of which are starting to get a bit bossy and controlling, withholding new episodes and eking them out a measly one a week in a way that could get them into big trouble if we still had a family court.

What’s the deal, Binge and mates? Are you flexing your muscles and showing us that you’re the ones who’ve been making the demands all along? And that we obey and subscribe and accept what we’re given? Which, it’s true, might leave us feeling not quite so bloated with choice but is still a dangerous customer-relations strategy, particularly when you’ve chosen overeating as a brand.

Perhaps you should take a peek at David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet (Netflix), a witness statement about how easily a brave enterprise can be lost, plus some helpful suggestions about how our global one might be saved. There are many years of wisdom here, requiring considerably more than 30 minutes, and you wouldn’t want to lose a single one.

This is time-management of the highest order – as in all our time yet to come. If we get it right, says David, our seasons need never be cancelled. He too wants us to subscribe, but he’s not making demands: just gently reminding us how fast we’re running out of the really important choices.

Arts Diary

EXHIBITION Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala

NGV International, Melbourne, until April 25

EXHIBITION Matisse Alive

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until April 3

VISUAL ART Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition

West Village, Brisbane, until January 9

VISUAL ART Phoebe Wood-Ingram: Where were you last time I was here?

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, until January 29

MUSICAL SIX the Musical

Sydney Opera House, December 19–April 2

Last chance

MUSIC Sound On Festival

RAC Arena, Perth, December 18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Demanding viewing".

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