I’ve been watching a fair bit of Netflix’s original content lately. I’ll freely admit that I’d been resistant to the idea of an online service’s exclusive content through irrational prejudices, but I’m pleased to have been proven very, very wrong indeed.
Let me explain those irrational prejudices first.
I grew up in a bit of a golden era of TV, full of popular shows ranging from Friends to Star Trek: The Next Generation via Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. These shows ran for a long time, attracted passionate fanbases and, in many cases, were big-budget productions that put out some impressive stuff on a week-by-week basis. Conversely, in the early days of Internet video, Internet video series tended to be done on the cheap; there’s nothing wrong with that per se, of course, but that cheapness didn’t just extend to production values — it also extended to quality of talent in all aspects of the production. A side-effect of the whole “suddenly everyone is a content creator” aspect of Web 2.0 or 3.0 or whatever it is we’re on now.
So, then, I didn’t make much of a habit of watching regular Internet video series for quite some time. To this day, there are very few YouTube series that I follow, and I generally preferred to grab a DVD or Blu-Ray box set of a favourite TV series and binge-watch it over the course of a month or two. No waiting for new episodes, no having to watch according to someone else’s schedule — just literally content on demand.
With my lack of involvement in Internet video, then, I maintained the assumption that Internet-exclusive video would be cheap, shitty productions that weren’t really worth bothering with. I even continued with this assumption as people started praising Netflix’s first original series House of Cards — largely because the subject matter didn’t really interest me — but just recently, I’ve finally come around to it, and I’m impressed.
The two shows that have made me a believer in Internet-exclusive content and convinced me that Netflix is absolutely a contender in the original TV programming department are Bojack Horseman and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I watched both on the recommendations of other people, and both have been highly enjoyable, not to mention well up to the standard of the stuff you get on TV or in DVD box sets.
Bojack Horseman is an animated show about a washed-up ’90s sitcom veteran who just happens to be a horse-man. Not like a centaur, he’s just literally a dude with a horse’s head. Over the course of Bojack Horseman, we’re introduced to a number of different characters, some of whom are regular human beings and others of whom are, like Bojack himself, anthropomorphised animals. This is a wonderful source of comedy: for the most part, the animal people act just like normal humans, but just occasionally — just often enough to be funny without feeling like a forced joke — they’ll exhibit some sort of behaviour that their animal counterpart would do.
Bojack Horseman isn’t just cheap laughs, though. It’s one of those “adult animation” shows that looks ridiculous and silly on the outside, but which has a heart underneath. Bojack is a deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic character struggling to come to terms with the fact that he 1) isn’t as famous as he used to be and 2) might actually be a horrible person. The series explores his character in great detail — partly through the eyes of his biographer Diane — and we learn a great deal about him. He’s certainly much more than — and I’m sorry — a one-trick pony.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, meanwhile, is a live action show from the pen of Tina Fey. It concerns a young woman who was kidnapped and kept underground for fifteen years by a ne’er-do-well claiming to be a “Reverend” saving them from the Apocalypse. Since Kimmy was kept sheltered from all of existence for these fifteen years, she knows pretty much nothing about how the world works, and gets into numerous entertaining misadventures in New York as a result.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, like Fey’s other work, is sharp, quick witted and frequently scathing. Kimmy is lovably naive without being irritatingly stupid, and the supporting characters are all strong in their own right — albeit often being somewhat exaggerated caricatures. It’s a show in which not a great deal actually happens from one episode to another, but the whole thing has a ton of heart and soul to it, and the entire story arc is nicely and neatly wrapped up by the end of the run. I wouldn’t be averse to another season of it, but the beauty of it as it exists right now is that it doesn’t really need one, since it’s told Kimmy’s story pretty much from start to finish over the course of 13 episodes.
And that’s sort of the beauty of what Netflix is able to do here. Without the pressure from networks and advertising, the teams coming up with this stuff have a lot more freedom than they would if they were composing for traditional television. This, in turn, allows them to be a lot more experimental, daring and interesting with what they’re coming out with, and we’re already starting to see what a positive effect that has on output.
I’m over my prejudice towards Internet-exclusives, then — though a ton of YouTube-exclusive stuff is still a load of old wank — and am now much more inclined to check out Netflix’s original content than I would previously have been. I’m sure there’ll be plenty more of Bojack Horseman and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s calibre in the future, and I’m looking forward to watching them when they appear.