Alec Stern: A final question for Netflix

By Alec Stern, Daily TV Columnist
Published April 19, 2015

For the past eight months, I’ve had the pleasure of being The Michigan Daily’s TV Columnist. With this role, I’ve used my journalistic power to ask the truly important questions. Why are you not watching “Shameless?” How did Patricia Arquette go from Oscar to “CSI” in just one week? What did “The Mindy Project” ’s racy sex scene mean for broadcast television? And of course, how could a Halle Berry-led television series about mysterious alien pregnancies be so damn unsatisfying? Now, with this final column — the last piece I’ll write for The Michigan Daily after three incredible years — I have one last question to ask.

Netflix built its television brand on the binge. In 2013, a press release from the company asserted “(Netflix’s) own original series are created for multi-episodic viewing, lining up the content with new norms of viewer control for the first time.” The idea: if viewers devour entire seasons of “Breaking Bad” in one weekend, why not employ that mindset with an original series? And of course, Netflix’s signature all-at-once delivery has paid off immensely, forging several hit series such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” (Netflix doesn’t release ratings information, though research has estimated that both series are watched by many millions of viewers.) And two years later, with dozens of original series aimed at multiple demographics, it’s understandable that Netflix would double-down on its lucrative original content. In December, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos announced that the company’s long-term goal is to premiere a new season or series every two and a half weeks.

In theory, this iniative is great. It means more original content from a now-proven television heavyweight. But in reality, can this work? How much can we binge? How much is too much? Because right about now, my many binges are beginning to infringe on my ability to binge it all. (Translation: I’ve been staring at this computer screen for too long.) My question to Netflix is: how can we possibly binge this much?

As a massive “Friday Night Lights” and “Damages” fan, Kyle Chandler’s new series “Bloodline” is a perfect show for me. As a lover of comic book movies (and a secret admirer of Ben Affleck’s campy take on the character), “Marvel’s Daredevil” is immensely intriguing. As someone who can quote almost any episode of “30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a must-watch. And two seasons in, how can I give up on Netflix’s flagship series “House of Cards?” And yet, the progress I’ve made on any of these series is unimpressive — 10 episodes of “Schmidt,” four of “Cards,” one of “Bloodline” and none of “Daredevil.” Why? Because all four of these series debuted within just weeks of one another. But it’s not just that. Sarandos’ plan to debut new series every two and a half weeks forgets to account for one key ingredient: Netflix’s non-original series that started all the binging in the first place. With all the series Netflix has to offer — both new and old, original and acquired — it’s getting more difficult to reconcile the site’s original programming with the rest of its catalog. In other words, my failure to keep up with Netflix’s ambitious slate of original programming has a name, and that name is “Sons of Anarchy.”

Just one week before season three of “House of Cards” premiered, I (perhaps foolishly) started what would become a months-long journey with the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club — six seasons on Netflix, right there in front of me. And as promised by friends and family, the series, led by Charlie Hunnam (“Pacific Rim”) and Katey Sagal (“Married… with Children”), is fantastic. But even more, it’s addicting, as if it were created with binge-ability in mind. (In reality, the series premiered on FX in 2008, long before “House of Cards” ’s 2013 debut.) And as any Netflix enthusiast knows all too well, once you’ve discovered that one arresting series — a “Breaking Bad” or a “Friday Night Lights” or a “Sons of Anarchy” — few other shows matter. Any free time you have is devoted to that series, my television viewing predestined for Jax Teller and his motorcycle cronies.

Seven seasons into “Sons of Anarchy” and “House of Cards” remains largely unwatched; “Bloodline” a blip on the radar; “Daredevil” nonexistent. And I’m OK with that, mainly because there are few series that I’ve enjoyed as much as I’ve enjoyed “Sons of Anarchy.” From start to finish, “Sons” was everything you hope a television series about a notorious motorcycle gang would be — its action exciting, its developments shocking, its writing and acting of the highest caliber. I’m OK that for me the words “television” and “Netflix” have been synonymous with “Sons of Anarchy” for the past few months. But is Netflix OK with it? Should Netflix be?

As long as Netflix continues to release its own series as quickly as every two and a half weeks, it will become harder and harder to enjoy the varied programming the service has to offer. And let’s face it: we’re not all going to be second semester seniors with endless time on our hands for very much longer. At some point, we’re going to have to choose. “Sons of Anarchy” or “House of Cards?” “Breaking Bad” or “Bloodline?” “30 Rock” or “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?” And at that point, when you’re in the real world and your time is valuable and the hard choices have to be made … that’s when we all lose.

So, with this final column, I ask Netflix: how can we binge it all? Believe me, we want to. But you need to give us the chance.