Netflix is fibbing. Its viewership data is "not remotely accurate," according to a fun and salacious allegation made by FX boss John Landgraf. He claimed the viewership data Netflix released for its series You—a Netflix-acquired "hit" that originally failed on Lifetime—was heavily exaggerated. Landgraf concluded: "One way or another, the truth will come out—as it always does."
The claim that a streaming company's viewership data isn't "remotely accurate" isn't all that surprising. I'd say all data on digital traffic is inaccurate because the internet is an ocean of bots. We're terrible at interpreting how populated our online spaces really are because the internet is mostly fake, as we keep discovering. But the unknowability of the internet isn't a pass for Netflix. We're talking about the Elf on the Shelf of film and TV, a company that constantly tracks, records, and interprets the data of its "nearly 118 million streaming subscribers." They are the masters of viewers and their habits. If Netflix exaggerates its viewership data, we can assume it's in bad faith.
Of course, Landgraf is concerned about Netflix's numbers because Netflix is FX's competition. Make no mistake, streaming giants are gutting the film and TV industry like Facebook gutted journalism. I doubt, however, the average Netflix viewer cares if Netflix is exaggerating the popularity of You. They're too busy watching it. What viewers are interested in is Netflix's programming. As long as they get their Zac Efron Ted Bundy flick, who really cares?
But after a string of totally bizarre Originals from Netflix—I'm talking about Bright, Velvet Buzzsaw, and, obviously, Bird Box—I'm beginning to think Netflix's stinky data is starting to influence its creative choices. The paranoid in me thinks this stinky data might actually be making Netflix's creative decisions. I can think of no other logical explanation for the significant insanity of Bright, Velvet Buzzsaw, and Bird Box than an overheated algorithm.
Let's consider Velvet Buzzsaw:
As The Stranger's Jasmyne Keimig wrote last week in her review of this algorithmic fever dream, the film is a mess. It pretends to be ten genres at once but executes none of them correctly. And yet, it's compulsively watchable. It's a film made up of teasers for different target audiences.
Before watching, Jasmyne joked to me that she felt personally attacked by Gyllenhaal's casting. "It's the perfect intersection of all my interests which is art, film, and Jake Gyllenhaal's chest hair," she told me. "Also, there's a meme about him loving black women. And here he is being a bisexual art critic who only fucks with a black woman. It's a fantasy realized."
After watching the scene where Gyllenhaal's character romances Zawe Ashton's character by calling her skin "saddle brown," Jasmyne wrote:
It was here I let out a long laugh. I needed to make sure I hadn't vaped too much weed and was now off in an elaborate daydream, writing this fantasy pre-sex sex scene in my head and now watching it play out before me on screen. I wasn't.
I imagine many viewers had this experience. The whole film is made up of bite-sized moments that seem to capitalize on niche internet jokes. Netflix encourages this:
I would not be surprised if Netflix is trying to do to film and TV what Amazon is doing to grocery stores (automation, baby!). I suspect Netflix is beginning to rely on these Frankensteined films to offset the large costs of things like Efron-Bundy ($9 million) and Friends ($300 million). The most immediate examples: Bird Box, Velvet Buzzsaw, and Bright (Stranger's Charles Mudede correctly summarized: "Making sense of Bright makes no sense. Your job as a critic at this point is to simply say: you have to see it to believe it"). These films catch viewers eyes and keep the internet tweeting. But they're simply meme-farms. They're not even good enough to be bad. They're like those nightmarish automated YouTube videos made by computers for kids. And, I worry, we're due for more of them.
If Netflix is going to play us all and mob the entertainment industry, they could at least be considerate enough to stop making us believe this shit is gold. We have to see these films for what they are: Big Data films.