Something's not quite right with "the algorithm"
The entire plot of 1899 is laid out in the first 90 seconds of episode one. Opening with a high overhead shot pushing through the clouds partially obscuring a barren, winter terrain, we cut through a series of landscapes and landmarks at increasingly jarring angles while a woman’s voice recites Emily Dickinson’s “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”
As the recitation ends we dive through a funnel towards the bottom of the ocean, pressing towards a light that sharpens to show us a young woman, sweaty and disheveled, running towards us before sliding to a stop and asking “Father?” Cut to the silhouette of a man and his ominous silence before we’re back to the woman - now being carried away by orderlies in what we can assume is a late-19th century mental institution - as she’s yelling “I know what I have seen. I’m not crazy! What did you do to my brother? Where is my brother? He was on the Prometheus. He found out what you were doing on these ships. Why don’t I remember? What have you done to my memory? I’m not crazy!” before we cut back to the man stepping into a watery beam of light as he leans in to the camera and whispers, “Wake up.”
1899 is from the same duo that created Dark, a brilliant German series that centers on two missing children in a small German town, slowly unraveling the connections between the characters and their locale while weaving in supernatural elements. Dark is a show that requires you to pay attention and trust that the creators will eventually make sense of it all, with plenty of places in season one where you’ll want to hit pause in order to jot down notes.
1899 similarly asks you to do some mental gymnastics as you watch, and to trust in the creators as they take you through the journey of what, on the surface, appears to be about an immigrant steamship traveling from Paris to New York in 1899, but ultimately could be about space travel and a collective consciousness manipulated by a sentient algorithm.
If I sound unsure about the grander storyline of 1899 it’s because I am. Season one ended with more questions than answers, and citing poor performance, Netflix has unceremoniously cancelled the series. While 1899 is not the greatest show I’ve ever seen - it struggles with pacing and the character development is uneven - the story has both promise and potential, and I believe that shows should be given a bit of room to breathe and grow beyond the initial algorithmic decisions before we kneecap them.
What bothers me so much about Netflix canceling 1899 is two-fold: there is minimal transparency into how these decisions are made, and Netflix is confident that it is displaying to each viewer a highly individualized selection of shows you’re most likely to enjoy.
This was laid out in a recent New Yorker piece, where Rachael Syme interviewed Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s global head of television:
According to Bajaria, though, the company today has little patience for shows that don’t perform immediately. The Netflix algorithm insures that content “is served right up to you in front of your face, so it’s not like you can’t find it,” she told me. “At some point it’s, like, Is the budget better spent on a next new thing?”
I can count on one hand the shows that Netflix has recommended to me that I’ve watched through to the end (it’s one, and that show is Kleo). Even when Squid Game was taking the world by storm I had heard about it on Twitter first and then had to search for it on Netflix. Netflix is so unreliable in what it will market to me that the algorithm and I have never developed a rapport, a category I suspect many of us fall into, and because of that shows that start off a little wobbly but may ultimately blossom into fan favorites get yanked from production before they can put down roots.
What concerns me about this is the uneasy feeling I have that we’re headed for a great homogenization of content. The streaming giants are consolidating, risky or “underperforming” shows are getting canceled, and studios are clamoring for instant hits. Even HBO - long the home of experimental, boutique television - has started taking significantly fewer risks. It feels like we’re slated to lose so much of the joy, creativity, and inspiration that comes from television that pushes boundaries and tries new things, even when it needs a season or two to hit its stride.
Lest you think I’m being paranoid, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos is anything but shy about Netflix’s thought process:
In the early two-thousands, the author and entrepreneur Chris Anderson coined the term “the long tail” to describe the idea that the Internet was fracturing what was once a single mass culture into a “mass of niches,” so that the future of the entertainment industry lay not in producing megahits that please everyone but in catering to many distinct groups of avid fans. Sarandos told me that Netflix has jettisoned that thinking. “There was this misnomer about the Internet all along,” he said. “There is no long tail without the big head.”
All that being said, I don’t think all hope is lost. Over the next decade I don’t expect Netflix to change its current trajectory, nor do I expect we’ll continue to be blessed with the glut of prestige TV we currently enjoy, but I do think we’ll see the rise of small, independently produced series, reminiscent of the 2010 era. If you were Extremely Online back then you may have watched series such as The Guild, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (now Insecure on HBO), Broad City (now Broad City on Comedy Central), or The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti (now Rick and Morty).
So while the streaming conglomerates may continue to consolidate and homogenize their offerings in order to appeal to as many people as quickly possible, you and I will always have the weird corners of the internet. My hypothesis is that the internet will increasingly serve as a proving ground for shows (and even films) over the coming years, for better or for worse, but it will also continue to be a creative outlet for anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection.
Not convinced? Check out this brilliant re-make of The Princess Bride:
I’m still animating
I’m still in school and spending close to the entirety of my free time working on 3D character animation. But unlike the starry-eyed hopeful from a mere three months ago, I am currently cranky, frustrated, and straight up not having a good time. I don’t hate it, nor do I have any plans to quit, but I’ve reached a point where every assignment is a Sisyphean battle between me and Maya, and while I know I’m learning and progressing, I can’t see any evidence of it.
Season 3 of Barry has a brilliant illustration of this when Sally’s show goes from being heavily marketed and promoted to viewers, debuting at #1 on the streaming service, only to being canceled 12 hours after launch.