The New Cable

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“As a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or offered in your network TV listings. Strange things are afoot in home entertainment, and the made-for-Netflix series Stranger Things is a brilliant case in point.

If you’re tired of the endlessly inane sitcoms, crime dramas, talent shows and trashy pseudo-reality shows offered by CBS, NBC, and ABC, turn off your networks and turn on your Netflix. There you will find well-scripted shows with movie-quality production values streamed to you on your phone, your computer, or your Smart TV. And it won’t cost you the nearly $200 a month many are paying now for cable television throughout their homes. My Netflix account costs $9.99 a month — and I can even carry it with me when I travel and share it with family members in other states at no extra charge. I don’t need a cable box or even a digital video recorder, because Netflix provides all of its listings to me on demand, whenever I feel like watching it — no commercials, no interruptions, and no set schedule. All I need is an Internet connection. And the quality of the programming can be superb.

Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced.

Stranger Things, an eight-episode sci-fi series made specifically for Netflix, is a great example. Set in 1983, the show begins with a group of 12-year-old boys playing Dungeons & Dragons. They’re a lot like the kids in Steven Spielberg’s Goonies — likeable and outgoing, but slightly off. One has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic condition that prevents his permanent teeth from growing in; another has a weak chin that gives his face a beaklike quality. All of them are a little nerdy, but their friendship overcomes any sense of inadequacy.

When the game ends, the boys jump on their banana-seat bicycles and head for their various homes. (My immediate reaction: “Yes! Geeky boys on bicycles! I’m in!”) One of them, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), encounters a strange beast that seems connected to a strange government installation on the outskirts of town. No one is home when he arrives there, and he goes out to the shed to investigate. The lights start flickering, an ominous predatory growl is heard outside, and suddenly Will vanishes.

The rest of the series focuses on finding out what happened to Will and uncovering the truths behind that secret government laboratory. The eight hourlong episodes are sharp and suspenseful, and each ends with a cliffhanger reminiscent of Fox’s phenomenally successful, movie-quality 24. I “binge-watched” the entire series in a single day.

What makes Stranger Things so compelling? First is the quality of the scripts and the acting. Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced, reminiscent of my own son and his friends hanging out in the ’80s. My only caveat is Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, mother of the missing boy, who is cloyingly, ferally crazed throughout the series, until her character suddenly and inexplicably ends up wearing lipstick, eyeshadow and false lashes with her hair combed out of her eyes in the last two episodes. (Winona must have seen the rushes and decided too much was too much.)

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time.

Even more impressive than the script is the quality of the production. Netflix provided them a budget that allowed them to create a movie-quality show. But budget alone doesn’t lead to success; witness the nine-figure superhero films that have been dropping like flies at the box office this summer. The Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who created the show and directed most of the episodes, know what they are doing. Much of their success (at least with semi-nerds like me) is in their skillfully crafted homage to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, which is as impressive as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). It’s a little bit E.T. mixed with Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner) too, with nods to numerous Stephen King books.

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time. She reportedly searched eBay, flea markets, rental companies and estate sales to find the vintage boomboxes, telephones, bicycles, cars, movie posters, clothing and home furnishings that give the show its striking ambience. The soundtrack too, is authentic ’80s, with the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” providing a particularly poignant recurring motif.

This is a show that could only be set in the ’80s, when boys could still ride their bikes around town without telling their parents where they were going or when they would be home (and without their parents being investigated by Child Protective Services for letting them do so). It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems, stand up to bullies, navigate relationships, and manage not to get killed while snooping around empty buildings or abandoned rock quarries. Without cellphones, it was also a harder time for parents in many ways. I love how often the characters have to look for a pay phone in order to contact one another, and the reminder of how a mother had to wait anxiously at home beside the landline phone to hear from a late or missing child. Worry and trust went hand in hand back in the ’80s; it was a magical time, and I hope filmmakers continue to remind us of what it was like when kids roamed free.

So how is Netflix able to produce great programming such as this on a subscription model of ten bucks a month for unlimited viewing with little-to-no commercial advertising? There was a time when “made-for-TV” was code for “don’t expect much” from a movie. I expected that would be even truer of “made-for-Netflix,” with its inexpensive business model. Stranger Things is no anomaly, however. Series like House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and the wildly popular (and well-made) Orange is the New Black are just as impressive. I wondered how Netflix could afford such quality while the traditional network shows are becoming markedly worse. So I did some checking around.

It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems.

Netflix started as a home-delivery alternative to Blockbuster. Instead of driving to the local video store, wandering the aisles in search of something to watch on Friday night, and then paying exorbitant late fees when you inevitably forgot to take it back on time (after forgetting even to watch it), customers could create a list of films they wanted to see and have them delivered to their mailbox with a pre-stamped return mailer. When they finished watching the movie, whether it was the next day or two weeks later, they just set it out in the prepaid mailer for the mail carrier to take, and Netflix automatically sent them the next film on the list (or films, depending on their subscription plan). Eventually streaming replaced the need for physical DVDs, and instant gratification was possible.

Netflix had signed a deal with Starz that provided them access to a huge library of current movies, but when that contract ended about five years ago, their selection shrunk significantly overnight. They were still making a ton of money off subscriptions, but they needed to give those subscribers a reason to keep paying each month. Just as they had recognized that the video store model had to change, they realized that their new business model needed to change again. People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow, the monthly streaming subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the television entertainment model was changing too. For decades the three major networks had dominated entertainment television, with cable as the poor stepsister largely providing cheap local-access programming, infomercials and news shows. Then HBO realized they could make inroads into in-home entertainment by providing original programming. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire,and Curb Your Enthusiasm provided top-quality scripts, actors, and production values, while also pushing against FCC rules regarding language and nudity that controlled network programming.

When their contract with Starz ended, Netflix programmers realized that they could continue to spend a ton of money buying existing content, or they could create their own exclusive content. They’ve done both, providing their customers with favorite old network series from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but also commissioning great new programs.

CEO Ted Sarandos was dead set on creating shows on par with those being made for HBO, and he had enough surplus cash to do it. Their first production was House of Cards, an American remake of a British series of the same name, and they managed to land David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl, Se7en) as director and Kevin Spacey as the star. (Netflix also greenlighted Fuller House, so the quality of their programming runs the gamut.).

People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow.

The biggest difference between Netflix programming and HBO programming is that Netflix is straight-to-consumer and subscription based, while HBO continues to go through the local cable TV model and requires a premium upcharge. With cable companies now requiring that customers rent a separate cable box (at $10 or more) for every television in the house, in-home entertainment now costs more than $100 a month. Add the Internet service and landline telephone that are usually bundled into the cable service, plus premium charges for movie channels, sports and HBO, and before long you’re paying closer to $200 a month. Is it any wonder that so many households are ripping out their landlines and cable and opting just for Internet-based entertainment? Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are all subscription-based, on-demand Internet streaming options that offer good quality programming at a more affordable price.

In response to the cable-free movement in many homes, most networks are now offering some form of streaming, including HBO. Of course, if you’re paying $9.99 for Netflix, $14.99 for HBO Now, $99 a year for Amazon Prime Video (a bonus with shipping perks) and a few specialty stations, pretty soon you’re back over $100 for in-home entertainment. Perhaps in the future some of these services will start rebundling, and customers will be able to choose the services they want at a reasonable price. Choice — what a novel idea!

What’s next? It’s hard to say. The Hollywood studios have made a conscious decision to focus entirely on blockbuster franchise films and ignore the smaller, script-driven movies, creating a vacuum that wants to be filled. Netflix has been responding to that vacuum, committing to a six-film contract with comedian Adam Sandler and winning a bidding war on a script called Bright from Max Landis, son of John Landis of Thriller fame and a super-hot screenwriter in LA right now. Bright has a reported $90 million budget, comparable to almost any Hollywood studio product.

Netflix is also experimenting with a new distribution model of purchasing independent films and releasing them in theaters and on Netflix almost simultaneously. Beasts of No Nations with Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame is one example. It earned almost nothing in the box office — not surprisingly, since a single ticket, small popcorn, and small drink currently costs close to $25. I love the atmosphere of a movie theater, but at those prices I’m starting to think it’s time to convert the basement into a home entertainment center.

I’m also concerned about how this new model will affect the careers of fledgling directors, since my understanding is that they earn very little, if anything, from individual views on Netflix. How will new filmmakers be able to continue their craft in the future if “success” means a distribution deal with one week of ticket sales in the theaters and an eternity of streaming on Netflix? I have hope that the market will solve this problem, just as it is solving the problem of outrageously expensive monopoly cable service. In the meantime, if Orange is the New Black, then Netflix is the new Cable. And I think that’s a good thing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stranger Things," directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Netflix, 2016, eight 50-minute episodes.



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