This week I sat down to watch new episodes of a few returning series, and found each had the same problem: They were attempting to reconfigure themselves to continue on rather than wrapping up when it made sense for the stories to end. I loved the early seasons of Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black and its college football docuseries Last Chance U; ditto the first season of the reality TV–skewering UnREAL, which aired three seasons on Lifetime before its fourth and final batch of episodes was unceremoniously dumped on Hulu on Monday — the same day the season was announced, and just a few months after the third concluded.
It’s no secret that TV wants your time. All of it. It wants your sweet, sweet eyeballs, even if they’re glazed over with indifference. Shamelessness is all the rage, baby, and now executives just come right out and admit that all they really want from viewers is our precious data. “I want more hours of engagement,” declared John Stankey, the chief executive of Warner Media who, after the recent merger of AT&T and Time Warner, now oversees HBO, in a speech to the cable channel’s employees that was quickly leaked to the New York Times. “Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions.”
Just stick an IV in me, Stankey, and take the blood right out of my veins! It’ll be a lot easier and probably less painful than watching thirteen hours of the fourth season of a show I got tired of halfway through its second. Yeah, you might say I have the streaming ughs. That I’m streamed out. Ex-stream-ly tired of watching series zoom past their best-by dates and yet still march on, like the undead characters of The Walking Dead, or, you know, The Walking Dead.
From a business standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why we are where we are: According to Reuters, Netflix boosted its original programming by 85 percent in the first three months of 2018, with a total of 483 hours of series and movies released. The service has pledged to spend a record $8 billion this year on 700 original series (including existing shows like Orange), some 80 of which will be foreign-language programs, plus 80 original films.
Successful network shows have often outstayed their welcome, such as The Big Bang Theory, which premiered eleven years ago and, like many a CBS sitcom, is basically an ad delivery system for sixtysomething white people. TV creators have always been beholden to their corporate overlords. But the appeal of a streaming series, like cable before it, used to be a certain finiteness, a quality control guarantee that this was a fresh product that wouldn’t be spoiled by the oily hands of greedy men in suits. At this point, even streaming, now the dominant distribution model, is starting to resemble the stupefied, dead-eyed zombie walk of capitalism itself: growth for growth’s sake, no matter if it effectively ruins the product being sold. It’s an arms race to compile the most #content on any given platform, quality and demand be damned. It’s why we now have four seasons of Jay Leno’s Garage, or ten of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, when we didn’t really need either to begin with.
What’s more frustrating than these endless series is the slow deterioration of shows that actually used to be good. In retrospect, Orange Is the New Black probably should have ended after its fourth season, in which a beloved character, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), was killed in the chaos of a prison riot. That season closes on the image of inmate Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at a corrections officer; the format-breaking fifth takes place in the aftermath, with the inmates taking their overseers hostage. In the sixth, which lands on Netflix next Friday, the women of the minimum-security Litchfield Penitentiary find themselves in max, awaiting the results of an investigation to determine which of them will be held responsible for the hostage situation.
The show seems to be straining to replicate the dynamics between inmates that once proved so engaging. The new season has its moments, but overall feels devoid of tension; where are we going with this story, and why? Orange Is the New Black remains an unflinching look at the horrors of the American prison system, and still features one of TV’s best and most diverse ensemble casts. More seasons means more backstories of the incarcerated women, more of those flashback scenes that have offered some of the most revelatory moments of the series. But having a template you can fill with more story is not the same as having a story itself.
Take Last Chance U. In the first two seasons, it was a joy to see talented young men, most of whom who were unlikely to ever become famous, get the full, glossy docuseries treatment. Much of the appeal lay in the connection between these college football players and their school guidance counselor, Brittany Wagner, whose job was to make sure her charges didn’t self-sabotage and flunk out of school, thereby forgoing their football careers. Wagner left East Mississippi Community College at the end of the second season, though, and so the producers of Last Chance U found another school in which to film the third season.
It’s not as if the students of Kansas’s Independence Community College are any less deserving of the spotlight than the ones in Mississippi. And yet season three plays like a watered-down version of the original, which was inspired by a 2014 GQ article by Drew Jubera. It’s tricky to re-create that magic year after year; the show is still about a group of underdogs, but now it all feels more templated, as if director Greg Whiteley already knows what notes he wants to hit and has set about seeking them out rather than discovering them. In place of the portly, loudmouthed coach Buddy Stephens, we now have the portly, loudmouthed coach Jason Brown (who obnoxiously hams it up, clearly enjoying the role the show has cast him in); in place of the tough-love Southern guidance counselor Wagner, we have the tough-love Southern English teacher LaTonya Pinkard. But you can’t manufacture the kind of chemistry Wagner had with her students, or Stephens with his players, and here the connections feel forced.
UnREAL in particular has suffered from rote attempts to re-create the elements that made its first season so indelible. At its start, UnREAL was a compelling and complex look inside the machine of reality television, centered on two women who present themselves as unapologetic feminists — even as they run a Bachelor-type series called Everlasting in which they stage-manage women into humiliating themselves for an audience of millions. Showrunner Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and her protégé, producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), were fascinating contradictions: boss bitches who could never quite escape the temptation to buy into the “princess fantasy” their show broadcast. And it’s hard to deny the chemistry, however unlikely, between Rachel and Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), the “suitor” of the first season, a dashing British bachelor who swept the cynical producer off her feet — and then blew her off.
UnREAL struggled mightily in its tone-deaf sophomore season, in which Rachel and Quinn introduce the show-within-a-show’s first-ever black suitor — a premise that could have been illuminating, had the writers not placed these two white women at the center of a season that quickly devolved into melodrama. It never quite regained its footing in the third, which featured a female “suitress.” And its fourth, featuring the “all-stars” of Everlasting, is another repeat of what’s become a tired, and tiring, conceit. It’s not hard to imagine Everlasting stretching into yet another season — the real Bachelor franchise has been going strong since 2002, with international versions and spin-offs galore, and still attracts millions of viewers a week. But it’s depressing to see UnREAL become exactly what it parodied so well at the outset.
The fourth season marks the fourth time Rachel has dragged herself back to the set of Everlasting for another punishing job, despite her own mental health issues and against the advice of every friend and medical professional she’s ever consulted. At this point, she’s less a character than a hostage.
Rachel is apparently the executive’s ideal viewer: someone who keeps showing up, season after season, despite her misgivings. Taken together, these stale series present a streaming-age cautionary tale. Once-beloved shows become annoyances, one more fly buzzing in your face and begging for your attention. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of scripted series on TV roughly doubled, from around 200 to a little over 400. Now, Netflix alone is putting out nearly double that. It’s no wonder traditional TV networks and competing streaming platforms are afraid of losing their subscribers to Netflix, which offers more content than most humans could possibly watch, for a very low price.
But, as we should all know by now, if you’re paying little to nothing for a product, chances are, you are the product. Executives like Stankey want to keep us tuned in not to entertain us, but to collect information on us — to “monetize” us. We get more hours of #content that we could take or leave, but likely will take because it’s right in front of us and we’re already here on the couch.
And so we become our own little islands in the stream, passively bobbing in its current, tasked with swallowing ever-more content not because it’s part of our sacred Thursday night routine, but so that rich white dudes can have our data. TV is now almost totally divorced from the calendar, from time, from any real reason for being where it is when it is. Here’s eight hours of UnREAL, kids — fetch! It’s clear these platforms want to monopolize our time. If only they had more respect for it.