Let us entertain you
Online retailers have fairly recently jumped into the creative arena, producing original content that is disrupting the old distribution models for television shows and movies. My wife and I finally hopped aboard to see what all the fuss was about and I’m glad we did.
The first show we dialed up on Netflix was a series called “Grace and Frankie,” and it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Here was a show that had the talent, sunny locales, and sharp, clever writing all rolled up in tight little twenty-two-minute sequences—without commercials—that could be watched, guffawed at and digested without being overwhelmed by a muddied and complex narrative. Moreover, it was a show that left you wanting more so as to see what new zaniness and foibles could possibly befall these flawed characters. This show is a stretch for the actors, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterson, et al, who are playing a range of complex personalities, who are aging as gracefully as they possibly can under their present circumstances. It’s a fun display of the human condition. It’s well produced, and funny — we need the yuks.
Television viewing of any kind requires a commitment. Network television once was sliced up to serve three major distributors; advertising and ratings drove what was produced. Then, along came cable television, i.e. HBO, and the creative gloves came off because there was more freedom — there would be no turning back to a limited menu of choices for the viewer. Subsequently, other cable outlets arrived on the scene; subscriptions were sold and money was made. The content of these outlets was edgier than network programing, but more importantly cable outlets offered more choices for how people would choose to spend their time. Given all of this technological change in the market place, the most important thing to note is that with more product to be examined, the better the product had to be — only the best would stand. It’s called ambition and competition.
I heard a book publishing agent once say, “We basically throw something at the wall to see if it sticks.” His point was an admission that he really didn’t know what would sell; however, it was also very clear that he knew he needed something to throw at the wall. J.K. Rowling got many rejections for the manuscript of “Harry Potter” before she got published and her books stuck. A film version of this kind of success story was when Sylvester Stallone was stumping his boxer movie around to studio high-IQs who saw no possible audience for a film version of his manuscript. OK, there is a risk/reward element to any kind of publishing venue, but first we need the product to throw at the wall. The Netflix guys know this, and then some.
Netflix currently has 137 million subscribers internationally and a hefty 58.5 million in the United States. This company, along with many others, Hulu, Amazon, etc., have built their success upon buying and streaming product of many varieties. The model for these companies was to offer a wide range of already successful content: movies, television shows, documentaries and the like. You name it, someone is showing it. Furthermore, this is good for actors, directors, writers, costumers, musicians — all of the myriad suppliers of goods and services involved with the production of content for a demanding and varied audience that demands superior product.
We, the consumer, now have more choices for programing than ever imagined; however, we still are faced with the conundrum of what we will dial in to and make a commitment to watch. It’s still a turn-off to sit with the clicker to sample the menu because there is simply too much stuff to sift through, and we don’t have that kind of time to waste; especially for baby-boomers because we’re busy and are wary of time bandits. We need to have some intel before we settle in on the couch and raise the clicker. Reviews can help, but word of mouth is still the best way to get a leg up on what’s good to watch — let someone else sample the menu first.
Last week I read a thing my fellow writing bud, Erik Hedegaard, wrote for “Rolling Stone.”
It was short 1,300 word piece about a Coen brothers joint called “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs.” I saw this the day before as we scrolled to watch “Grace and Frankie.”
I noted that well because the Coens make good, off-beat movies, such as “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” Fargo,” et al, and I wondered what they were doing with a gig on Netflix. I liked Erik’s nod to the main character — played by Tim Blake Nelson — so I saddled up to travel a winding and bumpy narrative road of six perfectly played vignettes that were written and directed by the brothers. I watched it twice and loved it both times.
Erik’s review was the tipping point for me throwing down my time for this film. Shortlist this one just to see how the cast pulls this off with, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson and Tyne Daly doing most of the heavy lifting in the narrative.
There’s a lot of stuff being thrown at the wall these days to see if it sticks, and some of it will entertain you.