Streaming networks — your Netflix, your Amazon Prime, your Hulu — that once appeared to be only in the business of ordering new programs have recently begun canceling them with what seems like equal energy.
Netflix (in the original content business since 2012), recently laid off "Lady Dynamite," Maria Bamford's surreal refraction of her own life; “Sense8,” a globe-spanning mystical sci-fi adventure from Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski (that’s getting a movie-length finale after fan outcry); Colleen Ballinger's Miranda Sings comedy "Haters Back Off!”; Naomi Watts' psychological thriller "Gypsy"; Baz Luhrmann's hip-hop epic "The Get Down"; "Girlboss," about online fashion retailer Sophia Amoruso; and Chuck Lorre's "Disjointed," a three-camera workplace comedy set in a pot dispensary and starring Kathy Bates.
Over at Amazon, further seasons of the following have been nixed: Tig Notaro's semi-autobiographical "One Mississippi," Jill Soloway's adaptation of Chris Kraus' epistolary feminist novel "I Love Dick" and Jean-Claude Van Damme's meta-action-comedy "Jean-Claude Van Johnson." “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” starring Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald, was canceled late last year, evaporating an already-ordered second season.
Hulu, meanwhile, has cut from a bench not deep the Julie Klausner-Billy Eichner buddy comedy "Difficult People," the Hugh Laurie psychological thriller "Chance," the psychic-con drama "Shut Eye" and the Michaela Watkins comedy "Casual."
Apologies if I have left your favorite canceled show off this list. Many of these shows are critically approved and viewer beloved — though not, evidently, in sufficient numbers to guarantee their survival. Many have heavyweight names attached, heavyweight names being something of a feature of streaming television. I would note that most are centered on and/or made by women, without going so far as to hazard why or what that means for the future of women in television. (As regards the present, it’s still not great.)
But let me propose that cancelation is not failure. It's a sort of failure, given the loss of jobs and money, but not the yardstick with which you want to measure art or even entertainment, our national fascination with ratings and box office figures notwithstanding. "Freaks and Geeks" was a perfect thing, in spite of it lasting only a season. "Lady Dynamite" may have had more stories to tell, but its two seasons constitute a satisfying whole.
Netflix and Amazon are themselves, of course, also studies in commercial failure, picking up scads of films that couldn't find theatrical release — it's the new version of movies going "straight to video." Indeed, these pictures, along with documentaries of varying qualities and a hodgepodge of older, more successful films, make up the bulk of what streaming services offer. Like HBO and Showtime, streaming services no longer sell themselves on the back of the theatrical features they show, but on the shows they make.
Much reporting on such entertainment identifies "the business" with big business — defining the industry by where the money is and/or the star A-list. The Industry, with a capital I, is impressed by Oscars and Emmys and even Golden Globes. But culture moves from the bottom up and from the outside in. Like biological life, it evolves on the back of random mutations, the odd, unpredictable idea that proves to have legs.
Growth is the business most big businesses are in, and it was natural enough that, having determined to get into original, scripted content — for some time, a kind of sign of arrival for a fledgling network passing out of its early reality-show or all-reruns-all-the-time phase — the streamers would go on spending sprees. Their aims are not modest; they want to become, even overcome, HBO — Amazon just spent $250 million for the right to make television out of “The Lord of the Rings,” with actual production costs reckoned to bring the cost up to $1 billion.
It was also inevitable that, after this financial dizziness, some kind of correction was coming. Success engenders conservatism in the pursuit of further success. Long-shot bets fall by the wayside. The streaming model has arrived, and having arrived is settling down.
There are other kinds of ambition, however, and if big business tends toward monoculture, there is biodiversity out on the fringes where strange creatures flourish on the forest floor. This has always been true even as the medium has grown and changed.
When Fox joined the old (and still big) three broadcast networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — in the mid-1980s, it offered a scrappier alternative in part out of the need to be different, but also because Fox could afford to get by with fewer viewers and lower ad rates. It was the same story when UPN and the WB, later united as the CW, and Showtime and HBO and all off-basic cable got into the original content business.
New networks could afford to be odd and original. The broadcast minors gave birth to "The Simpsons," "In Living Color," "Married With Children," "Veronica Mars," "The X-Files," "Felicity," "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Gilmore Girls." They kept the "Star Trek" franchise alive and have carried a torch for the sort of genre series that have become, with bigger budgets, a cornerstone of contemporary entertainment. You can't turn around now without some Marvel or DC Comics franchise smacking you in the face.
Such weirdness will continue at the margins. Still, new growth chokes out old. Skin will be shed.
Television is a heartbreaker; it will kill what you love, and do it again and again. But there are plenty of fish in that sea, and plenty of seas, for that matter. The future is multifarious, many-platformed; the internet makes television, like punk rock before it, available to entrepreneurial outsiders with a work ethic and not necessarily a lot of money. You can put on a show in your uncle's barn, to use the old Hollywood formulation, and maybe some producer will bring it to Broadway, with fancier scenery and actual paychecks — in the way that "2 Dope Queens," the Jessica Williams-Phoebe Robinson podcast, was gussied up for a four-episode HBO run
In the short run, what does all this carnage portend? Netflix probably won't rush the next "Lady Dynamite" or "Haters Back Off!” into production, but there will be a place, somewhere, for the next "Lady Dynamite" or "Haters Back Off!.” The only thing you can see with (mathematical) certainty is that even as the pieces of the pie grow slimmer, the television universe is still in a state of expansion.
Few would have guessed that the 500 channels the cable era promised would give way to something more multifarious and seemingly limitless; if you are not looking at YouTube and Vimeo and their kin, you are not seeing the medium whole. Platforms will come and go and new ones will take their place, and small fish may be eaten by bigger ones, but choice will remain the watchword — even if you can't yourself choose what lives and what dies.
In any case, many more shows will have to be canceled before, whatever your taste, there is nothing good to watch on TV.