Week-to-Week: If You're Not a Squid Game, You're a Hemlock Grove
The Baby-Sitters Club was neither the first nor the last show to be trapped in Netflix Limbo
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This Vulture interview with Rachel Shukert, the creator of Neflix’s canceled The Baby-Sitters Club series, made the rounds on Twitter this week for good reasons. Early on in this conversation with Kathryn VanArendonk, Shukert acknowledges that much of the interview will be conjecture about why her show was canceled1, and then proceeds to give us tremendous insight into the psyche of a creator of content for Netflix in 2022 while reminding us how much—and how little—has changed in the nine years of the platform’s original programming.
In moments, Shukert speaks with clarity and certainty based on her experience interacting with Netflix as her show debuted its second season: she concludes that “as far as I can tell, everything Netflix does is based on how it’s driving subscriber growth,” and profoundly states that “at Netflix, it’s more about if your show works on the platform than if the platform is working for your show.”
But at other moments, she acknowledges that in the end she was left with more questions than answers, and that “I don’t know exactly how they figure out what’s worth it.” At one point, confronting the idea that someone who loved the first season was shocked to discover the second season had debuted, she gives into incredulity:
“How is that possible? How does the algorithm not know that you watched and loved the entire first season and then immediately show season two to you? Why is this not getting in front of the people that want to watch it?”
The reaction to this interview has rightfully characterized Shukert’s situation as an incredibly frustrating one for any creative endeavor, and some have wondered aloud why Netflix would possibly keep this information from the people working for them. But we’ve known the answer to that question since House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black broke ground for Netflix in 2013: in this 2014 Hollywood Reporter story asking “How Much Is That Netflix Series worth,” Lacey Rose reports how the absence of ratings threatened the way talent—producers, writers, actors—negotiate between seasons, which remains the simple capitalistic explanation for Netflix’s obfuscation.
What struck me when revisiting Rose’s piece, though, was how the problems it identifies have become more complex in the intervening eight years, in ways it anticipates. Concluding that awards, critical reception, and cultural impact could be used to secure raises for stars on big hits like OITNB, Rose notes the same wouldn’t be true for the neglected stepson of Netflix’s 2013 originals—the horror drama Hemlock Grove, “which has neither buzz nor positive reviews in its favor.”2
Now, The Baby-Sitters Club—and many of the expanding collection of canceled Netflix series—had critical acclaim Hemlock Grove lacked, but as Netflix’s slate of originals went from “every few months” to “every week,” the truth is that unless you’re a Squid Game, you’re a Hemlock Grove: left to grasp at the limited data Netflix releases internally and externally to interpret your liminal place within their ever-changing algorithm. In an environment where competing priorities—U.S. vs. global, growth vs. retention—are in flux with every quarterly financial report, nothing you can do as a creator can anticipate the expectations that your Netflix show will face.
For a brief moment in 2013, this lack of expectation was a relief for the creative teams on shows like Hemlock Grove: Netflix didn’t know what it wanted, so there was freedom for independent production companies like Gaumont (who produced Hemlock) or film studios like Lionsgate (who produced OITNB) and the shows’ creative teams to deliver shows on their own terms. But in 2022, Netflix still doesn’t actually know what it wants, but instead of freedom creators are confronted with eight years of conflicting data criss-crossing the lines of communication, changing with each passing season.
And so Rachel Shukert is left wondering what she ever could have done to help her earnest, heartfelt TV show designed to give girls something to watch between Doc McStuffins and Euphoria see a third season. Bad timing seems to be part of the show’s problem: she speculates that Squid Game’s breakout success made Netflix more skeptical about minor hits, and that the show’s lack of global appeal at a time of stagnation in U.S. subscribers became a liability. But the truth is that Netflix’s understanding of its business model has never not been in flux, and there’s no “perfect moment” in its history where a creator of a show that wasn’t a Squid Game or a Stranger Things could deliver one season of television and know they could follow the same logics for a second.
There’s never been a good time to be a Hemlock Grove. There’s more Hemlock Groves than ever before. And while some might argue it’s dangerous for Netflix to cultivate a culture so toxic to creativity, the fact is that every streaming service is beholden to an uncertain algorithm and shifting corporate priorities regarding streaming. The simple truth is no creator is able to escape the Hemlock Grove of it all if they choose to wade into these waters.
It’s nice to imagine Netflix realizing the short-sightedness of chasing the data and failing to cultivate strong relationships both between shows and audiences and with the creators. But this tension between the data-oriented Silicon Valley and talent-oriented Hollywood sides of the company is inherent to their identity, as Joe Adalian observed in his New York Magazine cover story in 2018. And while the realities of Netflix’s decision-making means that they are wildly inconsistent in what they want over time, they are deeply convinced of what they want or need in any given moment, leaving shows that are neither hits or misses left to live in limbo until the moment Netflix decides what it wants to be…for now.
All of this feels especially relevant to this week’s turning point in Netflix’s public-facing appeal, with news of a Latin American trial of a solution to the platform’s password-sharing problem. Netflix is trying to find a way to turn moochers into subscribers, not simply because of the potential financial gain but also because it would boost their subscriber growth and thus stock price. But asking someone to pay $3 to retain access to a subscription paid for by their parents or friends requires them to take a decisive action, and over the past few years it does anecdotally seem that Netflix has slipped from the service you need to have to the one you happen to have. Which makes me wonder if Netflix’s mistake wasn’t pushing this type of shift 3 or 4 years ago before the drumbeat around cancellations and competition from other services forced their hand.
“As with other tests the streamer has conducted, there’s no guarantee that the option to pay for non-household members will end up a permanent part of the service. “We’ll be working to understand the utility of these two features for members in these three countries before making changes anywhere else in the world,” Long wrote in the post.”
Speaking of Netflix’s competitors, I started Minx on HBO Max, which is a very late 2000s premise pilot about the 1972 creation of a porn magazine for women that sells out the lead to create a transformation arc in 35 minutes, but it’s a likable start all the same. It also features a “dick montage,” and has brought with it the most recent salvos in the ongoing, fascinating discourse on male nudity on TV, including this Meghan O’Keefe report at Decider on how said montage came together:
“There’s still a few [nude actors] I’m upset I lost. A great one who had to go into surgery right before we shot,” Rapoport said, her voice full of regret. “[His penis] was just unique. No one has seen anything like this.”
And Vanity Fair took a more wide-ranging look at the debate, as Kenzie Bryant considers how the push for genital equality between men and women has perhaps obscured some of the body politics of the male figure being reinforced in the process:
“But its average-to-small penises are played for comedy, while the centerfold who’s ultimately chosen, Shane (Taylor Zakhar Perez), is a man with an enormous—and ultimately prosthetic—schlong. To be fair, this makes narrative sense: If you’re launching an erotic feminist magazine for women in the ’70s, you’re going to pick the most eye-popping option. You’re going to pick a schlong.”
I have to admit that it’s been really fascinating to watch the discourse around “scammer stories” play out when I’ve watched absolutely none of them. This isn’t a conscious refusal: things have been busy, and on some level the more that have emerged the less likely I’ve been to take the time to figure out which is worth my time. Both Thrillist and Vox added their voices to those grappling with the convergence of so many shows all at once this week, and while they wrestle with the psychology of why people watch I’m sitting back wondering about the psychology of not being that interested. From the former:
The issue is not that the subjects are unsympathetic. There are plenty of great shows about unlikable figures. The problem, in the new wave of scammer shows, is that they too often fail to explore what seduced people into trusting financial deceptions and impossible medical claims. Repeatedly during The Dropout, I found myself screaming “Why do people like her!” at the television.
The actual answer is that I started but never finished the second season, which Netflix’s algorithm hates more than anything. It was me. I take full responsibility.
I often think back to how the original plan for covering Orange is the New Black at The A.V. Club was to do one advance review of the entire season because that’s what Zack Handlen did for his pan of Hemlock Grove. What a time to have been alive.