Every now and again, as my eyes glaze over 20 minutes into my nightly search for some TV show or movie that I actually want to stream, I think about “The Library of Babel.” Jorge Luis Borges’ short story might have been an allegory for the struggle to live one’s best life amid a sea of infinite chaos, but its closest replica here on Earth is definitely Netflix.
Like Borges’ fictional library, which uses strictly organized hexagonal chambers to obscure the chaos held within its tomes—four walls of books per chamber, five shelves per wall, 35 books per shelf, 410 pages per book—Netflix organizes its infinite contents into categories to provide the illusion of order. Thousands of titles cluster into hyper-specific groupings like “Watch Together for Older Kids.” But often, these distinctions only confuse things further. What makes The Great British Baking Show a particularly good option “For Older Kids?” Your guess is as good as mine!
And if I can stretch this already taut and pretentious metaphor just a hair further, Netflix is really just one hexagonal chamber, alongside all of the other streaming platforms it has inspired—many of which just came into fruition in the past year. There’s Hulu, CBS All Access, Disney+, Apple TV+, Quibi , HBO Max, and now NBC’s Peacock.
The streaming apocalypse has long been foretold, and with Peacock’s launch, it feels like we’ve reached its apotheosis. Each new platform seems to generate less buzz—the symptom of a consumer base that’s already weary from managing way too many subscriptions. What does it say that the network that invented “Must-See TV” seems to be on the precipice of a thoroughly unremarkable launch? Linear networks, which once served as branded curators for (somewhat) specific audiences, now feed streaming services that mash their offerings up next to whatever other TV series and movies their parent companies happen to hold rights to. (NBCUniversal, for instance, will round out Peacock with Universal Pictures, Focus Features and DreamWorks Animation’s catalogues.) For users, this now means spending untold amounts of time googling “Where to stream...” and clicking through the infinite abyss in search of something, anything that jumps out. In other words, I guess I’m saying: TV is dead, long live TV!
Peacock should have had a leg-up on at least some of its newer competition. After all, it’s free for anyone with a cable subscription, and comes with beloved library options like The Office, Cheers, Frasier, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, yada yada. But after so, so many streaming launches in the past few months, a fatigue seems to have set in, stifling excitement for the platform’s shiniest offerings and casting doubt on just how many people will actually sign up for it. And speaking of The Yada Yada, it also doesn’t help that two of NBC’s biggest shows will not actually appear on NBC’s streaming platform: Seinfeld will soon land at Netflix, while Friends now lives on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max.
One could argue that Peacock’s relatively buzzless run-up period has something to do with its premiere offerings. I mean, was anyone screaming for a new Punky Brewster, or a Saved by the Bell revival, or a Brave New World adaptation, or a show starring David Schwimmer as a “racist, misogynist, homophobic” intelligence agent? But really, it’s more telling to consider the streaming environment as a whole.
Netflix, arguably the progenitor for all of these services, has gradually and methodically built a brand as an all-encompassing replacement for cable television. The company’s decision to pivot to originals foresaw the reality in which we now live—a glut of competing platforms vying for eyeballs. Its solution, as it turns out, has been to not only invest in marquee series like Stranger Things and The Crown, but also to replicate all of the less prestigious TV many of us love. It’s mastered the reality TV genre. It’s produced viral docuseries that often seem to draw on the lurid voyeurism long associated with networks like A&E. Other rarely publicized offerings ape Food Network and HGTV shows. Are you more of a Hallmark person? How about a soapy Southern dramedy starring Jamie Lynn Spears, Reba alum JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Drop Dead Diva star Brooke Elliott, and Broadway legend Heather Headley? To paraphrase a famous Bill Hader character, this streaming service has everything.
With Netflix already in place as the streaming service that ate everything, it’s up to the other platforms to differentiate.
Hulu, for instance, now boasts arguably the best library of licensed content. It has benefited greatly from its ties to Disney—which last year turned into an even bigger behemoth by purchasing Fox. And some of its originals, like The Handmaid’s Tale, PEN15, and Little Fires Everywhere, have made waves as well. Still, things can get a little messy; thanks to Disney’s confusing corporate cobweb, we now have such vexing brands as “FX on Hulu.” Love Victor, which was originally produced for Disney+, landed on Hulu after the House of Mouse decided that a gay teen romance is not family-friendly. (Ugh.)
WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, meanwhile, banks on the prestige of HBO’s library—and its own impressive back catalogue of titles from not only Warner Bros. Television, but also TBS, TNT, New Line, DC, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Crunchyroll, Rooster Teeth, Looney Tunes, and more.
Still, it’s striking how difficult it is to distinguish one of these streamer’s originals from another. In the olden days one could generally discern an NBC series from a CBS series from an ABC series from a FOX series. But what is “a Netflix show” or “a Hulu show?” What makes an HBO Max series different from an Apple TV+ series?
If I may return to the “Library of Babel” metaphor one more time—just one more, I swear!—to zoom out on the streaming apocalypse with a cynical eye is to see a bunch of corporations combining and re-combining well-trod formats and I.P. the same way the Library’s endless array of books combined and re-combined letters ad infinitum. Sometimes these combinations produce meaning—or a genuinely good show. (Case in point: The best CBS series in years does not even air on the CBS network.) Other times, though, the result is just garbled tripe—like the book in Borges’ story that just repeats the letters “MCV” for 410 pages.
That level of cynicism is, of course, reductive. The streaming boom has produced some truly captivating, original work. Hulu’s The Great is the best use of Nicholas Hoult in years; Apple TV+’s Dickinson, AKA “Sexy Dickinson,” is a wild and weird delight; and HBO Max’s Amy Schumer docuseries Expecting Amy revealed previously unseen facets of a comedian who was once frequently chided for being overexposed.
Still, it’s worth considering just how many hours of dreck one might wade through on Netflix before landing on a gem like The Babysitter’s Club. At times, as my vision blurs from too much time spent searching for something to stream, it’s enough to make me yearn for the days of the cable TV tagline—the “We Know Drama” and “Characters Welcome” of yesteryear. If streaming had a tagline, it might be something like, “There’s good stuff here; good luck finding it.” Either way, there’s definitely no turning back now.
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