TBI Weekly: Is Netflix killing off nuanced drama? (Column)

As SVODs increasingly rely on punchy dramas to draw eyeballs and differentiate their offerings, some producers and writers are concerned that slow-burning stories are an increasingly rare commodity. As Netflix UK goes in search of ‘hooky’ dramas for their platform, TBI asks whether nuanced scripted fare is an endangered offering in the new TV landscape. 

Who among us wasn’t sat half-paralysed, dinner half-eaten, when PS David Budd sprang into action on a Euston-bound train under immediate threat of being blown to smithereens. Within three minutes, Budd knows something’s amiss. At 10 minutes, he’s confronted the suspect in the bathroom. And at the 20-minute mark? He’s tucking the kids in bed.

It’s no wonder Netflix was quick to board Jed Mercurio’s thriller at script stage: Bodyguard is exactly the kind of can’t-tear-yourself-away drama that will keep viewers planted in front of screens, happily dishing out $12.99 per month. But, surely, there is room on such a vast platform for all types of thrillers. Not everything needs an action-packed sequence from the get-go, right? Maybe not.

I was recently speaking with a producer who had been in to see Netflix’s scripted team out of London.

The producer had brought along some rich, complex drama series pitches  – many of them slow-burners that didn’t necessarily have a flashy, Bodyguard-style opening but promised a sumptuous, resonant story over the series arc.

This wasn’t quite what the streaming giant is looking for.

The exec insisted on “hooky” content and encouraged the producer to think about what the poster for the show and its thumbnail on the site might look like. Ultimately, the only criteria that mattered was whether it will “grab people” right away. Unfortunately for this producer, their ideas didn’t quite do as much, at least not immediately.

The producer, somewhat defeated, recounted the meeting with a sense of alarm, and wondered with dread whether this was a sign of things to come, and whether the streamer might only look to greenlight projects lacking in complexity, devoid of nuance.

I thought at one point that seeing Sky drama boss Anne Mensah heading over to Netflix to carve out a UK drama strategy might see the likes of a Save Me emerging from the streamer. Now, I wonder whether even Lennie James’ rollicking thriller is “hooky” enough for Netflix.  

I put the question to The Walking Dead writer Channing Powell, who wrote Amazon and Liberty Global drama The Feed — a forthcoming 10-part thriller set in a dystopian society in which a universal implant allows everyone to share memories and emotions.

Powell, too, had to be “really aware” of Amazon’s requirements for each episode, ensuring that there were plenty of cliffhangers. It’s a world she is used to, having written on AMC’s The Walking Dead, but there’s an awareness from her that it shouldn’t be rule.

“I hope you can still have a slow burn, but I fear you can’t,” she says. “Some of the shows I have loved and that I thought were personal and beautiful have not seen second series.

“The landscape is changing so much, and there is so much content. It is really hard to pick out the gems from the sea of options that you have and I think that’s why the notes are always saying, ‘We need something that captures people’s attention immediately’.”

However, she points out that platforms such as Amazon are leaning into more complex programmes, as well. Cases in point: Fleabag and Catastrophe, both of which stream on the platform internationally.

“There aren’t any car crashes or bank shootouts — they’re about real people. Even though the bigger spectacle is exciting now, what people come back for is the character, so even if you do have to make sure that you have a cliffhanger in every episode and catch people’s attention in the first few minutes, if you don’t have the characters to back it up, people will tune out immediately because they have seen that before.”

This gives me some hope. I hear it all the time as a TV journalist — “Great characters!” Maybe I’ll start believing it.

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