Netflix has done something very different in the creation of its new series Maniac by championing its algorithm over the desires of the storyteller. Is that a smart move, or deeply troubling? I’ll get into specifics of Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s series momentarily, but first, gather ‘round, and let me tell you a story about how we got to this point. Way back in 2000, the video rental behemoth Blockbuster was approached by a fledgling rival, Netflix, with the upstart looking to be bought out for a paltry $50 million. Blockbuster passed and the rest, as they say, is history. Blockbuster went the way of the dodo, while Netflix is now the 800-pound gorilla of the entertainment industry.
Netflix capitalized on the rise of fast residential internet access and rode that wave with an innovative idea: to offer the ability for the consumer to play movies and TV shows at home with no need to go to the video store or wait for DVDs in the mail. Their next step proved to be the real game-changer, though: producing their own original content, available only on their subscription service. Amazon, Hulu, CBS, and others have followed suit, but they still pale in comparison to Netflix’ reach and cultural influence.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Netflix experience, one that has evolved so much over the years, regards their recommendations. As soon as you log in, Netflix offers choices that are supposedly based on your viewing habits. It surfaced a while back that the company uses a mysterious “algorithm” to predict what their customers like and would want to watch. No one really knows what it is or how it works exactly, only that there are about a thousand folks behind the scenes tweaking it constantly.
My personal experience with the recommendations is not great: they usually don’t appeal to me. My viewing palate is pretty eclectic, so maybe it doesn’t fit into their data set. In a small sample size (and decidedly unscientific) Twitter poll curated by yours truly, the question and results were as follows:
“Do the Netflix recommendations accurately depict your viewing preferences?”
Taken as a random snapshot, the poll numbers frankly surprised me. All companies rely on data to target their potential customers. The goal is obviously to engage the consumer and sell, sell, sell. Netflix has gotten to a be a major player by taking their game to another level, and the algorithm seems to be a major part of their success.
This now leads us back to a cautionary tale that has potentially frightening implications on the future of creativity, media consumption, and artistic vision: that of Cary Fukunaga, Maniac, and Netflix’s algorithm.
Let it be said first of all that Cary Fukunaga is a very talented director, whose work includes the acclaimed first season of HBO’s True Detective, as well as the top-notch Netflix original film Beasts of No Nation.
His newest project set to bow on Netflix is Maniac, a dark comedy starring Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Justin Theroux, and Sally Field. The premise: Annie Landsberg (Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Hill) are two strangers drawn to the late stages of a mysterious pharmaceutical trial, each for their own reasons. Annie is disaffected and aimless, fixated on broken relationships with her mother and her sister; Owen, the fifth son of wealthy New York industrialists, has struggled his whole life with a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. The promise of a new, radical kind of pharmaceutical treatment—a sequence of pills its inventor, Dr. James K. Mantleray (Theroux), claims can repair anything about the mind, be it mental illness or heartbreak—draws them to the facilities of Neberdine Pharmaceutical for a three-day drug trial that will, they’re assured, with no complications or side-effects whatsoever, solve all of their problems, permanently. You can watch the trailer here and also read our review.
The trailer brings to mind a mashup of Legion, Inception, The Leftovers, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with a bit of the Rooster Teeth web series Crunch Time thrown in for good measure. The actors get to play dress-up and delve into multiple worlds and genres, which looks to be trippy fun. The thread of the two leads always finding their way back to each other reminded me of the wondrous cross-dimensional romance between Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham on Fringe.
As Fukunaga has been doing press for the show, he’s raised a few eyebrows with comments about his creative decisions and how the Netflix algorithm apparently influenced them. Here’s what he told GQ Magazine:
“Because Netflix is a data company, they know exactly how their viewers watch things, so they can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving. It’s not like, Let’s discuss this and maybe I’m gonna win. The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day. So the question is do we want to make a creative decision at the risk of losing people. There was one episode we wrote that was just layer upon layer peeled back, and then reversed again. Which was a lot of fun to write and think of executing, but, like, halfway through the season, we’re just losing a bunch of people on that kind of binging momentum. That’s probably not a good move, you know? So it’s a decision that was made 100 percent based on audience participation.”
Huh? This is very disturbing, on many levels.
For those unfamiliar, here’s the typical TV show writing process: Writer’s rooms are assembled, and then the writers, producers, and the showrunner(s) collaborate on planning out the entire season, coming up with the season storyline, as well as story beats and the individual arcs of the characters. Writers are then assigned specific episodes to write. Nothing takes place in a vacuum: initial drafts are turned in, and the producer/showrunner reads them, supplies notes and changes, and it goes back to the writer.
This process is continuous, with the scripts going up the food chain all the way to whatever network or subscription service is airing the show, with the execs also giving notes for changes. It happens all the way to the episode tapings, where changes are often needed at the last minute due to issues on location, like weather or other logistical problems that pop up. Producing a TV show episode is really just about math: X number of scenes need to be finished in Y number of shooting days. If a scene is written in such a way that the production schedule is thrown off, then the scene must be adjusted to get the job done on time and on budget.
Compromise, as far as story goes, is nothing new. Notes and changes from higher-ups are the norm. The thing that bothers me in this instance is a computer program dictating creative changes to a clearly talented storyteller. It’s hard for me to imagine David Lynch, Noah Hawley, or Shonda Rhimes taking notes from an algorithm. Human imagination is unlike anything else in this world we live in, and some of the most inspired ideas come from a place that a computer program can’t possibly replicate.
Checking off boxes that fit what Netflix thinks will appeal to their subscribers is a dangerous path to head down. Not everyone binge watches: to put the kibosh on a scene Fukunaga was clearly excited about giving the audience because it impacts the “binge-ability” of a series is scary to contemplate. This might explain the serious problems Netflix has with their Marvel shows. The so-called Netflix bloat — not enough plot for the number of episodes, seemingly endless scenes of characters prattling on about nothing, and overall pacing issues — would seem to fit in with what an algorithm might suggest. And let’s not even get into the Will Smith debacle Bright.
So where does it end? If we surrender our entertainment to the equivalent of Skynet, then where are we headed as a society? Are we hurtling into Black Mirror territory? First, we got Alexa, so the next gen just might be “Algo.”
Wake up: “Algo, cereal or French toast?”
Getting dressed: “Algo, boxers or briefs? The blue suit or the gray one?”
Lunch: “Algo, salad or a burger?”
After work: “Algo, home to watch Netflix or go out drinking with my friends?” (We know the answer to that one)
Dating: “Hmm, she’s pretty – Algo, swipe left, or right?”
All this reminds me of the Devo song Freedom of Choice:
“Freedom of choice
Is what you got,
Freedom from choice
Is what you want.”
One question: where the hell is Sarah Connor when you need her?