There is far too much to watch on TV today
Streaming services have an exciting range of movies and series. This makes the role of curation criticalanalysis Updated: Dec 27, 2018 09:00 IST
There is such a thing as too much choice. The seamless convenience of something like Netflix means you can sign in from nearly anywhere in the world, and have access to large and little movies and series from around the world. Over-the-top platforms, as Netflix, Amazon Video, Hotstar, etc are called, are the future, our very own video-stores in our very own pockets.
This idea of legal, real-time global viewing, with your phone and the internet combining to open a gateway to a lush, multilingual, barrier-free world of entertainment — it’s something we could not have pictured even a few years ago.
If only these platforms prized high quality as much as they do high-definition.
The problem with Netflix, for instance, is a complete absence of a barrier to entry. The service adds shows and films of all kinds to its library constantly, making it harder and harder to actually find the things worth watching. It is a sea of content where critically acclaimed films rub shoulders with films nobody should ever attempt to watch, and many of us end up spending over half an hour browsing the endless catalogue, before giving up and going to bed.
Netflix started out as a magical repository of exciting content. Now it is a public library where you can find entertainment of every shape and colour, closer in nature to YouTube than a curated service.
The role of curation for the small screen has arguably become even more important than for film. I started Stream Of Stories, my column on streaming television shows for Mint Lounge, in the summer of 2016 when I felt that the need to point people towards (and, indeed, away from) certain television shows was becoming more crucial than doing the same with movies. In any given year, we know the 50 or 100 films of note, films we are expected to pay attention to and films we think we might enjoy, and we discover the others through writing and recommendations. In television, on the other hand, the sheer volume of new content means there are dozens of absolute masterworks you never even hear of. And conversely, much of the stuff we do hear about has likely been marketed aggressively or has appealed to the lowest common denominator, or both.
Therefore we must go spelunking among countless titles, and hope for the best.
Adding to the whirlpool, they’re now making movies. One of this year’s frontrunners for an Oscar nomination is the highly emotive and personal Alfonso Cuaron film, Roma — a Netflix production that, ironically, is such a visual and aural delight that one must try and watch it on the big screen. Given the groundswell of acclaim, this Netflix film could realistically win the Best Picture award at the 2019 Oscars, but what game is Netflix changing? This will merely turn it into another influential producer. A studio is born.
India stepped up its streaming game in 2018, to some extent. Sacred Games on Netflix and Mirzapur on Amazon demonstrate the willingness of our filmmakers to keep supping at the table laid out by directors Ram Gopal Varma and Vidhu Vinod Chopra in the 1990s. These competently made shows are only compelling when compared to the trash Indian television routinely feeds us; place these alongside your favourite HBO / Amazon series and the illusion falls away.
Why compare these to their foreign counterparts? Because we must. We must brutally hold what we create to the highest standards or we will squander a potential revolution for storytellers who have been suffocated by a star-driven system.
We seem to have finally reached the point of watchability, and one hopes writers will forge braver paths ahead.
The problem of too much choice remains, though. It’s handled cleverly by streaming service Mubi, which gives you a selection of art-house cinema with a one-month time limit, forcing you to commit to a film before it vanishes. I have obediently watched many a film with this gun to my head, but it must be said that art-house cinema lends itself well to this kind of rigour. If Hotstar, on the other hand, declared that you could only watch Silicon Valley episodes during the week of their release, you might seek out a less-legal way to watch that sitcom at your own pace. Forcing viewers to wear blinkers doesn’t seem realistic, or, for that matter, fair.
We need to talk about television. About what we love, what exasperates us, shows that work better when binged on, and those that work better in weekly doses, fostering debates and fan theories. We need to do this because, no matter what you’ve watched and revered before, something better is out there already and we need to make room for a constantly evolving canon. We need to talk about television because this is its time. Nobody can give us spoilers since no one knows where we’re headed.
Raja Sen is a film critic and writer.
Views expressed are personal
First Published: Dec 27, 2018 09:00 IST