Netflix and Hulu Are Trying to Please Too Many People at Once

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What's wrong with new shows Lillyhammer and Battleground

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Netflix

One of the most significant media developments of the last year has been the news that companies that have traditionally delivered content produced by other people are now making television shows themselves. It's too early to tell whether companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and now Comcast are planning to program full seasons of television, or whether they're just going into the content business as a negotiating tool. If they could make their own hit shows, that could put them in a stronger position to negotiate with the studios they've previously been totally dependent on for content.

But will those shows be hits? Or even good? The first batch of full-length, web-based television shows arrived on Netflix and Hulu users' screens this month. And the results are mixed. Hulu and Netflix may know a lot about what their users like to watch. But both companies seem to be trying to satisfying far too many of those users at once. Hulu's Battleground takes a mockumentary look at the staffers on an underdog Senate campaign in Wisconsin, while Netflix's Lillyhammer follows a former mobster to his new home in Norway.

Battleground—which has new episodes every Tuesday—is at its best when it's unafraid to be a little weird in a way that reflects the goofiness and cynicism of people who are overtired and a little sick of each other's company. One funny line comes when campaign staffer Ali, trying to track down how a high school student got a piece of damaging information about the candidate's personal life, friends a bunch of the student's classmates on Facebook to see if they have any connections to the rival campaign. She groans about one of them, "What's worse is that he plays Farmville. He's going to bug me for seeds." And when some staffers sneak into a campaign event for the rival candidate and come away with a looted t-shirt, Tak, the campaign manager, receives it with a cheery, "Good! For my RealDoll!"

And Battleground even gets away with wackier stuff. In the pilot, when Tak finds out that Ben, a dorky new volunteer, worked at a Renaissance Fair, he makes the poor guy run errands in sorcerer mode. The sight of this naif bowing gallantly to the communications director, or delivering messages in goofy cadances is a reminder of what a weird and artificial environment a political campaign is in the first place. It's also a nod to Battleground's best network TV antecedent, Parks and Recreation, which has nailed the art of making the political slightly surreal.

But Battleground doesn't seem satisfied with the moments of comedy that it's nailing—it wants us to really care about the stakes of the campaign, too. But we don't actually know anything about the candidate other than that she's stalked by persistent lesbian rumors, won a state basketball championship in high school, and is married to an uptight, unpleasant man. These facts are hardly the basis for a passionate embrace of her candidacy or a basis for comparison with her incumbent rival.

The show also doesn't appear to have much of a sense for the scope or pace of a state-wide Senate race. Some of these limitations may be a factor of the show's small budget and desire to focus on a younger group of staffers. But it doesn't really make sense that four weeks out from the election, a candidate who's down by more than 20 points could suddenly spring into contention, or that someone as young as Tak (and with a his bad record of losing races) could engineer a genius turn-around for a candidate with heavier stated liabilities than assets. If the show was 22 episodes instead of 13, covering events that spread over a year or so, the emotional sine wave of the campaign might make more sense. But right now, the show seems like it's trying to appeal both to the fans of NBC's brand of ironic, slightly distanced comedy, and to the liberal therapy-seekers who turned to The West Wing during the Bush administration as a form of consolation. It's got the first part of that equation figured out, but it isn't even close to meeting the needs of the second one.

Lillyhammer—which has all eight of its episodes available on Netflix now—feels less off in its timing. But then, it's hard to crowd a story about a former mobster, Frank Tagliano (Steve Van Zandt, getting second use out of his facial expressions from The Sopranos), who after turning government informant asks to be relocated to Lillehammer, Norway, because he has fond memories of the Olympics that were set there. But Lillyhammer is, if anything, even more tonally confused than Battleground, and to less likable effect.

There's no question that the premise makes for a mildly amusing immigrant story. Frank is irritated by everything from his inability to expedite a license to open a bar to the fact that his American driver's license doesn't work. But while some of the ways Frank adapts to his new environment are pretty funny—turns out that threatening someone with a fast ride off an abandoned Olympic ski jump is as effective as offering to let them sleep with the fishes—a lot of them just make him come off as sour and even bigoted, rather than a sympathetic outsider or a nuanced anti-hero.

When he threatens a Muslim man in his immigrants' adaptation class because the man doesn't want to shake hands with their female teacher, who Frank has a crush on, he comes across as a culturally insensitive bully rather than as a gallant. Similarly, when he threatens a hippie who doesn't want to sell his land, which developers need to build a new condo complex, Frank shows himself to be a crude, self-interested heavy. And when his crush breaks her leg ice-skating, Lillyhammer offers up a stupid and stereotypical parody of a national health care system, making the doctors out to be utterly indifferent and lazy, to give Frank an excuse to give them a hard time. It's an odd grab-bag of tender romance, fish-out-of-water comedy, and mob drama.

If the show's meant to be a conservative critique of universal health care or the divisiveness that can spring from multiculturalism, Frank's not a particularly compelling vehicle for those ideas. And it's not much fun watching him mess up the generally decent lives of the people whose community he's invaded or buy the affections of his ladyfriend's young son. The whole series has the air of the German television shows Jack Donaghy had to watch in the second season of 30 Rock, full of lectures on the evils of industry and game shows with names like Interrogation Bear: It's off-putting, but occasionally fascinating.

Over time, most television networks settle on what kind of programming fits their brand: NBC's known for its quirky comedies, CBS for its bland, broadly appealing sitcoms and cop dramas, ABC is full of soap suds, while HBO goes dark and Showtime goes abrasive. Hulu and Netflix, if they continue to develop full original programming slates rather than using a few original shows as leverage to cut better deals with original content companies, will likely figure out what works for them, too.

But if Battleground and Lillyhammer are any indication, both companies pulling elements from many different kinds of shows together rather than aiming for a single demographic around which they can build an audience. It's one thing to get people to come to your site because you get them access to everything from Sons of Anarchy to Dora The Explorer. But you're probably not going to get all of your subscribers, or even a large number of them, to tune in to any given show. The sooner the people who deliver content recognize that, the better their original content projects will be.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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