Netflix’s ‘Most Popular’ List Is a Wasteland

The ranking reveals a sad reality: People are really bored right now, and that leaves a lot of room for mediocre content to flourish.

Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Last summer, I made a grievous mistake while getting my hair braided. As I eased into the chair, mentally preparing myself (well, my glutes) for the hours-long process ahead, I looked up and asked my stylist an idle question: What have you been watching on Netflix lately? She launched into an explanation of her latest binge watch, and by the time the lower quadrant of my hair was sectioned off into plaits, I’d somehow become invested in the story of a protagonist whose description I can’t believe is real, even now.

The cynically named CW series In the Dark follows a blind 20-something woman named Murphy Mason, whose penchant for drinking and vacuous sexual encounters is rivaled only by her determination to solve the disappearance of her teenage friend Tyson, a drug dealer with a heart of gold who once saved her from a violent mugging. The series is a chaotic mélange of genre clichés with some earnest moments sprinkled in, which is to say it’s a natural Netflix hit. Sure enough, the first season of In the Dark found a larger audience after the streaming platform picked it up, and since last week, the newly released Season 2 has bounced around Netflix’s Top 10 most watched list.

A relatively new feature, the list offers a glimpse into what other users in the same country are gravitating toward on any given day. As the coronavirus pandemic has hamstrung the production and release of new entertainment, the Top 10 list has become an oddly influential tastemaker. Did I expect a preponderance of Netflix subscribers to be so eager to find out what happened to Murphy and Tyson? Not really—but I’m not surprised to see it. The list is regularly dominated by the kinds of shows and movies best described as “things to play in the background while you scroll on your phone.”

Even if intriguing projects do make it onto the Top 10, it can be hard to tell the names apart. According to Netflix, U.S. viewers are currently obsessed with In the Dark and Dark Desire, Last Chance U and The Last Dance, The Kissing Booth and The Kissing Booth 2. Sometimes, sensational titles spend weeks in the No. 1 spot, such as the erotic drama 365 Days, which titillated touch-starved viewers with its sexual hijinks. But the makeup of such rankings reflects a rather banal truth: People are really bored right now, and that leaves a lot of room for uninspired content to flourish.

If HBO’s Game of Thrones was the last great piece of TV monoculture, then the pandemic has popularized a series of forgettable productions that each offers a fleeting, miniature facsimile of communal attention. Absent the usual summer blockbusters, and with few prestige shows rolling out new episodes, the landscape of American entertainment is barren enough for C- shows and movies to rack up the viewership of B+ productions, if not the associated enthusiasm. The mechanism by which Netflix measures its subscribers’ consumption habits is itself a paragon of low expectations. The company, which has historically withheld actual audience numbers, recently revealed that it counts anything longer than two minutes spent on one movie or show’s screen as a “view.” Whether because of the content’s mediocrity, or the sheer exhaustion brought on by living through a historical event, few of these “most watched” works have generated a collective viewing experience that feels cohesive, much less exhilarating.

What is there to text a friend about the way that Murphy Mason trips over herself in every other In the Dark scene because the show is hell-bent on reminding viewers that she is, in fact, blind? Even while trapped in a braiding chair for upwards of eight hours, I had nothing to say about it. That Fatal Affair, the new Perfect Stranger–esque thriller starring Nia Long and Omar Epps, would go largely unremarked upon by Black Twitter—despite putting up a decent showing on the most-popular list—felt symptomatic of this broader apathy, too: How, I wondered while watching that movie, had Netflix found a way to make me yearn for the days when the worst thing a Long character did was date a slam poet with a hoop earring?

Still, no production better captures the unbearable adequacy of such offerings than Netflix’s Kissing Booth franchise. The second film in the series has been planted firmly at the top end of the most-popular list since its release last week, even dragging the original into the ranking with it. The Kissing Booth cinematic universe, which includes another forthcoming film, is a world of middling teenage romantic hijinks that make me—a noted and very forgiving fan of the genre—contemplate never kissing anyone again. “No boobs are worth a broken nose,” a line uttered by one of the characters in the first film, has haunted me since I first heard it.

That’s not to say everything that’s been popular on Netflix, or other streaming services, has been tiresome or unremarkable. Tiger King, the morally bankrupt cat-breeding documentary series, took over the platform at the end of March, but an adaptation of the beloved Baby-Sitters Club book series released in June was a genuine delight. Of course, the proliferation of second-rate content predates the pandemic: Who could forget Bird Box, the baffling Sandra Bullock thriller that raked in viewers largely because of its memeability? (I can, thankfully.) No matter how eye-roll-worthy the premise or execution of these productions, I understand their appeal. There’s something inordinately comforting about letting the algorithm decide for you, relinquishing the burden of choice to an external force. There’s a kind of utility in lists that do that and offer a window into what shows other, similarly stressed people are letting wash over them, if only for two minutes. Even outside of the stylist’s chair, I’m still a captive audience—and so are you.