The flaws of Netflix’s house documentary style


Promotional image for Story 101 (all images courtesy of Netflix)

Netflix documentaries have their own vocabulary. Sweep establishing shots led by drones. Carefully deployed slow motion to raise the dramatic bar. High-gloss cinematic styling, facilitated by a organized list 4K + cameras and approved color grading software. In recent years, a dominant model in their subject has also emerged. The Netflix docuseries exist mainly at two poles: real crime and infotainment explanations. In most cases, the detective series attracts the most attention, seen recently with shows like Tiger King, don’t fuck with cats, and Jeffrey Epstein: dirty rich. They are sensationalist stories told with style and panache, and can be easily told over a weekend. Then there are shows like The Movies / Toys That Made Us, Media Review, Story 101, and the Vox product Explain. They are shorter works, delivered casually and with an almost neutral tone. There are of course shows like Applaud that exist outside of that binary, but generally speaking, Netflix has closed ranks around these two pillars.

Promotional image for Explain

The explanations in particular represent an intriguing development, adapting to Vox’s broader approach to journalism and the growth of late night content like John Oliver’s 20 Minute deep dives in various subjects or that of Seth Meyers “To look closer” segments. The idea is to give people a supposedly extensive and in-depth overview of a topic in a brief window, be it an exploration of issues (as in Sex explained) or the history of feminism (as in Story 101). Of course, much of this is surface analysis, which is tolerable in some cases, but can become flawed or extremely irresponsible in others.

From Story 101, “Oil and the Middle East”

For example, one topic spectacularly unsuitable for a 20-minute recap is the oil conflict in West Asia, but Story 101 try to do it anyway. The show’s overall aesthetic is similar to author Hank Green’s YouTube series. Intensive course, with punchy infographics and a dizzying array of stimuli to keep viewers engaged with the potentially difficult topic. The episode in question, “Oil and the Middle East”, provides an extremely rapid overview of the historical context of the various wars and uprisings in the region, dating back to the early 1900s.

The episode is narrated by a trusted Briton, Natalie Silverman, which is sort of a nihilistic choice given the role the British Empire played in the Western exploitation of these countries. (Story 101 is a British production.) The episode acknowledges US-led coups in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere throughout the 20th century, as well as other violent interventions, but they are presented uncritically. Describing the first Gulf War, Silverman says: “The Western allies decide to intervene. They can no longer afford to sit idly by as Middle Eastern oil producers tear each other apart. The West’s oil supply must be protected. There is a quote attributed to an anonymous peace activist regarding the United States’ interest in oil, but otherwise these aggressive military maneuvers are by no means contested, questioned or analyzed. In the United States, hydraulic fracturing is referred to as “success” and “revolution”. The episode vaguely acknowledges that “summary reports” led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, in a nice subtle revisionism.

From Media essay

This dangerously ill-considered example is representative of Story 101 as a whole, as well as shows like this. Media essay has episodes about the death in 1999 of Amadou Diallo (an unarmed Guinean immigrant shot 41 times by four NYPD agents, all of whom were acquitted) and the “vigilante” Bernard Goetz shot in 1984 four black teenagers in a New York subway (he was also found not guilty). To the show’s credit, he goes into these topics in more depth than Story 101, with episodes of one hour each and incorporating a wide range of stock footage and other material. But it is nonetheless ill-equipped to provide the full context of police brutality, crime rates, self-defense and racial profiling, not to mention its supposed central thesis of media sensationalism. By presenting events and narratives in a neutral manner, without any appropriate commentary or context, these shows cannot provide viewers with anything substantive to take away from them. Media essay doesn’t blame the media so much as it demonstrates the importance of having a point of view.

If these shows encourage people to do their own research on topics of interest to them, so much the better. But this format suggests something about Netflix’s strategy as it advances in the streaming war, with more and more competitors joining the fray. These politically and socially charged topics are completely disconnected from the platform’s in-house style, and these shows strip them of any complexity and political awareness. Producing more of that content seems like a calculated, algorithmic and data-driven decision on Netflix’s part to get people to click and stay on their platform without offering any perspective – which it is, of course. , its own form of persuasion. In the meantime, the consumer feels educated, fulfilled and satisfied. If these superficial history lessons are the result of algorithmic programming, non-fiction filmmakers might want to reconsider the site as a distributor.

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