Was the lefty comic Hannah Gadbsy right to call Netflix an ‘amoral algorithm cult’? Granted, the creator of Nanette (worth watching!) may have been referring specifically to the company’s decision to greenlight the latest Dave Chappelle special (also worth watching!) but her wider point – about the omnipotence of the Netflix algorithms – isn’t far off the mark.
For evidence just look at the streaming giant's winter schedule, which is dominated, at least this month, by the release of Tiger King 2 (17 November). Do we really need a sequel to a one-time phenomenon which stopped being funny more than 18 months ago? And which, thanks partly to the work of Louis Theroux in his own follow-up documentary, has since been exposed as something much darker altogether?
Of course, all of this real world context would have been lost on an algorithm. Having peered into the holy vortex of Netflix’s viewing data, the hive-mind would have decided to plump for the show that had previously racked up an incredible 64 million views. From that point, it was just a matter of writing the cheques. Will Tiger King 2 get anywhere near as many viewers as last time? I suspect it will take one hell of a twist to get us hooked on Joe Exotic again.
The same algorithms probably had a hand in another sequel that arrives this winter: the second series of Emily in Paris (22 December). Starring Lily Collins (daughter of Phil), the daydreamy romcom follows an American Midwesterner who heads to Paris to undertake an implausibly glamorous marketing job and date implausibly glamorous men. Light and inoffensive, it's the sort of thing that – in years gone by – would have probably been an unremarkable feature length film aimed at teenage girls. Yet, in the era of big streaming, it qualifies for the full boxset treatment.
None of that, of course, stopped the first season of Emily in Paris becoming a serious hit. In fact, the show was so popular that broadsheet critics insisted its popularity must be down to viewers engaging in ‘hatewatching’ (that is, watching a programme purely to cringe at it). Perhaps. More likely the show’s success is in its accessibility: with the whole thing being set in the kind of stereotypical postcard Paris recognisable even to viewers in Pyongyang.
There’s another reason, though, to defend Emily in Paris. While its naff romance plots might be ripe for mockery, its central premise – a culture clash comedy with a healthy sprinkling of feel-good – isn’t exactly a million miles away from the acclaimed Ted Lasso (which stormed the Emmys last year). Though of course that’s watched by men – and swaps fashion for football – so gets treated rather differently. I say let Emily, and her millions of teen fans, have their fun.
When it comes to films, it's all guns blazing as Netflix gears up for next year's awards season. To the annoyance of streaming services, Oscar rules still require that eligible films must be shown exclusively in cinema for at least seven days before broadcast anywhere else. Netflix typically gets around this by quietly releasing their originals in cinemas sometime around now, before opting for a much louder streaming launch in time for holiday season.
Amongst the big names this year are The Power of the Dog (1 December) an adaptation of a Thomas Savage western novel starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons (alongside Kirsten Dunst) as two brothers living on a Montana branch. When one brother unexpectedly marries a young widow and brings her back to the ranch, his older sibling, played by Cumberbatch, embarks on a jealous campaign to destroy their relationship.
After its initial premiere in September, the film has had some whispering about an Oscar. And Cumberbatch’s rather pretentious comments on his conversion to method acting – in which he described how he stopped responding to his real name, went without washing for days on end, and smoked enough roll-up cigarettes to give himself nicotine poisoning – certainly sound like the sort of thing an Oscar hopeful might say.
Elsewhere Olivia Colman stars in an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s psychological novel The Lost Daughter (31 December) – playing a woman who, after developing an obsession with a mother and child she spots on the beach, ends up confronting her past traumas. Leonardo di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence team up in Adam McKay’s (The Big Short, Anchorman) new comedy, Don’t Look Up (24 December), about an impending comet strike – in which Meryl Streep cameos as America’s first female president. And as of this month, you can also catch Ruth Negga in Passing: the film which bewitched our own critic, Deborah Ross.
If you’re looking for a little more intellectual stimulation over the holiday period, there’s an enticing sounding documentary that has just landed. Lords of Scam (available now) is a French effort about the disastrous early days of the EU’s carbon trading scheme, during which organised crime gangs were able to net $5bn in fraudulent receipts. It’s also well worth watching The Unlikely Murderer (available now), a five-part dramatisation of the murder of former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme – a case which, more than 20 years later, remains unsolved. It’s gripping and very intelligently done. Not bad, then, for an ‘amoral algorithm cult’.