Silicon Valley has a lot of things going for it: advancing technology, an attractive environment for whiz kids, a (weak) stab at meritocracy among its residents, gobs and gobs of cash. But as anybody who's ever worked in the arts will tell you, money cannot buy taste. Frequently it buys whatever the opposite of taste is. Thus, the learning curve has been incredibly steep for video companies desperate to produce the elusive "premium content" that will command the kind of money that TV advertising moves every season, or, in the case of subscriber-only services, the kind of buzz that generates subscribers to pay-TV networks.
At first, video services seemed to believe that "premium" meant "not cat videos," but after wave after wave of unbearable vanity projects and obvious cable TV rejects were more or less ignored, this season a few companies have demonstrated a commitment to producing material as good or better than what you can find on cable television. It's not a long list—plenty of folks are still in the wasteland, and even the higher-end video portals listed here don't always hit it out of the park. But the good news is that with the unprecedented creative freedom available on the Internet and enough liquid assets to give those creatives room to breathe, there's some stuff available digitally you'd never have been able to see otherwise.
Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos gave a remarkably honest assessment of the way his company does business to The Hollywood Reporter last month: "I'm a fan of development," he said, "I just don't want to do it." We could have told you that from the programming slate. If there's one thing that's clear about Netflix's originals, it's that nobody is peering over David Fincher's shoulder, giving him notes on whether or not his characters are relatable enough. Sometimes this really works and sometimes it really, really doesn't work, but it's rarely uninteresting.
And sometimes it's transcendent. No, not everyone liked the pitch-black fourth season of Arrested Development, but it would be very difficult to argue that the show was phoned-in or underthought. Creator Mitch Hurwitz wrote a 15-episode swan song for his much-praised, little-watched comedy that didn't so much advance the story as flesh out what had happened to its hapless characters during the seven-year gap between its last broadcast episode and its first Netflix show. The gags (and the twisty plot) get more layered and clever with every subsequent episode, a kind of virtuosity that wasn't served at all well by the company's "binge-watch the whole thing!" marketing strategy. But the show's famously manic commitment to detail and top-tier performances were all right where they'd always been; Netflix had just let Hurwitz off the leash.
Internet popularity is often a poor indicator of success, but that didn't stop Amazon Video from crowdsourcing its pilot orders until it came up with verdicts, some of them fairly harsh. (Quoth one community reviewer on the failed Zombieland pilot: "It felt three times as long as it actually was, probably because there was only one joke.") So the company's first offering, Alpha House, looked a little like it had won the contest by stacking the deck—the pilot featured cameos by Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert and was directed by Breaking Bad vet Adam Bernstein.
But the real star of the show has turned out to be its light, quick scripts by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. The show took some flak early on for what a few reviewers perceived as easy Republican-bashing; but watch more than one episode, and it becomes clear that the show is making fun of Republicans because it's only about Republicans—specifically, four elected officials living in the District who are getting assailed from the right by Tea Party candidates who want to shake up the status quo that's been so good to our heroes. It's a super-smart half-hour comedy that could never have been green-lit anywhere on television, and its cast is terrific, especially the great John Goodman as North Carolina Sen. Gil John Biggs. Better yet, anybody who thinks the show's digs at Republicans are cheap shots isn't paying attention: Biggs' parlaying his sports career into a life in politics is modeled on a number of Southern politicos (notably Heath Shuler), and the more you know about the Beltway, the funnier it is.
The Wrong Mans
Hulu is the most TV-ish of the current crop of digital video services, and it has built its brand more or less like a TV network would: a base of acquired programming like animé, movies and off-network series, plus a solid collection of day-after reruns from broadcast and cable. Its first few shows weren't terribly ambitious, but it finally started swinging for the fences this past season with Seth Myers' superhero cartoon The Awesomes and the The Wrong Mans, with Gavin & Stacy star James Corden and Matthew Baynton writing and co-starring in the very funny office-comedy-meets-buddy-cop-flick mash-up.
The series is a co-production with BBC Two and its production values are high, its writing sharp, and the acting excellent. Like Alpha House, it's not really like anything else on television, and it makes one wonder what exactly is slipping through the cracks at traditional networks. With the exception of FX, Adult Swim, and the occasional show on the BBC America, there's just nothing like this sort of young-skewing, well-funded material on cable. Cable's loss.
This one is a little bit weird, but it's quite good. Writer Neil LaBute (whose works range from writing interesting plays such as Reasons to Be Pretty to directing hilariously awful films including the Nicolas Cage-starring remake of cult classic The Wicker Man) riffs on Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 play about sexual politics, La Ronde. The show's 10 episodes feature name-brand actors like David Boreanaz and Ally Sheedy as conniving L.A.ers who are all keeping secrets from each other. True to the rest of the LaBute oeuvre, Full Circle's characters are terrible, terrible people, but their efforts to dismantle one another verbally makes for queasily watchable television.
And television it is—the show is commissioned by and airs exclusively on DirecTV and that satellite service's digital platform. As Comcast gets into selling movies, the strategy makes sense, especially if Netflix is going to continue growing at rates that have pushed it past HBO and into the realm of the smaller cable operators. In recent years, cable and satellite operators have become known for relying on antiquated legislation and regional monopolies to retain their subscriber bases; DirecTV has moved faster and with greater strategic precision than many of its competitors. With Full Circle, DirecTV is trying to get into the original content game on the same level as its affiliates.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Crackle's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is everything that is not annoying about talk shows: an interesting host, an interesting guest, and an impressive commitment to making things look good. It's less fun if you don't share host/creator Jerry Seinfeld's drooling love of classic cars (the Lamborghini in the Chris Rock episode is to die for), but the interviews range from lightweight and fun to downright revelatory. Who knew that elderly widowers Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks were kind of an adorable, sad old married couple now? Who knew that Rock had to help his brother out when the latter was in prison?
Of the distributors listed in this slide show, Crackle's slate is the spottiest—some of its shows are super-low-rent, and some, like CiCGC, are created with a lot of care and expertise. We'll leave it to you to wonder which ones generate the most interest.