Honestly, Netflix has overall been one of the best TV network in history, matched only by the likes of FX, Adult Swim, and maybe the last five years of Comedy Central. “The Executives” have always been this faceless bogeyman, haunting all discussions of TV and movies for the last forty years of relative creative transparency. “Notes” are discussed as if they decrees from somebody’s lame aunt with edits from your accountant uncle. But there is no inherent, systemic reason why the action of executives has to impede quality.
The systemic flaw with the network notes system is that it relies heavily on the artistic abilities of people who are not artists. The notes system is–at its most basic–pretty much the same process by which one learns, academically, to be an artist: writing work shops and art critiques. A creative person makes a version of a piece, and others tell them how to improve it. The thing is, you need the advice to be from people who are talented and/or experienced in their own right and whose goal is to improve the artistic work. And–ultimately–it must be up to the creator to decide what advice to take, because only they know how it fits in to their ever-evolving vision.*
Unfortunately, the first ingredient is often not the case in TV. Executives probably aren’t artists themselves, and they might be most concerned with the fretfully temporat issues of ratings and finances–concerns that often don’t aid in accessing the sublime eternal. And although notes often are voluntary, they essentially are suggestions from a boss, to creators are heavily incentivized to follow them, even if they violate their vision.
So notes–in theory–don’t have to impede art, but they often do. The Simpsons creators actually negotiated a policy in which they were under no obligation to follow any notes from Fox. And they proudly say they threw out every one that came their way.
So–anyway–how can one network be better than another at producing great shows, and what does this have to do with Stranger Things?
Well, basically, I think Netflix follows the HBO model. HBO shows are carefully selected, creator driven, and heavily supported. Basically, if HBO buys your concept, they approve a relatively absurd budget and then let you do whatever you want with it with very little oversight. No notes. FX–famously–went even further with Louie. CK had been making short films for decades, and he said he just wanted to be handed a lump sum of money (I believe it was a million dollars) and be allowed to hire his own staff and create his show as an indie project. So that’s what they did.
This is all a great argument for creator driven shows and a great argument against the hobgoblin of Network Notes. But–hey–it’s not as if any creator, given cash and druthers, will create a masterpiece. Give Zach Snyder free reign and you get Sucker Punch. So, there is something at play with “talented” networks like HBO and FX. Basically, they must have taste: the ability to know when a pitch has legs. From a business perspective, they would be seen as shrewd entrepreneurs, whereas of course artsy types see this quality as connoisseurship.
But–you know what–I think it’s more. I think these networks are actually helping people develop these shows. I think they’re giving the notes early–in the planning and drafting stages. Just a hunch–but basically–it’s a good idea. You can here a pitch, think it’s good, and trust the artist; but as a custodian of the project, you will undoubtedly have doubts and concerns. It makes sense to start with a firm hand and say, “I see these flaws. Convince me otherwise now or come back with answers.”
So when I hear that Netflix is holding off on greenlighting Stranger Things season 2 until they have time to dedicate to it, I think two things: 1) they’re as aware as the rest of us that the content of the second seasons is far from obvious, in that the obvious would be really lame; and 2) they need to figure out the budget to dedicate to the show, which–even if everything else I said above turns out to kind of be bullshit–is probably a big part of the “work” that needs to be done.
Anyway. That certainly was a lot of writing that probably not many people will actually read. I liked Stranger Things a lot, and I really love what TV has become–especially the Netflix mutation into film novels, which is really what these are.
*e.g. The workshop may unanimously think a character needs to be more sympathetic, but only the writer knows that if you piece together some clues it turns out that the character is purposely pretending to be unsympathetic.