Watching a TV show no one else likes has never been lonelier
In 2015, when Netflix debuted Bloodline, I didn’t think I was taking much of a risk by investing my time. Here was a moody crime drama set amid the lush visuals of the Florida Keys, starring Sissy Spacek, Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler, Broadway legends Sam Shepard and Norbert Leo Butz, and ‘90s cult icons Linda Cardellini and Chloë Sevigny. What about this show doesn’t sound like a winning formula? Everyone, of course, would watch this show with me, I thought. It would be A Thing to watch Bloodline.
As it turns out, no, it won’t ever be A Thing. After the third season (scaled back from 13 episodes to 10) drops on Netflix today, it won’t be coming back. That’s rare for a Netflix show, and puts Bloodline in weird company. The only other Netflix originals to be canceled so early are Hemlock Grove, Marco Polo, Richie Rich, and, recently, the extraordinarily expensive Baz Luhrmann joint The Get Down.
Netflix is infamously stingy with viewership data, particularly when releasing it doesn’t function as a brag, but its renewal decisions seem to err on the side of “well, someone is watching it.” There’s no way that every original content experiment finds a huge audience, but almost all of them get lengthy runs, the kind reserved only for bonafide hits on traditional TV. The streaming company has now made four seasons of the god-awful Grace and Frankie, for no reason that I can glean other than Lily Tomlin’s serial Emmy nominations. Fuller House got renewed, though critics far and wide called the first season a joke. Bloodline, on the other hand, has gotten mostly positive reviews and netted one Emmy win for Netflix last year (a supporting actor nod for Ben Mendelsohn). For it to get canceled, we can guess, there truly must be nobody watching it. Except me.
(Netflix did not return a request for comment.)
Bloodline’s tiny Reddit community gives us another hint that that’s the case: the subreddit has 3,300 subscribers, many of whom post only to say that they aren’t watching the show anymore. For reference, the subreddit for Better Call Saul, another good show no one watches, has 111,000 subscribers. But it’s okay. I’m not here to mourn the loss. Apart from, you know, enjoying the TV show, my main reward for sticking with watching Bloodline has been getting to make jokes about sticking with watching Bloodline. Though I love it, the show’s cancellation doesn’t disappoint me — it relieves me. Honestly: good riddance to Bloodline, a Dexter spiritual successor that stars many of my favorite actors and regularly thrills me. It’s so lonely now, to watch a TV show that nobody else cares about.
In Superfandom, a 300-plus-page exploration of how fandom has evolved alongside the internet, Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron Glazer write, “The image of a secret fan acting alone with no outside influence or interaction is largely a myth… True solitary fandom rarely survives for long.” Mine might not even make it through Bloodline’s final season. I know, because this has happened to me before.
Taking it back to 2005 for a minute — the tail end of the era defined by Friends and ER, the last generation of shows that peaked with viewerships made up of double-digit percentages of the US population — the first “grown-up” drama I ever obsessed over was Grey’s Anatomy. It was a show that, as a middle school student, I should probably not have been allowed to watch. The only people I discussed it with were my parents, and, later, in high school, one co-worker at the mall food court. My friends did not watch it, and, at the time, I wasn’t really using the internet for anything beyond the Kim Possible browser game and gossiping in Facebook Messenger. In the fall of 2011, I moved out of my parent’s house, stopped working at the mall, and missed the season 8 premiere.
It almost doesn’t matter that Grey’s Anatomy went from objectively solid prime-time soap opera to a boring, tangled mess somewhere around that time. It wasn’t why I stopped watching. I stopped because it was too lonely. Instead, I turned my allegiance over to AMC’s Mad Men, a show that didn’t even air a single new episode in 2011, but was nevertheless opined about in the Arts section of my college paper almost daily, and referenced constantly by my extremely hip contemporary literature professor. I watched so much of it, trying to catch up before season 5, that I got more than one email from IT saying I’d exceeded my allotted campus internet usage for the month. (I was very cool in college!) Without really thinking about it, I gravitated to a show I thought would serve the same social function Grey’s Anatomy had, back when my social world had been primarily my nuclear family.
Once upon a time, a television show was a one-way conversation, a thing that came into your house at a certain hour and, if you were there, you watched it. And if someone was else was there, then that was who you watched it with. Somehow, that felt like enough, though I’m barely old enough to remember it.
In any case, appointment TV, beyond the Sunday night events that HBO has managed to make out of Game of Thrones, does not really exist anymore. You can always DVR or stream later. Bingeable Netflix series (aside from the mega-hit Stranger Things, unavoidable online and off for all of last summer) often feel like they exist in a space, completely separate from the rest of the world. The streaming-era practice of dropping a whole season at a time, with no schedule dictating when anyone watches each episode, means that even people who are fans of the same show aren’t necessarily synced up in a way that lets them discuss it. (Hulu has recently tried to fight that with weekly releases of The Handmaid’s Tale. I fell off after episode 3, and I’d love to see that viewership data.)
Grey’s Anatomy premiered just before TV culture fragmented endlessly and irreversibly, by way of premium cable, then streaming services, then Netflix’s behemoth syndication catalog, then Netflix’s daunting roster of original content… then Netflix competitors’ rosters of original content. All that happened alongside most of cable TV realizing that specificity and diversity could be profitable, that making many shows with smaller, fiercer fan bases could be as valuable (and much easier) than making one hit that appealed to everyone. More importantly, it was before the height of live-tweeting, Tumblr fandom, Reddit communities, weekly online recaps, and critical analysis that can be as fun and interesting in themselves as the TV shows they engage with. All of the extras that make a piece of entertainment feel like something more, something participatory. We expect those now.
Since 2012, Netflix has gone from a DVD-rental service with four pieces of fledgling original content to a production giant with well over 100. All of these changes pull at each other. From one side, the promise that the internet will always provide a fan community for anything you could possibly want to be a fan of, and on the other side, a content creator with an output that has grown over 3,000 percent in five years, splintering the zeitgeist further with each new well-made offering. And that’s just one company.
As a result, “Am I the only one watching this show?” has become its own genre of writing, defined by a tone of “Am I crazy? Does this show only exist in my mind?” and pleading, sales-pitch language. “Why is nobody watching Schitt’s Creek with me?”; “Why did audiences forget Better Call Saul so quickly?”; “Obsessed: Am I the only one watching this show?”; “The Americans is the best show on TV. So why isn’t anyone watching it?”; “Why is nobody watching ABC’s critically acclaimed drama Nashville?”; “You’re the Worst is the best TV show you’re not watching”; “HBO’s The Leftovers is the best TV show you’re not watching”; “Am I the only one still watching Empire?” It never stops.
It’s not always clear why a just-okay show like Stranger Things takes off in the popular imagination and an also-okay show like Bloodline doesn’t. But entire TV shows now function like viral videos — endless options and endless conversation about which of these options is worth the time means a little bit of buzz turns into a lot of buzz if it happens at the right moment — but if the timing’s off, it goes mum. It’s a much more fickle environment than the already distant-feeling era of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, when a show could assemble a reputation and audience slowly, brick-by-brick. You can easily bet wrong, like me, and find yourself here, counter-intuitively wishing your favorite show would disappear and give you some peace.
Watching something alone has never been more likely, and — now that we’ve come to expect community and discussion and blogs and backchannel for everything we care about — it’s never been lonelier. We’re social creatures. We want to share things with people! And in a TV environment with infinite options, we want to be affirmed that the choices we’ve made represent good taste.
When a TV show provides neither, it’s awfully hard to hang on.
August 16, 2017