How ‘Netflix Bloat’ Is Changing Storytelling, and It’s Not All Good


Many popular television shows have been suffering from something termed “Netflix Bloat,” where the show drags, midseason. It’s frustrating to watch, but in the changing landscape of cinematic storytelling, what really works? Netflix is here to help.

Recent Netflix shows have been limping along, plot-wise. At least some of them. And so the term “Netflix Bloat” was coined to describe a phenomenon where a show contains too many episodes with not enough story to fill them.

Prominent offenders include Jessica Jones, The Crown, Lost, Ozark, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life and Season 2 of Stranger Things.

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The criticism is this: many shows lose their momentum mid-season and begin to sag. Some blame binge-watching. Because creators know that the average viewer watches three episodes at a time, there’s less pressure to pack all the action into one episode. As a Vulture article noted, “Without an external force pushing these series to keep only the very best, most interesting, most vital pieces of a story, what could be great inevitably falls into the well of “pretty good.”

Others attribute Netflix Bloat to the fact that directors and writers have shifted the way they think about seasons of a show. According to Rolling Stone, streaming drama creators think in terms of “creating a 10-hour movie” when they plan a season. This, inevitably, leads to some drag in the middle.

LightWorkers Netflix

Image courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc., Used By Permission.

All of which goes to show that cinematic storytelling is changing, and changing rapidly. Online video streaming has only been around for about twelve years, since Amazon, Netflix and Hulu launched their on-demand services in 2006, 2007 and 2008 respectively. Without the commercials and time constraints of cable television, show producers have an unprecedented opportunity to play with the traditional boundaries of the television genre.

These are uncharted waters for the storytelling industry. So, naturally, there’s going to be some growing pains as organizations like Netflix try to figure out what works now. No one has done this before, and even the Duffer Brothers can’t get it perfect every time.

Because creators know that the average viewer watches three episodes at a time, there’s less pressure to pack all the action into one episode.

Mistakes are inherent to creativity, right? Without them, we never learn or evolve. Just because shows can be “bloated” now doesn’t mean they will always be, and in the meantime, the creative process going on in the heads of a thousand directors, writers, producers and artists is infinitely valuable. What will the shows that come out in 2019 be like? I don’t know at all, but I am confident that we’ll see some improvement in this area. After all, there are billions of consumer dollars on the line.

And even though the term “Netflix Bloat” makes it sounds like the streaming service’s fault, Netflix has a hands-off policy towards its collaborators that might actually be the solution.

According to Netflix VP of original programming Cindy Holland, Netflix tries to be supportive of its creators and accommodate their creative vision. When asked about shifting modes of storytelling, Holland said, “We’re in early innings of what creators can do. Not just with the number of episodes but episode length and varying episode length.”

Here’s an example: when Barry Sonnenfeld, Director of A Series of Unfortunate Events, thought it would work best to have only three seasons of the show, Holland said yes immediately. “If that’s what it is, that’s what it is,” Holland told him, “We only want the story as you think it should be told.” This generous approach from Netflix allows creators to experiment with the shifting frontier of television. It means they can focus on what works in the story instead of worrying about getting canceled for crossing a line like they have to on network television.

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(Judd Apatow said of network television, “It’s creativity with a gun to your head. They can cancel you at any moment.”)

We should be allowed to criticize Netflix for sagging storylines and paltry plots, but we should also applaud the company for its commitment to creative freedom. Whatever television shows look like in the upcoming years, Netflix will have been a crucial element in allowing them room to grow.

Let’s keep watching.