What Netflix can learn from The Crown
It is starting to feel a lot like the end of the golden era of Netflix’s original content. Whilst a lot of it is still quality work the sheen is starting to dull and the cracks are revealing themselves. Or to avoid terrible mixed metaphors: A lot of new Netflix content has terrible structure.
The main two recent culprits that come to mind are Stranger Things and Luke Cage. Although the other Marvel Netflix series also have poor structure. Daredevil and Jessica Jones have quite a few episodes of filler towards the end of their respective seasons. Luke Cage has essentially six episodes worth of plot stretched across thirteen episodes. Don’t get me wrong, I like these shows, but they have terrible pacing and plotting issues.
Over on Birth.Movies.Death. Film Crit Hulk has done an excellent piece on this topic, specifically dealing with Stranger Things and Luke Cage and I’d recommend you read that. In summary he points out that good arc heavy TV finds stories within stories. As in to say that whilst arc heavy TV is often just one story played out over more episodes, good shows will find ways to tell individual tales within that. My personal recommendations for this are things like The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Justified and Mad Men.
It also worth noting that Daredevil, the show that largely created the house style for Marvel Netflix shows, is primarily created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel writers. The former of which is often credited with creating modern TV for its use of heavy arcs whilst balancing them with monster-of-the-week stories that kept the character arcs turning over in the mean time. Angel started as a show about three people working in an office, fighting demons, with a pseudo-noir tone. It had quite a few of the skilled aspects of plotting that came with being a spin-off of Buffy too. So it’s odd that Daredevil decides to go without cases-of-the-week when the plots and tone of Daredevil and Angel are very similar. In fact all these Netflix Marvel shows could benefit from cases-of-the-week rather than filler episodes (or ‘plot blocking as Hulk puts it). This is something even Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD’s first and third (bad) seasons understood how to do.
There is a recent mindset that it is more ‘mature’ to have arc heavy plots with no cases-of-the-week. There is also a mindset that said weekly cases are filler and plot blocking themselves. I disagree. As long as you keep the character arcs ticking over it’s fine. It’s also bizarre to have engage this mindset with genre work that’s about fighting monsters and criminals and going on adventures and so on. Star Trek would be shit if Captain Kirk spent 20 episodes on one planet. Buffy wouldn’t really be a vampire slayer if she only killed one every season. You get my point. It’s stupid to consider arc heavy plotting more ‘mature’ just because it is more like novels. The thing about novels is that they have chapters and paragraph breaks. This helps pacing, it allows the reader to catch their breath and it allows plot and character beats to occur in moments that feels natural. You don’t get novels that are just page after page of solid text without breaks. This is what Luke Cage feels like.
Luke Cage is essentially a 13 hour film with episode breaks dropped in randomly whenever the show is at an hour or a 50 minute mark. I recall one episode ending with a cliff-hanger of the eponymous Luke Cage being shot and in the next episode he struggles away from the scene of the shooting, then fifteen minutes later he gets shot again. This is clearly a case of them having him shot as part of the natural progression of the plot, but it didn’t happen anywhere near a cut off point for a TV episode’s run time so they did it twice for a cheap cliff-hanger to give the illusion of a ‘complete’ episode. That’s bullshit.
This all brings me to Netflix’s The Crown. It is created and written by Peter Morgan, the writer of The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland and various other biopics of great pedigree. He does my favourite style of biopic writing: picking a single set of incidents from a period of a person’s life rather than adapt their whole life and taking a neutral stance about the figure that casts no positive or negative judgements directly. He brings his A-game to The Crown.
The story concerns the sudden surge of power and responsibility Elizabeth II receives in her 20s after her father suddenly dies. She must deal with political animal’s (from within her own staff and the government) manipulation of her from every quarter and balance her reputation with the people and a blood-thirsty media. On top of this are the various political machinations within her own family. It also looks great and is cast very well. They clearly know how to balance a budget too.
What it also has is ten episodes that are arc heavy, but with very individual stories within each. Often these episodes main plots concern a dramatic event that happens to the royal family (a death often), or a crisis happening in the country overall or a conflict between the Queen and the cabinet. All the while the relationships of the characters progress and change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. These changes inform character actions and their choices and so on.
The Crown works so well because Peter Morgan knows when a personal conflict is a B-story that can tick over in the background and when a personal conflict can be an A-story that has an episode dedicated to it. The same goes for balancing the plots of B-characters, so to speak. He knows how to set up the dominos and when to start knocking them over. This is very different to many other Netflix shows where characters will have manufactured and petty arguments clearly designed to drive them apart so the plot can be delayed for an episode or three.
The writers at Netflix studios need to take a look at The Crown. They need to learn from their sister show. Every episode of it feels like a complete story. There is a sense of grandiosity to every outing. It always feels big and every episode feels significant, but whilst managing to be its own thing. I know I haven’t mentioned that Netflix’s structural choices often come from binge-watching, but to lack definitive episode end points, because people will keep watching, is no excuse. When you want to read the next chapter of a book it isn’t just because you’ll find out what happens next. It is because you’ll a whole new and complete part of the story: something that was made separate because it deserved to stand on itself at the same time as being part of something greater.