You know what they say: if you can’t beat ’em, throw up your hands at their inexplicable popularity and turn ’em into your personal rhetorical punching bag.
Or at least that’s been the case with Fuller House, a revival so pointless, cynical, and predictably awful that many critics, including ours, have opted to make their precious viewing hours somewhat worthwhile by taking off the gloves and going all in. The show is “a porn parody without the porn.” It’s “painstakingly re-creating and celebrating a program that was, in its heyday, a compilation of some of pre-millennial TV’s loudest and most contrived tendencies.” It’s “a dopey sitcom, but you can watch it with your entire family without offending anything but your intelligence.” It is, in short, god-awful.
It’s also a far cry from how Netflix originally introduced itself as a home for semi-original programming. Way back in 2013, the service kicked off the current reboot craze with a fourth season of Arrested Development, the short-lived, oddball, single-cam sitcom that was as far from laugh-tracked, eight-season Full House as it was possible to get. The message was clear: we’re everything the network suits who cancelled Arrested in the first place aren’t. Where they could care less about innovation or quality, we value it. Where the network system failed creators, we can help them succeed.
That message carried over to Netflix’s first slate of bona fide originals. In fact, it mainly applied to them — the resurrection of Arrested was arguably an effective, efficient way to broadcast it in the most attention-getting way possible. Netflix was here to serve the same adventurous, highbrow audience as Showtime and HBO, largely because those audiences also tended to have the desire and disposable income to pay for viewing privileges. So it gave them what they wanted: a political soap opera with the star power of Kevin Spacey and the blessing of David Fincher; a women’s prison dramedy with the most radically diverse cast on TV; a dizzyingly ambitious sci-fi epic from two of Hollywood’s most divisive filmmakers.
Oh, and also a probing look at the spiritual destruction wrought by fame. More specifically, cheesy, late ’80s/early ’90s, family sitcom fame. Sound familiar?
The parallels between Full House and BoJack Horseman‘s show-within-a-show are blindingly obvious. Back in the ’90s, as BoJack‘s Grouplove-penned theme song goes, the title character starred as the adoptive, equine guardian of three human children. As an Uncle Jesse type, BoJack learned to yell his punchlines and let the child actors do the charismatic heavy lifting, with every episode — including the Christmas special, available in full on Netflix — capped off with a saccharine monologue on the virtues of family.
But while the onscreen similarities between Horsin’ Around and Full House can be read as winking parody, the offscreen ones have a more sinister cast. As a future director notes, BoJack has essentially been frozen in time since he became famous, leaving him incapable of dealing with the responsibilities or even altered circumstances of middle age. Even though that’s not necessarily true of Full House‘s male leads today, it does make for a searing indictment of the wholesome values they, and BoJack, preach at the end of every episode as laughably out of sync with the less rosy, much more existentially empty world BoJack lives in off the studio lot.
And then there are the child stars. On BoJack, resident cute person Sarah Lynn grows up to become an out-of-control addict, the consummate child star unable to cope with fame and wealth they weren’t prepared for; her sitcom sibling Joelle Clarke decamps for England, where she picks up an accent she clearly didn’t earn. It’s impossible to read this profile of Full House star Jodie Sweetin and her ascent from rock bottom without thinking of Sarah. In a development that’s more eerily prescient, Sweetin’s character on the show kicks off the season with her own fake British accent.
It’s a paradox that’s almost too perfect, and too baffling, to be believed. Somehow, Netflix’s roster includes both the ultimate deconstruction of the ’90s sitcom… and the very ’90s sitcom the first show is carefully deconstructing.
The existence of BoJack Horseman and Fuller House on the same service is a hilarious contradiction. But it’s also a contradiction that necessitates the question of how this happened. Why is an entertainment company that initially branded itself as a home for smart, incisive television airing the most critically reviled series of the year? Why is Netflix reviving the quintessential product of the very traditional networks it once positioned itself against? The answer speaks to exactly what makes Netflix so unprecedented — and says everything about the long-term strategy of a, if not the, major industry player.
In an interview with Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall published last month, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos responded to the suggestion that “there is no one concrete Netflix” brand with a neat summary of his programming ethos, or in some ways, lack thereof:
Our brand is personalization…What I really said at the beginning (was) we didn’t want any show to define Netflix. And we didn’t want Netflix to define any one of our shows. So it really is about what people’s tastes are and if you love The Ranch (a multi-cam family sitcom starring Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Sam Elliott, and Debra Winger), you may not like The Get Down (a drama about the early days of hip-hop, from Baz Luhrmann and Shawn Ryan), and vice versa. They really are geared to different audiences, but it’s having the artistic license to make shows in all these different arenas that’s really amazing. But I think if you really silo what you’re interested in, like “We only want shows for men 18 to 49,” then you’re going to get a mixed bag of shows for men 18 to 49. You say, “No, I want the best shows from everyone in the world for everyone in the world.”
There you have it: there’s room for both BoJack Horseman and Fuller House — or Master of None and Marco Polo, or Beasts of No Nation and The Ridiculous Six — because Netflix wants the audiences of both a traditional sitcom and a self-aware takedown of the traditional sitcom. Most importantly, with a 2016 content budget about three times that of HBO, it has the resources to do so.
This isn’t something that’s been attempted in earnest before. FX, HBO, and the like continue to thrive by placing themselves in opposition to broadcast, and while broadcast has made forays into the realm of prestige TV with the likes of American Crime, they’re mostly concerned with the wider appeals for ratings necessitated by an advertiser- (rather than subscriber-) based model. Netflix is making the first-ever play to do both, with results that are deliberately scattered, and in this case, accidentally poignant.
Simply put, Netflix isn’t aiming to live up to the themes of BoJack Horseman — it wants to capture the loyalty of the particular audience (young, educated, and rich) with which those themes tend to resonate. A truism? Sure; a massive entertainment company isn’t going to get behind the idea that Hollywood is a recipe for a broken spirit anytime soon. But it’s a truism brought into unexpectedly sharp relief by Netflix’s apparent knowledge that it’s already locked down the BoJack audience, and continues to keep it happy. Now it’s free to move on to a different demographic — one that wants exactly what another vocally rejects.