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Why is the Netflix top 10 so unhinged – and what does that say about us? | Television

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When Netflix introduced their “top 10” list last year, it seemed like a straightforward development. The traditionally cagey streaming giant has recently begun offering more insights into what subscribers are watching, and in that context the list – which analyses data by country, is updated daily and mostly appears about halfway down the landing page – made sense.

That is, until we started seeing what we were actually watching.

The top 10 – in Australia at least – turned out to be a bizarre jumble of content, totally untethered from previous understandings of a “hit”. It regularly contains a shambolic scattering of glossy tentpoles, critical write-offs and total oddities.

In the 30 or so days leading up to this article, it housed expected wins (Bridgerton, The Queen’s Gambit) nestled among long-forgotten flops (1996’s Masterminds), C-listers starring in B-movies (The 2nd, led by Ryan Phillippe and Casper Van Dien) and critically panned nightmares (The Wrong Missy). What exactly is going on?

While the selection may seem random at first, it actually reveals a lot about the platform’s approach to content and the audience it serves. Netflix doesn’t make money from acclaimed hits or respected output; it succeeds by coaxing people to spend massive amounts of time on their site. This is done in two ways: by having enough content to accommodate any person, in any mood; and then by making sure they don’t close the tab.

The first approach explains much of the eclecticism of the regional top 10 list. Netflix’s power lies in milking everyone’s micro tastes through its infamous algorithm. This dance of AI, data science and machine learning explodes traditional hierarchies of what gets seen (or served). As Wired explained in 2017, it has helped to “find shows that [viewers] might not have initially chosen”. Rather than suggesting programs based on genres you’ve gravitated to before, the algorithm throws up recommendations informed by patterns in watched content that you might not have even been aware of.

That’s why films you haven’t thought about in decades appear arbitrarily in the national top 10 (2004’s White Chicks made a recent cameo). They’re coasting on a wave of viewers watching what a computer sees as a comparable smash starring a similar star. That pathway also elevates more specialty output that might not have survived the competitive juggernaut of mainstream film and TV releases. This trend is sometimes referred to as the “Netflix effect”. It’s how shows that flopped or vanished on other channels (like the bingeable thriller You, which originally fizzled on Lifetime) can reappear as breakouts.

With almost 12 millions Netflix subscribers in Australia (almost 47% of the population), unorthodox, hand-delivered recommendations can accumulate enough momentum to crack the top 10. While the audience was always there, a more traditional programming structure could have been hesitant to give them a chance to be known, let alone watched.

All that data Netflix collects tells it not only what to serve, but also what to make. Endless user insights lead to fine-crafted Netflix Originals, targeted at highly specific audiences whom it understands on a near-cellular level. For every prestige darling like Marriage Story there’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: a sexy teen reboot that manages to align cannibalism, devil worship and patricide with several high school theatre-inspired song and dance numbers.

Kiernan Shipka in the Netflix Original series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Kiernan Shipka in the Netflix Original series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Photograph: Netflix

If a perky protagonist balancing homework with her desire to rule hell feels like a chaotic combination of ideas, it’s because it wasn’t crafted for you. Sabrina exists for the frothing devotees of Riverdale, who like their girls next door to battle serial killers and organ-harvesting cult leaders. There just happen to be enough of them to push both shows into your eye line on the top 10 list.

Mountains of viewers, data and content combine to explain much of the weirdness of the top 10. But the ranking has another stand-out feature: a prevalence of bland, often derivative rating wins that appear to have few real world champions (looking at you Virgin River).

Kyle Chayka named this trend “ambient TV” in a piece for the New Yorker. Writing about Emily in Paris, a show that wasn’t good or visibly even liked but still dominated global Netflix top 10 lists, he wrote: “The purpose of Emily in Paris is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds – on which you’ll find Emily in Paris memes, including a whole genre of TikTok remakes.” He describes the show as “soothing, slow and relatively monotonous”, where “nothing bad ever happens to our heroine for long”, thus capturing a relatable glassy-eyed viewing experience that has welcomed a new genre of top shows that aren’t so much “bad” as just kind of boring.

It clarifies the presence of culturally quieter programs like The Alienist (that no one really talks or writes about but apparently does watch) but also familiar-looking hits like Bridgerton and The Crown. A decade ago, shows needed to keep you interested to sustain an audience in the week between episodes. In this new economy of time – and the careful art of not disrupting the flow of it – being snoozy can be as valuable as being watchable.

William Abadie and Lily Collins in Emily in Paris.
William Abadie and Lily Collins in Emily in Paris. Photograph: Carole Bethuel/AP

The top 10’s strangeness highlights new realities in how we watch and judge TV and movies. But it also reinforces old ones. Namely, how disconnected the media’s impression of “successful” or “good” content is from what people actually consume. That has always been true but becomes more apparent when we’re allowed to freely gorge exactly what we want.

Even before Netflix began making surreal content grafted directly from our frontal lobes, entertainment writing had begun to shift. Last century a critic’s job was to tell you if something was good or not. Now there’s too much content to attempt that. As a result, what’s written about isn’t what people are generally watching; it’s what people who like to read and write about media are relating to. As such, TV and movie criticism becomes narrower, even more about the individual – their relationships, experiences – and people like them.

Viewed like that, the top 10 isn’t so chaotic. Rather it provides a clear-eyed view of who we really are by showing what we really want. As it turns out, that’s random, often bad and kind of boring. But if you also binge-watched Emily in Paris while looking at your phone, you knew that already.

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