Only days after the release of an ill-conceived trailer for Netflix’s newest original series, Insatiable, a Change.org petition demanding the streaming service cancel the release quickly racked up tens of thousands of signatures. The controversial trailer stars Debby Ryan as “Fatty Patty,” whose gluttony-driven weight disappears over a summer spent with a jaw wired shut. Newly declared “hot,” Patty sets out to extract revenge on the after-school-special-esque mean girls that used to mock her.
As backlash to the trailer’s fundamentally insulting premise mounted, the show’s creators and stars begged the public to give Insatiable a chance. They insisted that the trailer did not represent the true messages of the series and that the public shouldn’t judge the show until they see it, a defense only possible by the media embargo Netflix maintained over the critics who had already seen the full series.
By the time that embargo was lifted, the Change.org petition had reached 200,000 signatures. Surprising few, many critics confirmed that, intentions aside, the show fulfills the trailer’s promises of fat-shaming cruelty—but the show came under fire for more than that. Writers pointed out the show’s homophobic jokes, flippant treatment of statutory rape and multiple poorly-timed storylines of women making false allegations of sexual assault for personal gain.
“The creator Lauren Gussis’s approach seems to have been to throw as many inflated, controversial plot points as possible against the wall to see what sticks. As far as I’m concerned, this is not satire, or at least not successful satire.” –Eleanor Stanford for The New York Times
“If only the worst thing about Netflix’s Insatiable were its lazy portrayals of fat people or its tone-deaf deployment of sexual assault and abuse as comedy or its embrace of racist tropes or its portrayals of people with Southern accents as dumb hicks or its white-hot conviction that same-sex attraction is either inherently hilarious or a teaching moment.” –Linda Holmes for NPR
Review after review slammed Insatiable not only for its cruelty and insensitivity, but for a general lack of quality. It wasn’t just poorly conceived, they said. It was poorly executed—a quality uncharacteristic of the generally respected Netflix Original brand.
“Throughout its 12-episode run, Insatiable crawls its way through a series of tired, stale gags, punching ever further downward, to finish with the most subdued of whimpers in its finale. Insatiable is not only cruel and fatphobic; it’s boring, too.” – Constance Grady for Vox
Nothing to Lose
Even while boasting record viewership, Netflix has long maintained a policy of not releasing show ratings—it doesn’t have to, with no commercial time to price. Six-figure petition notwithstanding, Netflix is under no real threat of a mass subscription cancellation over Insatiable. With no advertisers that could pull out and no network to answer to, Netflix faces virtually no financial consequence for offending viewers or spreading harmful messages.
As the service churns out hundreds of hours of original content across a wide range of genres and tastes, it uses a business model that anticipates viewers simply not caring about a great deal of programming. Not every show is for every customer—as long as you’ll keep paying the monthly bill to watch Orange Is the New Black, it doesn’t matter that you’re not interested in Anne With an E. Why should it matter, then, that so many hate Insatiable?
Series creator Lauren Gussis, for her part, insists that Netflix never expressed concern over the abysmal critical response. “I talked to Netflix every single day and they never brought it up,” she says of the furious backlash, calling the service “supportive” and “understanding” of her intentions. Gussis praised the process “artist driven,” while critics like Linda Holmes called Netflix’s willingness to let Gussis run free in content and execution evidence of the company’s lack of “quality control.”
It will be interesting to see if the train-wreck that is Insatiable will have an impact on the careers of those involved, but for now, the show’s creators have made it clear they have no interest in understanding or accounting for the backlash, insisting that the show’s offensiveness is either in the service of some ill-defined “satire” or is simply not there at all.
Insatiable is satire in the same way someone who screams profanities out a car window is a spoken-word poet. Satire requires a point of view; this has none. It generally requires some feel for humor, however dark; this has none. It requires a mastery of tone; this has none. It requires a sense that the actors are all part of the same project; this has none. –Linda Holmes for NPR
With little to lose financially, Netflix may feel it stands only to gain from such a provocative, headline-generating show. Few things drive reluctant viewers to a show like controversy, and the mere pull of curiosity may account for a great deal of Insatiable’s early watch hours. One critic admits:
“If Insatiable hadn’t sparked such a knee-jerk reaction, it’s unlikely that I would’ve spent the 550 minutes (give or take) required to sit through its 12-episode season, or give it the consideration creator Lauren Gussis (Dexter) begged of dissenters. Insatiable, very plausibly, could’ve died a quiet death. But it’s likely many people will watch, as I did, out of the morbid curiosity alone.” –Maria Sherman for The Muse at Jezebel
Netflix’s subscription model relies on a sense of indispensability. Its relevance in the increasingly crowded field of content creators requires new ways to draw the attention of viewers who’ve never had more options. If the furor over Insatiable has achieved one thing, it has given the show the relevance and name-recognition that can’t be achieved any other way.
Netflix Is Leaving Teens Behind
This cheap, “throw shocking material at the wall and see what sticks” approach may be surprising coming from a service trying so hard to find a place in the prestige television niche. Netflix’s highly-acclaimed dramas like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black certainly carry not-safe-for-cable material, but they’re also of unassailably high quality in writing, direction, and performance. The Netflix Original brand, based on hits for an adult audience, has come to stand for groundbreaking stories with challenging themes and increasingly diverse casts. They’re not all winners, but they’re all interesting, painstakingly made, and ostensibly progressive.
While Netflix’s headline attractions tend to be geared towards a mature audience, adults aren’t the only ones binge-watching. Hard data on Netflix viewer habits is notoriously difficult to obtain, but by all indications, teens have abandoned live TV for internet streaming, of which Netflix remains (for now) the queen. Considering the watch hours brought by the 13-to-25 demographic, Netflix produces surprisingly little content aimed specifically at teens… and what it does produce is strikingly regressive.
As fans prepare for the sixth season of Orange Is the New Black and the (dramatically rethought) finale of House of Cards, Netflix continues to churn out hit after hit aimed at an adult audience. Shows like Black Mirror, Dear White People, and The Crown span a wide range of genres while garnering praise for pushing narrative boundaries and respecting marginalized voices.
At the same time, the service has found success with several titles aimed at preteens, like the sweet Alexa and Katie and luxuriously creepy A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In between, however, the inventiveness and quality that define Netflix’s greatest hits are nowhere to be found. The precious few shows and movies marketed by the service specifically to teens retread tired plotlines, infusing predictable stories with mean-spirited, regressive messages that poorly serve a generation looking for much more.
The success of Netflix’s first major hit aimed at teens, 13 Reasons Why, was undercut by wide condemnation by mental health and adolescent development professionals. In The Guardian, Zoe Williams sums up the roots of the controversy:
“The series depicts suicide as a reasonable response to a set of challenges that anybody might experience, and lays it at the feet of other people. It’s wrong from so many angles that it’s almost as if it were devised as a training manual for how not to use suicide as a plot point.”
Netflix followed 13 Reasons Why with a widely-advertised original movie, To the Bone, about a teenager receiving treatment for anorexia. The film, whose star, eating disorder survivor Lily Collins, lost weight to more convincingly play a starving teen, received notably similar criticism from experts in eating disorder treatment.
While dramas featuring such heavy subject matter might be expected to wade into controversial territory, things don’t look much better for Netflix’s original teen comedies.
Netflix’s addition to the beloved Gilmore Girls drew all the usual disappointment at the inherent laziness of a reboot but was also panned in The Verge as “weirdly hostile toward fans, women, and storytelling in general” and slammed for dated, mean-spirited jokes and pointless fat-shaming by supposedly lovable characters.
This summer, Netflix’s teen fare hit a new low, even as it achieved unheard-of popularity.
With a reported 18 million views in the first week alone, The Kissing Booth was called “one of the most-watched movies in the country” by a Netflix executive. Multiple outlets rushed to analyze why a film so deeply panned by critics became so beloved by audiences, a division illustrated by the 56 percent spread between critic and audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Several critics chalked the movie’s success up to the lack of popular teen romantic comedies in recent years among streaming and theatrical releases alike. This wouldn’t be the first time young viewers embraced a hit despite a lack of critical acclaim.
But critics didn’t just pan the movie for its “objectively bad” writing. Following in the tradition of 13 Reasons Why and To the Bone, The Kissing Booth has faced a flood of accusations that it carries outdated stereotypes and harmful messages. The film, critics claim, “celebrates the male gaze” and makes a sex object of its 15-year-old protagonist. In Mashable, Alison Forman called the movie the “worst of the young adult genre:”
“Like 13 Reasons Why, The Kissing Booth dazzles fans by peppering its plot with hot button topics and then blowing right past them. In an hour and forty-five minutes, audience members are jerked through depictions of slut shaming, manipulative relationship tactics, fetishization of minors, allegations of domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault, dangerous underage drinking habits, and a really big helping of toxic masculinity.”
Ani Bundel sums up the complaints by stating that “the problem with this film — other than its stereotyping of masculinity and relationships — is that it has no ideas of its own.” It’s sexist, mean-spirited, but above all, unoriginal.
While several other original Netflix teen comedies, like the Love, Simon-esque Alex Strangelove and the Latinx-led On My Block, shoot for higher standards, none of them receive the kind of aggressive marketing or wide viewership of hits like The Kissing Booth and 13 Reasons Why. In response to the success of these audience hits, Netflix appears to have embraced this method of creating teen entertainment: churn out slick, sexy renderings of shocking material as quickly as possible, ignore the critics, and keep it coming.
While many are regarding Insatiable as Netflix’s worst original ever, it is not as much of an outlier as might appear. The shows thoughtlessly provocative style may be an effort to tap into the audiences that made 13 Reasons Why and The Kissing Booth such massive hits.
All the professional critics in the world can call the show harmful and poorly-made—teens don’t mind that sort of condemnation nearly as much as prestige-watching adults do. In fact, Netflix may be counting on teens to do the opposite. Teens are thought of as contrarian and transgression-seeking; letting a show be called offensive and taboo may be just the thing to drive young viewers to try it out.
I think there’s hope for teen Netflix yet. The trailers for upcoming films Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before suggest a more compassionate, respectful treatment of teenage characters. For now, though, Netflix seems to be sticking to its provocative, tone-deaf methodology for creating teen entertainment. Shows like Insatiable and 13 Reasons Why are criticism-proof: calling them harmful is dismissed as “missing the point” and calls to boycott only encourage curious viewers.
It isn’t as though teens don’t have anything better to watch on Netflix—many general-audience hits like Stranger Things, Dear White People, and Anne With an E have found great popularity with young people. Teens do want interesting, groundbreaking stories told with diverse casts and top-quality writing.
And Netflix certainly knows how to make great television starring teenage characters. Big Mouth took on puberty with raw humor and compassion. The hilarious and sharply intelligent American Vandal mined the modern American high school for insight into criminal justice and gender politics. Both shows, however, were written with an adult audience in mind, as evidenced by the liberal use of profanity and the focus on school-time satire meant to be appreciated in hindsight.
With a large portion of the $8 billion dollars Netflix plans to spend on acquiring content in 2018 going towards original shows and movies, the streaming giant has the means to tell challenging and inspiring stories—which it does tell for its adult audience. Teens, however, must choose between the sexist, mean-spirited garbage made just for them and jumping straight to House of Cards. Young people have more choice in their entertainment than ever before. Why should they settle for this?