Each of the eight wildly differing episodes of Netflix’s new sketch comedy show The Characters begins the same way, with the camera gliding around a theater’s backstage area to find that half-hour’s writer and star prepping in his or her dressing room. Paul W. Downs’ standout episode, for instance, begins with an assistant popping in and telling him it’s five minute to showtime, to which he gently corrects, “No, this is for Netflix.” She steps out, he touches up his hair, and then leans down to snort the longest, most elaborate line of cocaine in TV history, stretching across several countertops, around corners, and through loop-de-loops like a narcotic Family Circus comic strip. Ready for the show, he looks into the mirror with manic eyes: “It’s Netflix!”
And indeed, it is Netflix. Downs’ endless coke line is a microcosm of a microcosm, an inspired, absurd, and slightly indulgent gag (it goes on forever, which gradually becomes the point) standing in for an inspired, absurd program defined by the quality of artistic indulgence. That, in turn, stands in for a winning business strategy organized around indulging artists. The Characters‘ central conceit — eight exciting young talents are granted a budget, 30 minutes, and total creative freedom — epitomizes Netflix’s refreshing approach to programming original content, and as comic genius emerges from the creators’ delirious imaginations, the show proves why that strategy works. While Saturday Night Live uncomfortably backpedals from its decision to allow a despot-in-the-making a hosting gig, some of the freshest, most challenging sketch comedy in years has been allowed to flourish under the auspices of Netflix.
It’s no coincidence that the full listed title of the program is Netflix Presents: The Characters, and that the trailer boldly declares “What if Netflix gave the next generation of comedians their own show?” Netflix, or at least the team whipping up the service’s ad copy, understands that its position on the show is that of facilitators more than owners, merely the conduit through which creators commune with their audience. In the simplest possible terms, the streaming giant’s winning strategy boils down to “give someone brilliant a lot of money and creative freedom, and trust that they’ll come through.”
Netflix has seemingly taken a laissez-faire approach to content development (for their flagship shows, at least; Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has snatched up such a staggering volume of material that assigning a brand identity to Netflix’s vast corpus offerings is tricky.) The services has pinned its hopes for success on finding distinct creative voices and allowing those voices to express their ideas. Master of None was a transparently autobiographical account of creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s lives, the transfixing Sense8 couldn’t have possibly come from anyone but the Wachowski sisters, and Orange Is the New Black has afforded Jenji Kohan a much bigger playpen than she had ever gotten from Showtime during her Weeds days. The press releases announcing future projects from Netflix seldom get into details of plot or character, usually offering little more than “[X writer/director/comedian/actor] will make a show!” Even the most heavily third party-branded shows, (e.g. Marvel Presents: Marvel’s Jessica Jones Brought to You By Your Friends at Marvel) has a unique voice, themes, and the rest of the stuff that comes when a show is made by a person and not automated by a carefully calibrated corporate capital-generation algorithm.
Netflix’s hands-off approach yields some heartening results on The Characters. Each episode plays like a pure extension of its author’s individual sensibility as a comedian and, in some instances, a visual stylist. John Early’s episode, the best of the bunch, flits in and out of fantasy sequences — a dull date melts into a dream of basketball excellence, the episode concludes with an impromptu flawless lip-sync of the Jones Girls’ R&B ballad “Who Can I Run To?” — with the fluid camerawork and striking light schemes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Hot Knife” video. But beyond the occasional display of visual panache, these episodes deliver unadulterated access to the inner workings of eight thrilling minds. Giving an unproven writer (Downs is a regular on Broad City, Lauren Lapkus had a choice role on Orange Is the New Black, but pretty much everyone’s on the come-up) free reign to craft 30 minutes represents a huge vote of confidence on Netflix’s part, and in an uplifting demonstration of the entertainment economy working as it should, the talent delivers the goods.
The Characters contains some excellent sketch and improv work, most of it too strange, risky, or dark for the realm of network TV. God only knows that the owners of Dave and Buster’s did to Lauren Lapkus, but her episode includes an increasingly venomous commercial parody for “Dick and Boner’s” that gains in vitriol until it ends with her exhorting patrons to commit suicide. It’s not exactly uproarious until it becomes clear that Lapkus’ unfounded white-hot hatred for Dave and Buster’s is the real joke, as she hisses that it’s a great place to run down the clock until the hour of death is at hand. Kate Berlant’s half-hour, another standout, spends most of its time with a laughably pretentious performance artist character satirizing self-serious artistes like Marina Abramovic; it’s niche material clearly honed in the basement clubs and open-mic nights of art-obsessed New York, the farthest possible thing from mass-appeal comedy. But Netflix is willing to give her a platform regardless, and thankfully they did, because otherwise the world would be deprived her pitch-perfect parody of #relatable #awkward YouTube stars and the stupidly brilliant game of “That’s Not a Thing.”
Even when the series doesn’t work, the tangible sense of personal authorship creates far more interesting and idiosyncratic failures than can be found elsewhere. The weaker episodes of The Characters suffer from miscalculated or misdirected passions rather than garden-variety badness, and accordingly amount to sketches that are at least fascinating when not especially funny. Phil Burgers’ Dr. Brown character sets up the last episode as one unbroken shot alternating through three stories of connection in an alienating urban void, and though the formal gimmickry — there’s no need for the long-take, and in fact, it would’ve been a stronger half-hour with a few choice cuts — doesn’t enhance the episode in any significant way and the episode is perilously light on humor, it’s still weirdly transfixing. Henry Zebrowski’s half-hour takes a few big whiffs, with some fleeting brownface (c’mon, man, we’ve all moved past this!) and a running gag that involves an enchanted squid performing fellatio on him. But hey, say what you will about the man with the squid affixed to his genitals, he’s not boring. Failures of personal investment will always prove more entertaining than failures of half-assery.
It’s not too hyperbolic to compare Netflix’s current hot streak to HBO’s early 2000s heyday, when entrusting Davids Simon, Milch, and Chase with absolute authority over their programs produced The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. Both companies found success by gambling on talent and reaping the reward of their labors of love. And all of this isn’t to say that great television can’t, or hasn’t, come from a highly collaborative process with a healthy dose of studio oversight. (The Simpsons, that unimpeachable pillar of TV comedy, is far more than Matt Groening’s baby.) But exciting things are happening at Netflix, and while we still have no idea whether or not these acquisitions have actually been good for the streaming platform’s bottom line because Sarandos refuses to release subscription or streaming figures, Netflix has successfully asserted itself as the most vital, cutting-edge home for challenging entertainment and creators looking for someone who “gets” them. As they gained traction, HBO proudly trumpeted themselves with the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” the implication being that they had created something new, something cool, and something innovative. It was true at the time, but now that mantle has shifted to the realm of online distribution. It’s quite literally not TV, and it’s not HBO, and it’s not Showtime: It’s Netflix!