The numbing rise of IPTV
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – or, in fact, don’t. You heard it; having heard it is the point. It was this story that made headlines a few years ago, first as a magazine article and then as a podcast, or maybe it was the other way around. Now it’s a TV show, a docuseries – no, a scripted series – no, a docuseries meant to become the basis of a scripted show. Eventually, it will be the job of someone, somewhere, to write the TV recaps. Comedian Jordan Firstman addressed this incessant turnover in a recent video. Playing “an executive in a streaming service”, he describes how he found “this incredible story”, which is already the subject of a “tremendously successful podcast”. His eyes widen as he imagines how events that happened in a single day could spawn two TV shows and even more podcasts. “So if we found one story a day,” Firstman says, “we can have eight hundred and seventy years of content every year.”
The exaggeration here is only slight. Today’s entertainment market is defined by its belief in the unlimited potential of pre-existing intellectual property. There are sprawling franchises (Marvel, “Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter”) that cater to legions of already dedicated fans. There are reboots, dark and gritty or comedic and flashy, of properties that barely had time to sink into nostalgia. (“Gossip Girl” already, “Scrubs” soon.) There are sequels; there are spillovers; there are live stories; there are brand extensions that border on the mystifying abstract. Greta Gerwig is set to direct a Barbie movie whose IMDb summary said, for a time, “Barbie lives in Barbie Land and then a story happens.” This fall, the creator of DeuxMoi, an Instagram account devoted to the least scandalous gossip in the world, will publish a novel about running an Instagram gossip account, which HBO Max has already picked up.
A recent series of streaming series based on a true story have hit the screens after running through various combinations of print, documentaries and podcasts. Among them are “Joe vs. Carole,” a Peacock series from a Wondery podcast about the same larger-than-life characters captured in Netflix’s hit “Tiger King,” which also featured in two previous magazine articles; “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series about socialite hustler Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey), based on a New York magazine story that the chronicle of events which also generated a vanity lounge a personal essay and a successful memoir; and “The Dropout,” a Hulu series about the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, from an ABC News podcast that relied on the same material as an HBO documentary and the most sold “Bad blood.” Compared to, say, “Star Wars,” these ripped-from-the-headline behemoths are franchises on only a modest scale. Yet it is the very narrowness of these cases that makes them striking. It’s not about reinventing a beloved character or expanding a so-called cinematic universe. This is a specific story, told and retold, for an audience presumed to have a toddler’s desire to hear the same story again and again. write in The disconcerting, in January 2020, journalist James Pogue worried about the effects of Hollywood’s ravenous era of intellectual property on magazine journalism. A declining publishing field with shrinking budgets had made the prospect of selling an option on a story one of journalism’s few paths to financial stability. With such powerful incentives, Pogue feared that analytical rigor, literary merit, and political accountability were being lost in the endless quest for swashbuckling. But what about the culture emerging from the other end of the IP pipeline?
Two years later, saturated with streaming, one result would seem to be a lot of fantasy true crime. Crime is, after all, a reliable source of conflict and suspense necessary for a studio executive to consider a nonfiction tale on screen. But these adaptations are not lifelong procedures or reconstructions. They have movie stars; they have witty musical cues; they have exceptional wigs. They have the attributes of TV prestige, though seldom ambition and, indeed, it’s hard to see how they could. The thrill of television’s golden age in the days of “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” came, at least in part, from getting something you didn’t expect. IPTV’s mandate, on the other hand, is to get exactly what you expect, because you already have it. “Law and Order” has been in the headlines since time immemorial; but there is now an audience and a critical ecosystem willing to approach these productions with an eye for themes, relevance and other markers of quality. IP TV can deliver those markers – it’ll scramble a timeline, cast a beloved character actor, offer a potted dissertation on the nature of “truth” – but ultimately it will leave audiences with little impression on the beyond “Wow, pretty crazy”. (It’s crazy because it’s true.)
A dead woman – the ultimate true-crime fodder – is at the heart of HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” a scripted series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette that is based on an award-winning documentary and airs its finale on June 9. . The murder case in question has become a staple of true-crime podcasts, already so well-known that its fan theories inspire merch. Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the first installments of the documentary series “The Staircase” appeared in 2004, following the 2003 trial of North Carolina author and columnist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife. and whose case unfolded in a series of surprising twists. The documentary offers an examination of the American justice system, but it’s also a portrait, and Peterson is a man with the self-esteem and self-pity to let a film crew in on his criminal defense. His on-screen allure makes this difficult combination palpable – as much as the increasingly wacky murder mystery is what gives the documentary its appeal. Colin Firth’s Peterson is respectable but slightly redundant. Why bother playing someone who has already played himself so well?
At the most basic level, a good character for a journalist or documentary filmmaker is someone who is willing to talk. Joe Exotic was an eccentric, homegrown news star who tirelessly mythologized himself when he caught the attention of the filmmakers behind “Tiger King.” His eagerness to talk and theirs to listen created a vortex of exhibitionism and voyeurism that sucked in millions of viewers in the first weeks of the pandemic. But, as a subject moves from fact to light fictionalization, the value of a willing source changes. Elizabeth Holmes did not appear on “The Dropout,” the 2019 ABC News podcast that chronicled her downfall. And so, while this project provided the corporate forensics of Theranos, the woman at the center of its reporting – present only through deposition tapes and previous interviews – remained mostly a void. This provided a useful opening for the filmmakers of a Hulu scripted adaptation, also called “The Dropout.” Amanda Seyfried, as Holmes, ventures into an imaginary inner life, inaccessible to any journalist, to make sense of the Theranos CEO’s strangely fascinating affect. Holmes’ famous baritone Muppet becomes a facet of his laborious social awkwardness. “It’s an inspiring step forward,” Seyfried’s Holmes repeats miserably, alone, after suffering a professional setback.
In contrast to this deft take on character and medium, there’s “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series adapted from an article by New York magazine. (In the interests of disclosure, I was working at New York when it aired.) This story, like the original “Dropout” podcast, contained relatively little of its central character – in this case, would-be socialite Anna Sorokin. It succeeded as a portrait by capturing Sorokin in glimpses, while also mapping the slice of society she deceived. One of the ideas in the play was that Sorokin herself was in many ways unremarkable – not particularly beautiful, not particularly charismatic, not particularly pleasant to be around. Perversely, for a scammer, these qualities seem to have worked in her favor. Seen from the right angle, and to the most informed people, she looked like someone too rich to care. But without charm and pretentiousness won’t be enough on TV: there, Sorokin becomes a brash anti-heroine who looks like a beautiful TV star, because she is played by Julia Garner, a beautiful TV star. Instead of expanding on the mysteries left behind by its sources, the series excludes them.
Among all these stories, it is worth noting the preponderance of subjects eager to sell a version of themselves. Joe Exotic was filming local reality shows before Netflix hit. Michael Peterson ran an underdog campaign for mayor of Durham. Elizabeth Holmes made her company’s face, perhaps most memorable in Theranos commercials filmed by Errol Morris. Anna Sorokin has cultivated an Instagram presence worthy of the kind of personality who might name her company (“the Anna Delvey Foundation”) after herself. All of these efforts partly explain how they ended up like fodder for journalists and documentarians in the first place: they were literally clamoring for attention. And, while shows like these — as well as productions like 2019’s Fyre Festival dueling documentaries, or 2020’s avalanche of NXIVM sex-trafficking cult documentaries — have sometimes been classified as stories scams, they can also be understood as stories of the art of selling. Perhaps there is a general thirst for stories of self-branding and myth-making self-promotion (due to the much-lamented performance facade that social media elicits, due to the ‘ongoing obligation to sell in a gig economy, etc.), but I suspect that this particular drama wields a stronger grip on media and entertainment professionals than anyone else. It’s not necessarily a dull story, but it does feel overrepresented. There’s something sadly recursive about watching these stories sell and sell and resell.