Netflix has been batting a thousand recently. Since making their first steps into original programming, the streaming service has produced a seemingly constant river of shows that have never been less than interesting and frequently brilliant. They’ve even done this across multiple genres and formats; their documentary strands are flat out astounding, and Abstract and Mind of a Chef stand as two of the best documentaries being made in the West right now. Their comedies have taken in a range of styles and approaches with Grace and Frankie and Love standing out, in particular. Their TV remake/reboot of Dear White People is the single best written piece of TV you’ll see this year. Their dramas are, across the board, great: Bloodline, Marco Polo, 13 Reasons Why. All these shows have wildly different audiences, and all these shows take wildly different approaches. While some, 13 Reasons Why in particular, have caused controversy, there isn’t a single one that hasn’t had a rock solid artistic vision.
But now, Netflix have made the first legitimately massive mistake of their original streaming content era.
At the end of last week, Netflix announced that Sense8 would not be returning for a third season. Written and created by the Wachowski Sisters and J. Michael Straczynski, Sense8 is the story of eight people across the world who are suddenly linked together. They discover they are Homo Sensorium, an offshoot of humanity who are linked at the psychic level and share sensations, skills, and memories. Will is a Chicago police officer, Riley an Icelandic DJ, Lito a Mexican actor, Sun a Korean businesswoman and mixed martial artist, Kala an Indian Chemist, Wolfgang a German criminal, Cepheus a Kenyan bus driver, and Nomi a San Francisco-based hacker. Together they struggle to understand their new lives, help each other through their daily concerns, and face off against an organization that has been hunting and weaponizing Sensates for years.
Sense8 is extraordinary. It’s a show based entirely in the principles of compassion and inclusion, and it uses those guiding principles to continually subvert your expectations. Across two seasons the series has been both a love story and a conspiracy thriller, exploring the perils and joys of coming out, the idea of chosen family, the familial horrors too often faced by the LGBT community, the way class and health impact us all, and the ways we choose to refuse to be bowed by any of these challenges. In Nomi, the series has given genre TV one of its first and best trans heroines; in Lito, one of its most fundamentally sweet and nuanced explorations of coming out. Through Riley and Will, the show has explored the concept of long distance relationships in a way that has both been tremendously emotionally resonant and, for me, oddly reassuring. I’ve been down that road, and the way they deal with being together while apart plays very sweetly and very honestly.
Sense8 is a joy. It’s also a show that for its first two seasons filmed in eight countries and cut those scenes together with the sort of needlepoint precision continuity and direction no one has done before. That’s not hyperbole: this is a TV show that has done things visually, and textually, no one else has been brave enough to do.
The obvious defense of the cancellation springs from this: the show is expensive. However, a surface level reading of Season 2 seems to put the lie to that excuse. The season finishes with every Sensate (but for one) in the same place. There is a very clear collapsing down of plot lines even as the action escalates towards an end game. From a financial and logistical point of view, the show really does look like it was acknowledging cost concerns to ensure a third season would be cheaper without suffering in terms of quality. The fact that the third season was also purportedly planned as the last bears this out. This was a finite story, one coming in for a landing. One that now won’t get the chance.
There will be, and already are, fan campaigns protesting the cancellation. Fandom never truly lets anything die and Sense8 will live on in some form. It may even get that third season. But that won’t repair the damage: Netflix didn’t just cancel the show, they cancelled it on the first day of Pride Month 2017. Taking one of the most inclusive TV shows ever made off the board the same day Pride begins sends a very clear, and very unpleasant message, regardless of whether or not that was the intent. To be clear, this may have simply been bad timing. To be even clearer, to the vast majority of people, that will not matter.
This, then, is the first shoe dropping.
The second? Is Iron Fist.
Iron Fist’s first season was, being charitable, very uneven. Rushed into production with minimal fight training or prep time, it buried star Finn Jones under a colossally unlikeable main character, devoted a full 50% of the show to endless turgid corporate politics, and was so jaggedly paced you could safely skip up to the first four episodes before anything actually happened. There were highlights—Jessica Henwick, Tom Pelphrey, Jessica Stroup, and Sacha Dhawan held the thing together through sheer force of will—but even then the show was barely functional. For the first time, the endless Marvel/Netflix hit machine stumbled and stumbled very badly. And that’s all before you get to issues like the whitewashing of the character, Danny’s fondness for mansplaining martial arts to his professional martial arts instructor girlfriend, and the Lewis Tan controversy.
Over the last week, reports circulated that Finn Jones had said they were expecting a Season 2 renewal announcement very soon.
So, that’s the second shoe: the renewal of this particular show, in light of the cancellation of the other.
Before anyone breaks out the pitchforks and burning torches here, I know that Iron Fist was very well received by some. I wasn’t one of them, it’s obvious that the show has its fans and that’s awesome. We love what we love and as long as we do that with our eyes open, then we will always get the most from the vast ocean of entertainment we all swim in. So, if you liked Iron Fist? Right on.
But the interesting thing here is that liking either show is irrelevant. It’s that for the first time, Netflix, who have courted the geek community with tremendous success, have now decisively alienated a portion of them. And they’ve done so in such a way that they can’t walk it back.
If they cancel both Sense8 and Iron Fist they’re going to annoy a notable swathe of fans. Sense8 has been critically acclaimed and has been roundly praised for the inclusive approach I’ve already touched on. Iron Fist is a Marvel show and the first one of those to crash and burn was always going to make a lot of noise (many fans are still mourning Agent Carter, of course, which garnered excellent critical reviews and much love from fandom if not strong enough ratings for ABC to grant a third season). As successful as the Marvel juggernaut is, there’s always bound to be a fair amount of backlash or overload—witness the years-long schadenfreude surrounding Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or the barely contained glee some outlets seem to have at the thought of Inhumans tanking on launch.
So, two cancellations is very bad PR. What about one?
That’s even worse. Because of the intensive bad press and muted response that Iron Fist has received, a season pickup for that show and not Sense8 is going to leave a very nasty aftertaste. It will look (again, regardless of whether or not that’s the case) like Netflix is playing it safe. Given CEO Reed Hastings’ mystifying comments about “needing to take more risks” and having too many good shows, the decision will look even worse to fans than it would otherwise.
What about two renewals?
That’s the best of three bad options for them right now. Renewing Iron Fist, and actually giving it the time it clearly did not get to lay the fights out properly (and maybe readjust the conceptions of of some of the characters in the process) would go some way towards boosting the critical response to the show. Given how much of the marketing for Defenders has been “No wait, we’re fixing Danny!”, that approach would make a lot of sense.
But even renewing Sense8 now won’t heal the damage caused—not just because of the back-handed way the cancellation was announced, but because fandom communities are defined by traumas like this. Witness the first cancellation of Star Trek. Or, closer to home for me, the fact that people still talk about the “Darkness years” when Doctor Who was off the air, even though it celebrates ten years back on air this year this season. Fandom may not like its scars, but it always remembers them.
This is the unique position Netflix finds itself in, and it marks a significant change in their relationship with this audience. They cannot win, or at least cannot come out unscathed, from their current position, and it seems clear that they haven’t realized that yet. Whether they realize the effect that these decisions are having on their audience, and the way these actions are being perceived, before even more harm is done remains to be seen. Whether everyone will still be watching when or if the company does come around and address these concerns is just as uncertain. Fandom has a long memory—one that can sometimes turn toxic, and the only thing harder than getting an audience aboard is winning that audience back.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.