There’s a memorable story in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, a great history of the 1990s indie-film boom, in which an upstart production company, eager to establish its bona fides, promises an absurd amount of money and unheard-of creative control to an in-demand filmmaker with a suddenly hot property to sell. The year is 1989, the company is Miramax, the filmmaker is a then-26-year-old Steven Soderbergh, the property is sex, lies & videotape, and the result was a renaissance. In the ’90s, startling, innovative, and personal films—by directors like Quentin Tarantino, Hal Hartley, Allison Anders, and Whit Stillman—flourished, buoyed by a new marketplace, and a hungry audience, that happily rewarded daring and creativity.
Twenty-five years after sex, lies & videotape, it’s hard not to think of a similar scenario that played out much more recently but on a very different screen: Netflix buying the rights to the show House of Cards. Netflix won that series essentially by offering two seasons, up front, guaranteed—a bid that was both fundamentally insane yet absolutely necessary for the company to establish itself as a legitimate competitor to HBO, Showtime, AMC, and so on. Four Emmy wins and one Golden Globe later, Netflix is no longer looking like the late entrant to the cable-drama sweepstakes but the early adopter among Internet content companies, many of which are now angling to become producers of original programming. Earlier this year, Yahoo commissioned two TV-style original comedies; Vimeo has acquired the critically acclaimed web series High Maintenance; and Amazon, having already unleashed the exceptional comedy Transparent, launched an additional five new pilots—including, tellingly, The Cosmopolitans, from ’90s indie auteur Whit Stillman.
All of which is to say: The same swashbuckling energy that gave rise to the indie-film movement has migrated to TV programming online. By this analogy, Netflix is Miramax, Amazon is Fox Searchlight, and your laptop is the Sundance Festival—a clearinghouse for potential breakouts waiting to be discovered. No, Netflix, Amazon, and (Lord knows) Yahoo don’t know exactly what they’re doing yet—but that’s kind of the point. They have money, and they’re throwing it around basically to see what will stick, which is exactly the kind of environment that leads to a whole lot of misfires and a few genuine revelations.
Companies like Netflix and Amazon have one crucial advantage: They have a well-built technical infrastructure but little programming experience, while companies like HBO have excellent programming expertise but are playing catch-up on the technical end. One executive described the current climate to me as a horse race in which everyone’s competing but no one knows exactly where the finish line is. So every once in a while, someone just whips the horses to get the pack moving. Netflix’s decision to get into original programming, or HBO’s ongoing flirtation with a stand-alone HBO Go, is just that—whipping the horses. The result of all this horse-whipping is a series like Orange Is the New Black on Netflix—with its fresh, off-kilter voice and the most radically diverse cast on TV, a show that would be tough to picture on Showtime, let alone ABC.
It’s hard to say whether Amazon’s notion to finance original TV shows in order to promote Amazon Prime—effectively to nudge you to subscribe to free two-day shipping—is a good long-term business plan. But then, many of the most exciting new shows are web series that have no business plan at all. And it’s a great short-term opportunity for some weird, and occasionally awesome, new TV. The pilot episode of Transparent on Amazon, which stars Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender dad, was written and directed by Jill Soloway, and watching it, you think this is exactly the kind of personal vision that Miramax used to finance, before Miramax got bought up by Disney.
Since the ’90s heyday, nearly all of the indie shingles at major studios have been shuttered or reabsorbed into their parent companies. Even the Golden Age of TV, as personified by auteur-showrunners like Matthew Weiner and David Chase, has become stultified in its programming choices: “Prestige” cable series now honor the rules of their format as faithfully as the most formulaic prime-time procedurals. Halt and Catch Fire is Mad Men set in the 1980s computer industry; The Knick plays like Downton Abbey, M.D. For all its success, Game of Thrones is hardly the TV equivalent of Pulp Fiction; it’s more like the TV equivalent of Ben Hur or Lord of the Rings.
Which leaves room, ideally, for a TV equivalent of Pulp Fiction—something so audacious and daring that it will tilt the whole TV industry off its axis. And the new reality is, if there’s going to be a Pulp Fiction for TV, you probably aren’t going to see it first on TV. But definitely keep your laptop handy.