Note from Marvelous Geeks’ Team: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the [series/movie/etc] being covered here wouldn’t exist. We stand with and for them.
You’ve probably heard about Prime Video’s Citadel, but judging by the numbers, there’s a good chance you haven’t watched it. Reportedly costing over $250 million, promoted by a huge marketing blitz, and designed to launch a sprawling universe of interconnected, international shows, the spy thriller took five weeks to barely crack the Nielsen streaming top 10. As at other streamers, there was hand-wringing over a lack of brand identity; despite investments in pricey, under-delivering shows, Prime Video still believed it couldn’t find the breakout hit around which it could build its sense of the “kind” of shows they make.
But the streamer has, in fact, already had two shows that are critical and commercial hits and produced noticeable pop culture impact: Fleabag and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The problem is these shows aren’t based on algorithm-friendly “four corners” concepts; instead, they center on women’s stories, memorable characters, and smart writing. And apparently, that’s not good enough for brand identity — a problem that goes well beyond one company.
Though not as existential as other concerns, the dismissing of female audiences and fan culture, in general, is certainly a big part of the issues plaguing TV today. Yet I’m old enough to remember when ABC was the buzziest network on TV, thanks to a brand of glossy, female-driven shows, from Grey’s Anatomy and, later, the rest of Shondaland, to Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, and more. Today that seems like it’s not a reputation TV makers want anymore. Is it a rehash of the old idea that “female-skewing” equals “shallow?” A lack of marketing creativity? The insistence on impossible, constant growth? All of the above?
Even as studios talk a big game about creativity and innovation, when it comes to the big bucks, they seem more interested in courting “generic” audiences, which really just translates to the same old, same old. Female audiences (and non-white audiences and queer audiences) are expected to find something to relate to in anything, but asking the demographics who are accustomed to being centered to tune into something that isn’t about them is a bridge too far. Ironically, that aversion to something different is behind so many of Hollywood’s cost-versus-returns problems.
Even the streamers who do land those brand-defining hits seem awfully reticent to lean into certain fandom aspects. Some approach fan culture (and especially shippers) with a sheepish, embarrassed attitude, as if they’re afraid they won’t be taken seriously if they lean into it; instead of romance, they give us girl-bossing (hi, Ted Lasso). Others seem to see these successes as flukes that can’t and shouldn’t be replicated: I see plenty of chatter about finding the next Game of Thrones, but where’s the race to find the next Bridgerton?
Maybe these brands that are so worried about producing big-buzz, profitable new hits should be less concerned about shelling out ballooning budgets in attempts to astroturf their way into “global sensations” and pay more attention to what made their originals hits in the first place. Focus groups, algorithms, and the lowest common denominators don’t make a hit. An intriguing point of view, conveyed by talented creatives, does. Heck, even traditionally “prestige” shows like Succession and The Bear have found their way into the land of fandom –because fandom isn’t about genre; it’s about connecting deeply with characters, their dynamics, and their journeys.
People keep watching shows because they get invested in the characters and the ways they interact with each other. Sure, a big-budget CGI-fest might be exciting to watch once, but when there’s no soul beneath it, you’re not going to feel compelled to spread the word or watch it again. We all crave familiarity to some degree — there’s a reason “tropey goodness” is a thing! — but it’s a delicate balancing act to incorporate enough familiarity to hook us in alongside enough individuality to get us invested.
Embracing more diverse voices, compensating them fairly, and leaning into fan-friendly programming could be the solution TV is looking for if they’re not scared away for fear of being labeled “fangirlish.” Netflix, for all its many flaws, at least seems a little aware of this. Their biggest hits include the aforementioned Bridgerton (and Stranger Things, which has a hefty fan base and plenty of shippers), along with big-fandom shows like Wednesday, Virgin River, Outer Banks, Never Have I Ever, and XO Kitty.
(Our pals at Prime Video, meanwhile, seem the last to realize this. They’ve got a trifecta of massive-budget attempts to force the next global hit — The Rings of Power, The Wheel of Time, and Citadel — all of which have underperformed to some degree. But hey, they did order two seasons of Étoile, the next series from Amy Sherman-Palladino. With Maisel racking up the views and over a dozen farewell Emmy noms, that order seems like one of Prime’s best ideas lately).
This isn’t to say that the “big shows-that-go-boom” have no place in today’s market. But perhaps they shouldn’t be the shows brands are investing vast budgets into and trying to build identities around. When movies have to make hundreds of millions to break even, and TV shows have to be record-setting hits to get renewed, it sure feels like the balance is off-kilter. Maybe it’s time to stop being so wishy-washy about female-skewing and fan-friendly shows, give actors and writers a fair contract that acknowledges you can’t algorithm your way into a hit, and harness the powerful enthusiasm of dedicated fans to build a TV experience that’s better for everyone.