- June 29, 2018
I've written about this feature before when it was first being tested, but now that Netflix official rolled out its "Play something" feature a few weeks ago, I feel compelled to break it down again. The feature, designed to combat endless scrolling and FOMO, selects a new show or movie for you to watch based on some sort of algorithm and then just … plays it. You can hit a skip button if you're not feeling the choice, and a new show or movie will take its place.
This bums me out for a lot of reasons. First of all, it's a solution to a problem Netflix helped create. I'd argue that the endless scrolling that people do when selecting something to watch isn't always because of FOMO but because of an opposite problem: The ratio of good content to bad content is all out of whack. You're not selecting one decadent dessert at a five-star restaurant, you're scavenging for food, selecting one scrap to eat out of a garbage can, hoping it doesn't have any unknown hairs on it. Both take time, for different reasons.
So that's one problem. But there's another problem happening too, and that is a lack of intention when people are selecting art. To be fair to Netflix and other streamers, I don't know if this one is those companies' fault or even if it is a new problem — if it's a problem at all. You might not think it is! And that's fine. But I do think the phenomenon, whether good, bad or neutral, is exacerbated by today's technology. For many people in younger generations, TV is just noise to consume while scrolling TikTok or another social media service. It doesn't matter what it is as long as images are moving. You ever notice how the things on Netflix's daily top 10 list coincidentally happen to be the things the company is pushing the hardest on its home screen? Weird, right?
Put these two things together, and you understand why Netflix has rolled out "Play something." It eliminates the viewer having to make any decision and is a chance for Netflix to reinforce the shows and movies it is already pushing. Sure, it's based on "personal taste," but when most people just watch whatever's most recently been featured anyway, it's easy enough for the service to recommend you whatever it wants.
(There's a quite simple way to fix all of this and make the feature actually useful: Make the feature select not from Netflix's entire library, based on some flimsy equation, but from each user's to-watch list. That solves the quality problem — by choosing from a list of things the users have taken an action toward, a sure sign that they have a real interest in these things — and eliminates any FOMO and decision fatigue people may have. Of course, that's exactly why this isn't how Netflix implemented the technology. It's not about users at all; it's just another way the company can jack up its numbers.)
For my day job, I write Athlete of the Week features, and one question I always ask is for the athlete's favorite TV show or movie, either one. The majority of them will give an answer, but a stunning amount say they don't have a favorite or — and this is really what blows my mind — they'll say they have a favorite, but they can't remember what it's called, so they start describing the plot. They are paying so little attention to what's on the screen that they can't remember the name of their FAVORITE THING, the piece of visual art that should mean the most to them.
I think it's that that makes me the most sad about the current state of things: the death of art as something meaningful.
But there's still hope. Last week I watched "The Mitchells vs. The Machines," the new animated film directed by Michael Rianda and produced by the wizards that are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, on Netflix. It's about a teenage movie buff getting ready to go to film school (and away from her weird family) when AI robots start taking over the Earth. It's wonderful. It's everything a family movie should be. There are a lot of laughs and a lot of moments where you'll have to make dad jokes about someone cutting onions if you're watching with someone else. The voice cast is stacked, and the art style is spectacular. It's the most impressed I've been with animation since the Oscar-winning "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" in 2018 (which was, not coincidentally, also produced by Lord and Miller). I'll be stunned if "The Mitchells vs. The Machines" doesn't win the Best Animated Feature at next year's Oscars as well.
When I watched it, the film was at No. 1 on the Netflix daily top 10 list. That's awesome. Did that happen solely because Netflix featured it extensively on its home screen and social media? Probably. But topping the list means that a lot more people will watch it than they would have otherwise, and if kids watch it and took something meaningful away from it, then who cares how it happened? Sometimes the annoying quirks of the streaming era can work in art's favor.
I think "The Mitchells vs. The Machines" can summarize this better than I can:
I just hope all the kids who fall in love with the art form because of this film remember its name in a few years.
Apple TV+, rated TV-MA, half hour episodes (two seasons)
Brian Grubb, one of my favorite internet writers, beat me on this one, but he's absolutely right in his analysis.
You don't have to like video games to like "Mythic Quest," nor do you have to like fantasy shows, despite what the name implies. You can enjoy the show's humor, which oscillates between thin-line-walking acerbity and caramel sweetness, just fine on its own.
"Mythic Quest" is an ensemble workplace comedy in the vein of "Parks and Recreation" or "The Office," but it can take on a much darker tone. That's because it comes from (most of) the brains behind "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," including Megan Ganz, Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney, who stars in the show as megalomaniac video game creative director Ian Grimm, who created the world's best-selling MMO game (don't worry if you don't know what this means) and is now in the throes of creating an expansion to the game as pressure to meet fans' expectations mounts. He's not a bad guy, just a headstrong one, even when he really shouldn't be. Attempting to reel in his ego is the game's lead designer, Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), who has a brilliant mind but is a bit of a mess as a person.
Nicdao is the show's secret weapon. As Li, she pushes the company to be better in all aspects, but she often meets resistance from Grimm and the other male higher-ups, like executive producer David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby), who mostly wants to not be yelled at, and head of monetization Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi, having the time of his life), who is implied to be the personification of evil. Even Brittlesbee's assistant Jo (a very funny Jessie Ennis), thought to be bringing a more progressive perspective, turns out to be a hardcore conservative.
The clash in perspectives, as you might guess, leads to some conflict. Thankfully, it's almost always funny. And when the in-fighting dies now, there's room for moments of genuine emotion. Despite their professional tension, Li and Grimm are real friends, and its within their relationship that the show is at its best. But it also finds time to broaden its scope, giving storylines to two game testers (Imani Hakim and Ashly Burch) who have feelings for each other but don't know how to express them, and an aging dialogue writer (F. Murray Abraham) who is clinging to his old Nebula awards, which he might as well have won in a different life, for happiness and self-respect.
It's also unafraid of taking risks, devoting an entire season one episode to two new characters viewers never see again, at least through season one and the show's two offseason specials. (I won't spoil the actors involved nor the episode number, but you can find that info elsewhere if you wish. I think it's better to be surprised.) And the risk pays off: The episode in question might be the show's best and most moving.
"Mythic Quest" might never win any Emmys, but it's an often hilarious watch that I've found quite comforting to sink into lately. I think you might feel similarly, whether you know what an MMO is or not.
Prime Video, rated TV-MA, 45 minutes, eight episodes
Some of my fondest memories of childhood involve waking up early on a Saturday morning, grabbing a bowl of cereal and watching whatever cartoon was airing, usually a Spider-Man or Batman one (or, when I got a bit older, "Yu-Gi-Oh!"). There was something comforting about sinking into the simple but soft animation styles of those early aughts superhero shows. The storylines were never complicated; the heroes just had to stop whichever villain was causing trouble that week, and maybe find time to go to dinner with their partner. You got to know the personalities of the heroes and villains alike in these shows; sure, you wanted Spider-Man to stop the Green Goblin, but you were also eager to hear the Goblin's quips and marvel at his cool weapons.
"Invincible," the new animated show from "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman, feels like a successor to those old cartoons, from the style to the substance — in all ways but one.
The story follows Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun), a shy kid and the son of Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons), aka Omni-Man, this universe's version of Superman. Nolan came to Earth from a different planet because, well, reasons, but he's here to protect it from the terrestrial and extraterrestrial threats that want it destroyed. Mark's mom, Debbie (Sandra Oh), is human, but Nolan's alien genes are so powerful that he's certain Mark will get powers, too. He does, right before he turns 18. The first season of the show mostly follows Mark's struggles in harnessing his powers and deciding if he even wants to be a superhero at all.
There are plenty around, after all. It's not just Omni-Man. In the "Invincible" world, there are entire teams of superheroes solving local crimes and waiting to, essentially, get sponsored by the government, so they can take on bigger and bigger cases (and gain fame). There are heroes who will be instantly familiar to you, like Immortal (Ross Marquand), who is almost a one-to-one replica of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, or War Woman (Lauren Cohen), who comes from an ancient civilization, just like … well, you get it. But there are other heroes too, ones not based on existing IP, at least as far as I can tell. That includes Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), who throws bombs willy-nilly, and Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), who can manipulate all nonliving matter with her mind.
There are compelling villains, too, such as the Mauler Twins (Kevin Michael Richardson), strong men with blue skin who each think the other twin is actually a clone, and Doc Seismic (Chris Diamantopoulos), a fun twist on the "mad scientist" trope who is obsessed with earthquakes.
The show goes through some of the usual superhero beats: Mark gets his powers, he struggles to learn them, he tries and fails to balance that part of his life with his personal life, specifically his relationship with school crush Amber (Zazie Beetz). Paired with a timeless art style that looks wonderful, it would be easy to watch the first 95% of the "Invincible" pilot and think it was 2003 again (or whenever you were young).
But then the last 5% arrives. I mentioned before that "Invincible" felt like a Saturday morning cartoon in all ways but one, and now we need to talk about that way. This show is unequivocally not for kids. It feels weird to talk about the end of the pilot as a spoiler, because it begins the throughline of the rest of the season, but it's such a shocking moment that I feel it's best to leave unsaid. I'll only say that something involving graphic violence happens, and even though it's animated, the sequence might be tough for some viewers to watch. (There's a lot of blood.) This happens again a few times throughout the season, like in one sequence involving a train full of passengers. The show always has a reason when it utilizes these sequences, either to prep the viewer for what the show is or to hammer home its themes, but it's important to note nonetheless. Characters also occasionally curse and talk about sex, but that strikes me as less of a dealbreaker for most folks.
If you're good with cartoon violence, "Invincible" is a blast of a show, one you don't have to think too hard about to enjoy, but with enough meat on its bones that people like myself can still dig for things to think about. The voice actors do a great job. and, I can't say it enough, the art looks perfectly in step with the era the show is recalling. Watch a few episodes tomorrow morning, and get in touch with your inner kid.