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Netflix's brilliant reason for making more mediocre television

Netflix's brilliant reason for making more mediocre television

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Netflix has arguably produced the best summer of television programming ever. Daredevil, Chef's Table, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, season two of BoJack Horseman, and season three of Orange Is the New Black were met with glowing praise. Even its indifferently received shows, Sense8 and Grace and Frankie, were more watchable than what HBO and the rest of television offered this season — and most seasons.

Netflix will cap the summer with two big premieres. One is Narcos, an award-friendly drama tracking Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. The other is Dinotrux.

In case you've missed the promotional rollout for Dinotrux, here's how I imagine its elevator pitch went:

Netflix CEO: Okay Baxter, you have until the 12th floor. Make it snappy.

Baxter: Well you see, sir, it's an animated series inspired by the Saturday morning cartoons of our childhood, while adding...

Netflix: Simpler, Baxter.

Baxter: Umm... It's Cars... meets Transformers... meets Jurassic Park.

Netflix CEO: I said simpler!

Baxter: Dinosaurs but they're also trucks. And it's called Dinotrux.


Elevator operator: 12th floor.

Netflix CEO: Baxter my boy, I love it. Here's $5 million for initial production costs. Have 11 episodes on my desk by August.

The show, created by DreamWorks Animation, based on the children's books of the same name, looks out of place among Netflix's rapidly growing catalog of murky adult drama, alt-comedy reboots, and gritty Marvel serials. If it wins awards, they will be for excellence in a genre of television that claims to teach youth valuable life lessons, when we know its true purpose is to distract kids while their parents prepare dinner or read a book.

Cars meets Transformers meets Jurassic Park

Dinotrux is not for me, and because you have the reading comprehension to enjoy this article, which puts you somewhere between 11 and 110 years old, it's probably not for you. Welcome to the latest phase of Netflix.

With ultra niche programming, like last month's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Netflix has felt, for its most ardent fans, like a studio creating television just for us narrative snobs. But in reality, Netflix was just laying a foundation. We — the binge-watchers, the early adopters, the FOMO brigade — will maintain our Netflix subscriptions so long as they continue to give under-appreciated talent more freedom and better rates than they can get anywhere else.

Dinotrux, on the other hand, is the face of Netflix's ambitious plan for expansion.

Unlike network television and cable, Netflix doesn't rely on advertisers. How many people watch any single program is irrelevant. What matters is the number of additional subscribers it attracts. This means, for better and worse, Netflix isn't motivated to make a program for an audience it already has on lock.

Welcome to Netflix Phase Two

Netflix's first phase focused on the kind of programs that TV fans love to discuss (and promote) on social media, but the programs also targeted a variety of unique audiences that don't traditionally overlap. A political thriller, a horror serial, and a dramedy appeared alongside superheroes, period costumes, and talking animals. Netflix will continue to produce and distribute those sorts of shows, along with some of the best documentaries and stand-up routines, if for no greater reason than to retain the subscribers it already has.

But the end of 2015 and much of 2016 will also target the millions of people who have been perfectly fine watching the same basic procedurals and multi-camera comedies year after year. The fourth season of A&E's Longmire will premiere on Netflix in September. Later next year, we'll get Fuller House, the revival of Full House. And on the movie front, we will see king of broad comedy, Adam Sandler, produce four movies, beginning with The Ridiculous Six this holiday.

And while I'm reluctant to say anything involving new Adam Sandler films is a good thing, the expansion of Netflix's scope really is good for all of its customers. Netflix also has four Duplass brothers films on the way, a Bill Murray Christmas special, and Beasts of No Nation, a child soldier drama by True Detective season one director Cary Fukunaga. While I can't wait to watch all of the above, I recognize they're probably subsidized by the boost in membership the service gets every time Adam Sandler makes a joke about the elderly's farts.

I respect those wacky Dinotrux. They promote friendship, teach good behavior, and allow me to binge-watch a nine-episode reboot of a film that made less than $300,000 in theaters.