Netflix has made me very happy over the past few years. They’ve offered me access to an amazing range of documentaries that I never would have had the energy to locate on my own, created the opportunity to watch about fifteen minutes of some very bad movies that I vaguely remember watching an overlapping ten minutes of on USA when I was a kid, and of course, they’ve given me something to during any otherwise-dead 22 minute block in my day. They’ve also made me more confident in sharing my fannish behavior with new friends. “What do you do in your spare time?” “Well, last night for example, I watched eight episodes of Glee.” Sure, some people still raise their eyebrows at such a response, but more often than not, they say, “You’re kidding! I watched eight episodes of The Vampire Diaries! How awesome are our lives?” Pretty awesome. Sure, marathoning the occasional show does not a fan-identified fan make, but it’s a step along the way to a broader understanding of the emotional intensities of investment in long-arc serial narratives. I also genuinely think that it helps people to understand just how high-quality many programs are: when you marathon a show, ideally, you get away from “that episode was pointless,” and move closer to “my curiosity about that development was satisfied a mere hour after it was ignited!”
This makes me happy. I’m not sure, however, what to make about a more recent Netflix development, namely, the “Holiday Favorites” section. Now, don’t get me wrong, for a long time, our viewing practices have been partially guided by the idea of “holiday favorites.” There’s 24 hours of A Christmas Story, family traditions, newspaper and magazine top 10 lists, etc. It only makes sense to extend this to individual episodes of television series. Special episodes are made to be re-watched as part of the season. However, I paused over a few of the choices on Netflix. For example, the My So-Called Life episode, “So-Called Angels” was recommended in the “holiday favorites” category. For the record, I love this episode, and think it is brilliant. However, I would hate for someone to watch it as a “holiday favorite,” because I think that the removal of context in this case would lead to an inevitable misunderstanding of the episode, and thus, the larger series narrative of which it is a part. One could say the same for this year’s controversial Christmas episode of Glee, which I have not yet watched, but which sounds like it should never, ever be consumed outside the larger, high-context series narrative of Glee.
Perhaps I sound tyrannical. Just two paragraphs up, I was praising the way in which Netflex is re-creating the surprising television moments of my childhood, like giving a chance to a movie with an incomprehensible premise, or trying out a documentary about an unfamiliar issue. But it’s different with television. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my many marathons with 90s and 21st-Century shows, but I feel that “So-Called Angels” would give new viewers the wrong impression of My So-Called Life, because it’s a heavily serialized drama, whereas 30 Rock‘s “Christmas Special,” which was playing on my flight on Wednesday, works just fine in isolation. Sure, it’s more enjoyable for the knowing viewer, because I have context for the character interactions, but there’s no risk of seriously missing the point with “Christmas Special.” There is much less at stake. The episode represents Liz Lemon’s misguided affective politics in a way that is consistent with their representation throughout the series, and one can either take or leave this easily-recognizable ambivalence. “So-Called Angels,” by contrast, represents several characters’ growth, and because savvy audiences take pleasure in their inability to be caught by sentimental traps, this growth is much harder to sell.
Whether or not My So-Called Life sells it is up for debate, but I would hate for the terms of the debate to be set by isolated experiences of “So-Called Angels.” My So-Called Life is an important show in the recent history of dramatic representations of queer life, and it would be a shame for an interested viewer to try to enter this history by way of this episode, which allows in an ungenerous interpretation for a purely sentimental reading. With all the criticism that the recent Glee episode has received (much of it by broadly-invested fans), I worry that, where My So-Called Life could offer an interesting counterpoint from the history of queer-friendly television, it is unlikely to do so under Netflix’s rubric.
There are other downsides to the Netflix rubric, of course, not least that it so quickly made itself indispensable in my daily life — -there is surely something sinister in anything that appears so helpful and desire-I-didn’t-even-know-I-had-fulfilling. But maybe the point is that here, like in so many other arenas, fandom has a slightly better option. Instead of “Holiday Favorites,” why not Yuletide? Like Netflix, Yuletide has a history of inviting new viewers into a new view of under-represented source material, but this time, it comes with a context. Not just the simple context of “I like to watch a lot of TV,” but the complex context of fandom, of fic-writing, and of desire-sharing. I love to read “Dear Yuletide Writer” entries on new friends’ journals, because they give me so much insight into what others most long to see in the shared source material that captures our imaginations. I love to see fans’ frustrations with television shows manifesting as desire surpassing resentment, although obviously the resentment is often earned and deserves to be registered. I love to see the incompleteness of imperfect stories taken on as a gift-giving challenge. “A Very Special Fic” can do a lot of things that an equally special episode cannot, not least because it’s addressed to someone who’s intimately familiar with where the new installment fits into, or challenges the narrative as it stands. Sure, there are lurkers on Yuletide fics outside of their own fandoms (I am one of them!) but there is more of an established ethics to lurking in this context than to lurking on Netflix. So, that’s where I’ll be looking to discover new holiday favorites. I look forward to it.