If the Frank Scott mini-series, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a chess prodigy, concludes as a one-and-done event, it’ll be yet another example of Netflix NFLX “canceling” well-liked TV shows featuring female, LGBTQIA and/or minority characters in lead roles.
Writer/director Scott Franks’ The Queen’s Gambit, which may be the Netflix’s best episodic show of the year, has been their most-watched TV show for the last week. The seven-episode adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel stars Anya Taylor-Joy, in a role/performance so on-point it almost qualifies as typecasting, as a young chess prodigy battling addiction, the pressures of fame and internal demons as she triumphs in a mostly male-dominated sport. It’s exactly what modern TV should be, partially because it was conceived as a mini-series. Ironically, its likely one-and-done status represents yet another example of a female, non-hetero and/or minority-led Netflix show that earns buzz and plaudits only to die after a single season. That’s slightly embarrassing now, but it could be a problem if folks don’t feel “safe” becoming invested comparatively inclusive Netflix original shows.
Unlike way too many streaming shows, The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t mess around in terms of being “paced for the binge.” By episode one, our heroine is being taught by her orphanage’s janitor (Bill Camp) to play and win at chest. By episode two, she is playing and winning competitive chess tournaments. Meanwhile, she’s also struggling with addiction (she’s able to imagine chess games on the ceiling via pill popping, which makes for a fun visual) even as her adoptive mother (Marielle Heller, who is one directorial gem away from becoming my favorite working director) supports her competitive chess matches as a vicarious mother-daughter activity. Compared to modern “paced for the binge” shows, The Queen’s Gambit moves like a rocket in terms of offering important moments for both the plot and the characters during each over/under 55-minute episode.
Along with clever filmmaking that makes the mundane exciting without calling too much attention to itself, each episode if filled with a genuine sense of passion, tension and droll comedy. It features a rich gallery of supporting characters (among them Harry Melling, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and Thomas Brodie-Sangster who play roles more complicated than opponent and/or love interest) and a clear narrative vision in terms of where it wants to go and what it wants to say. Yes, it earns points for being a rare tale of female genius, and it earns points for understanding something key about sports movies: If the plot, characters and filmmaking are exciting, the sport will be thrilling by default. I’m not big into spelling bees, but I’ll cut anyone who says an unkind word about Akeelah and the Bee.
The Queen’s Gambit is terrific entertainment, with yet another career-high performance from Taylor-Joy and an uncommonly satisfying finale. The skewed irony of the show’s artistic success is that it isn’t structured or paced with additional seasons in mind, and yet its breakout nature would seem to justify additional installments. It’s not like Rocky was penned with the intent of starting an eight film-and-counting franchise. But if all parties decide to quit while they are ahead, and there’s no shame in that, well, it’ll be yet another one-and-done Netflix show. The Queen’s Gambit may join the slew of “not about a hetero white guy” Netflix shows like (offhand) Dead to Me, Away, Glow, The Get Down, Sense 8, One Day at a Time, Tuca and Bertie, Teenage Bounty Hunters, The OA, The Society and I’m Am Not Okay With This that were (arguably) prematurely canceled.
Some of these shows, like a planned fourth-and-final season for the Alison Brie/Betty Gilpin wrestling dramedy and a second season for The Society and I Am Not Okay With This, were casualties of Covid-19. It’s possible that Hillary Swank’s astronaut-centric family melodrama Away (which was in Netflix’s top ten its first three weeks) was another “How do we produce this with new safety regulations?” scenario. And it’s not like Netflix canceling a show, even a buzzy or well-liked show, after two or three seasons is a new development. New content allegedly draws in more subscribers than returning favorites. Moreover, it’s possible that (accusations about marketing deficiencies notwithstanding) these shows fell victim to the same problem plaguing major studio “not a white guy” movies, namely folks expressing excitement and offering “representation matters” plaudits on social media but not watching.
Netflix has based a decent chunk of their cultural value on the notion that they give underrepresented voices the money and freedom to make TV shows (and movies) about underrepresented demographics. Heck, when Steven Spielberg was alleged (falsely, it turns out) to have complained about Netflix’s presence in the 2019 Oscar race, he was lambasted not just for being out of touch in terms of theatrical exhibition versus streaming but being implicitly prejudiced toward the “not a white guy” filmmakers and performers whose shows and movies were finding a home on the service. Like Walt Disney DIS , Netflix has made diversity and inclusivity a key marketing strategy. As such, there’s a contrary message being sent when so many Netflix shows, often the ones featuring “not about a hetero white guy” stories and characters, don’t survive past the initial season.
Correlation and coincidence don’t equal causation. Glow losing a fourth season due to the pandemic is little different than ABC’s terrific Cobie Smulders-led private-eye series Stumptown having its second season retroactively canceled for same. If far too few folks were watching the delightful One Day at a Time (shameful confession: I didn’t catch up with it until this summer), then its three-and-done fate (an abbreviated fourth season on Pop TV notwithstanding) is no less fair than NBC airing Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal for three acclaimed but low-rated seasons. Nonetheless, it matters when Netflix sells itself on inclusive movies and TV shows, to the point where Pearl Studios’ animated Over the Moon gets “yay, diversity” plaudits from folks who ignored Pearl’s terrific Abominable in theaters last year, and yet seems to cancel inclusive shows as soon as the hype dies down.
Even if new shows help lure new subscribers and keep old ones, and even if capping at three seasons avoids pricey bonuses and pay bumps, at some point audiences will be reluctant to start a new Netflix show, even one with good reviews and buzzy elements, because they don’t want to get invested in a show on a platform that is allegedly 41% more likely to cancel a new show compared to their rivals. Netflix can earn buzz and viewers from acquired shows like Fox’s Lucifer, Lifetime’s You, Pop TV’s Schmitt’s Creek and YouTube’s Cobra Kai, YouTube, but they can’t depend on competitors being able to turn out underperforming TV shows which become Netflix sensations. As the likes of The Office, Friends and other comfort-food returns defect to other streamers, Netflix will become more and more dependent on explicitly Netflix originals.
That The Queen’s Gambit is both perhaps Netflix’s best original TV show thus far this year is ironic both in terms of how Netflix originals are often paced (Teenage Bounty Hunters, like Fox’s sadly doomed Pitch, foolishly ended on a cliffhanger) and what its potential one-and-done status would mean for the streamer. It would be yet another buzzy show starring women, minorities and/or LGBTQIA characters would earn the network plaudits for comparative inclusivity lasting only a single season. If Netflix would eventually like to rely on Netflix originals, especially inclusive originals, rather than the spoils of their rivals and nostalgic reruns, they might want to make sure folks feel comfortable taking the plunge without expecting cancelation-related heartbreak. At least it won’t be a surprise when The Queen’s Gambit (like HBO’s Watchmen) retires on top.