Two of my favorite shows in the past year have been How To With John Wilson (HBO) and Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4 in the UK and now available on HBO Max in the US). Both have relatively simple premises: How To has been described by its creators as ‚ÄúPlanet Earth but for New York City‚Äù and features documentary filmmaker John Wilson giving a quietly comic tour of the city organized around specific topics like splitting a check or improving your memory. Stath is about a Cypriot-British real estate agent who works in his father's suburban London leasing office and is desperate to prove he can run the business. Both are, and I say this more with admiration than judgment, the most barebones that shows could be. While I'm sure How To requires a production team, it reads as if it was filmed by Wilson with a camera on his shoulder and a mic in his hands. Stath, well, this is its title sequence. But both are incredible. They work despite their budgets, relying on unique takes about relatively familiar concepts, extremely strong writing, and skilled performances by undersung talent.
If you had shown me either a year or two ago, I would have seen the merits but assumed that networks would insist on sandpapering off the rough edges before they aired. But clearly something has changed and on no less than two of the best networks out there. I can't help but think that the doors are cracking open for indie voices. Part of it might be the voracious need for catalog content‚Äù by streaming services looking to compete and grow. Yes, these won't be the Game of Thrones or Wonder Woman projects that drive major subscriber additions. But they can certainly help limit churn when those subscribers need something new to watch. Another driver might be that these streaming services are getting better at targeting niche audiences and evaluating ROI on a dollars-per-minute-watched basis. Regardless, as the market cracks open and the definition of network TV‚Äô broadens, those able to produce unique, well-crafted shows, regardless of their access to marketing or production budgets, will benefit.
April 12, 2016