With “Roma” and “Happy as Lazzaro,” Netflix May Have Found a New Way of Reading Its Audience
The extremely Oscar nominated drama and its snubbed peer lead a new generation of content from the streaming service, which seems to focus on millennial passivity.
Believe it or not, this February marks the six-year anniversary of Netflix’s foray into original programming. The ill-fated hit series House of Cards ushered in a revolution of television easily available to all in the wake of a Golden Age of TV largely led by cable networks, which soon after extended to feature films. What was most revolutionary about this development that’s since infiltrated most other streaming platforms is the rigorous data collection standards Netflix initiated to ensure their shows got views; House of Cards was famously conceived based on viewers’ interest in the original BBC series, David Fincher, and K*vin Sp*cey, while, soon after, word was circulating that the streaming service was programming content based on our data concerning such seemingly banal acts as rewinding and exiting the stream. At this point, are they even hiding the fact that everything they do is for data?
Unsurprisingly, Netflix has become unstoppable. Rather than merely churning out content everyone is statistically guaranteed to tolerate, they’re now churning out projects that niche audiences are statistically guaranteed to love, which include a miraculously recovered Orson Welles feature and a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture. While the streaming service has been releasing Oscar-worthy documentaries for years, Netflix finally broke into fiction film award categories last year with Mudbound, while this year sees Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma garnering ten nominations—not to mention a handful of nods for the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Following House of Cards’ model, there’s no question as to why Netflix greenlit a Coen Brothers project with an ensemble cast—or even a historical drama by a relatively unknown director when Mary J. Blige and that guy from Breaking Bad are attached. The question is: Aside from the name recognition of Roma’s award-winning director, what appeal did a snail-paced, black-and-white movie cast entirely with unknown actors have for Netflix?
To be clear, Roma isn’t an anomaly; last year also saw the release of the equally slow, equally foreign Happy as Lazzaro. The product of Italian director and screenwriter Alice Rohrwacher, Lazzaro is the follow-up to her 2014 film The Wonders, which you probably haven’t seen (I’ll bet you’d instantly recognize its poster from the countless times you’ve scrolled past it on Netflix, though). Like Roma, Lazzaro’s young lead is brand new to the screen, but feels like he’s been in front of the camera his whole life. Additionally, the character of Lazzaro, like Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo in Roma, is exasperatingly passive, drifting through a world of shocking and sometimes-violent surreality, being taken advantage of by everyone he encounters—where Cleo finds herself ordered around as an in-house maid, impregnated and abandoned, and caught up in a violent clash between student protestors and black ops, Lazzaro is similarly born into a life as an uneducated, unpaid laborer, Rip Van Winkling his way into a somewhat-dystopian future.
If these characters are all too familiar, that’s probably because they seem to be based on you, the viewer (not to be confused with You, the Netflix series). Intentional or not, both productions seem to have digested enough data to conclude that the most relatable content for its targeted millennial demographic is passivity—burnout crafted into innocence through the magic of cinema. While the more recent Bandersnatch provides a choose-your-own adventure set-up, Roma and Lazzaro go one step further, as we watch both movies’ protagonists have their adventures chosen for them—as if Joseph Campbell’s hero never accepted the call. If you enjoy Black Mirror’s new formula, feel free to choose between the storylines of Cleo—powerless against the slow demolition of the relationships and society around her, which she’s forced to witness, like pausing your stream to check Twitter—and Lazzaro—powerless against time, which seems to pass without his knowledge, like he’s engaged in a good hibernatory binge.
As long as Netflix is going to be obsessively unimaginative in its development of content, it’s at least good to see how representation plays into the formula—whether it’s the culturally relevant script for Mudbound, the indigenous cast of Roma, or the exploited youth of Lazzaro. Here’s hoping Oscar recognition will encourage the streaming service to take more (relative) risks like this, giving us less of what we want and more of what we need. FL