'Black Widow' Review

Plus: When is a smaller audience a better audience?

A Smaller Audience Can Be a Better Audience

A fun thing I liked to do when Mad Men, a show I quite enjoyed, was at the height of its popularity was to ask folks how many people they thought watched the show. How many people were watching this program that was endlessly dissected in the New York Times and Slate and Salon and on NPR and the AV Club and everywhere else folks in New York, D.C., and Los Angeles congregated to talk about these things. It must be doing huge numbers, right? At least as big as The Sopranos, and that was on HBO instead of AMC, so probably even bigger than The Sopranos!

Between two and three million people was the actual answer; less than one percent of the population. Roughly a fourth to a fifth the size of the Sopranos audience; a ninth to a tenth of The Big Bang Theory’s audience. Mad Men never exploded in size like Breaking Bad did in its final season, when the audience spiked from a million or so folks to ten million for the finale. It just poked along, racking up modest numbers and critical accolades.

The point here has nothing to do with the quality of Mad Men, which I considered at the time and still consider to be quite high. (The first season of Mad Men is, arguably, the single greatest season of television ever made, up there with the first season of The Sopranos, the fourth season of The Wire, the first season of Deadwood, and the second through ninth seasons of The Simpsons.) The point is that this thing that was dominating The Conversation wasn’t really representative of how viewership actually worked. Mad Men was buzzy because it was watched, and watched intensely, by the right people, not a lot of people.

I bring this up because you can see something similar at work with Disney+’s Loki, which is a very buzzy show and generates lots of conversation but of which we’re still not entirely sure of the ratings. That buzz and that conversation can be measured. As the Los Angeles Times’s Ryan Faughnder put it: 

Within seven days of its premiere, Loki had 89.9 times more demand than the average TV series globally, according to [third-party analytics firm] Parrot, making it the most “in-demand” show in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was the most-watched show, but it does suggest that people are talking about it a lot online, and that counts for a lot.

The show is emblematic of how Disney’s strategy differs from Netflix’s. Disney releases one episode a week like a traditional TV network, while Netflix unleashes all the episodes at once for each season, with occasional exceptions.

Again, we don’t know how many people are watching it, though Nielsens numbers give us a hint. (A pretty decent amount.) But we do know how many people are talking about it. And the number of people who are talking about it is, in all likelihood, more important to Disney than the number of people who are watching it.

Because, as Richard Rushfield noted on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood this week, the people who are talking about it, who are not only listening to podcasts but actively recording them, who are feeding the fan theories, who are chattering about it on Twitter and Facebook and Insta and TikTok—these are people who will actively pay money for a streaming service. They aren’t passive viewers who will simply sit there and watch AMC because it happens to be on their cable package. They’ll seek out a service. 

They’ll pay an individual fee for it every month.

Again: I have no idea what the actual number of viewers for a show like Loki is. But I do know that each of those viewers is immensely more valuable than the individual viewers of each episode of the advertising-dependent Mad Men. In our current moment, a small-to-medium-sized audience can be a much more profitable audience, as long as it’s an engaged audience.


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Black Widow Review

The movies are back, baby! 

And by the movies I mean the episodic installments stitching together the ongoing adventures of the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe across theaters and TV screens alike, a river of content from which there is no escape, even if you wanted to escape, which you probably don’t because, hey, gotta watch something.

In all seriousness, it is nice to have Scarlett Johansson back on the big screen doing big-budget hero stuff as Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before the events of Avengers: Endgame (consult your charts, please), Black Widow sees Natasha reunite with the “family” she had lived with for three years undercover in Ohio. Think “MCU meets FX’s The Americans” and you’ve got the idea.

Since their time together, younger “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) has been forced to go on the run from her handlers in the Widow-producing Red Room, while “father” Alexei “Red Guardian” Shostakov (David Harbour) has been confined to a post-Soviet gulag and “mother” Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) has taken to mucking about with the brains of pigs in order to uncover the secrets of free will.

The familial interactions are the best part of the movie, Yelena and Natasha teasing each other as only siblings can and Alexie and Melina impressing upon their children the need to act right and sit up straight. It’s fun and funny and winsome, and a welcome distraction from the fact that there isn’t anything approaching an interesting action sequence in the movie (a problem for an action movie) or an interesting big bad (Ray Winstone plays what amounts to a British gangster mimicking a Russian accent, just fleshy, pushy menace with a not-particularly-hidden cockney accent in what has to be one of the most bizarre casting choices in MCU history). Even the small bad, a villain named Taskmaster whose power is to mimic the moves of people she studies on film, feels like a rehash, mostly because she’s doing things we’ve seen done before in other scenarios and circumstances.

While zoning out during the big CGI spectacle, it was vaguely amusing to sit there and mentally track all the different actors working their way through all the different comic book universes. Weisz was in DC’s underrated Constantine as Angela and Isabel Dodgson; Harbour was in the properly (negatively) rated Suicide Squad and the Hellboy reboot; and Pugh, of course, played the villainous character Evil Girlfriend in noted comic book smash Midsommar.

This movie is critic-proof, doubly so because it’s simply kind of mediocre rather than actively bad. I will say that folks did not burst into applause at the end or even murmur appreciatively after the end-credits sequence; we all just kind of shuffled out of the 90-percent-full IMAX auditorium, a bit numb, distantly curious to see what the future has in store for Elena and Alexei and the rest.

Hey. Gotta watch something.


Assigned Viewing: The Hunt (HBO Max)

I try not to assign things that aren’t streaming on a service, but I’ll make an exception for The Hunt. [Update: Literally between the time I wrote this on Thursday and the time I published this on Friday, HBO Max added The Hunt to their lineup. So give it a watch there. HBO Max: Still the best service!] I wrote about why I prefer that film to the Purge series here, but to briefly reiterate something very important: It was one of the biggest conservative self-owns in recent memory that right-leaning folks decided to follow Donald Trump’s lead and lambaste this movie before it came out for depicting a world in which liberal elites hunt MAGA types for sport.

The rejection of a movie that made fun of liberal sanctimony and speech codes because the head of the Republican party figured a new way to rile up the rubes is, honestly, kind of disastrous if you’re a conservative sort who likes movies! It’s why you’ll only get movies out of the Hollywood system that hate you.