Maybe Some Art Should Fade Away
Plus: A Memorial Day assignment!
The decisions by Disney+ and HBO Max to remove unwatched (and therefore unloved) shows from the services in order to save corporate parents a ton of money on distribution rights is one element of the streaming wars that has generated near-unanimous scorn for the offending parties.
Disney+ and Hulu are shedding 76 titles, including much-hyped shows like the Willow reboot and lesser-known efforts like The Big Fib (in which a panel of experts tries to figure out which kid appearing before them is a liar). This comes on the heels of HBO Max’s move to remove a bunch of shows—including, again, some originals to the streamer—from the service, such as one-time popular options like Westworld.
It should be noted that this is different from Warner Bros.’s controversial decision in August of 2022 to take a tax write-off on Batgirl and memory-hole it forever rather than release it in theaters or on their streaming platform. Many of the HBO Max shows being removed will wind up on other services, including free ad-supported streamers (the so-called FAST channels) like the Roku Channel or Freevee. I imagine Disney will do something similar. What had been a liability watched by no one will now because a mild source of revenue through licensing elsewhere. Pretty basic economics.
So, again, for the most part: these things aren’t “going away forever.” But one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that, well: maybe they should?
Think about it this way: for the vast majority of the history of popular art, most things that are created end up vanishing into irrelevancy. How many novels were written in the 19th century that no one—literally, no one—alive today has ever even heard of? How many playwrights from Rome vanished into the ether? When a TV show that no one watched went off the air in the 1960s after a single season, it lived solely in the head of Quentin Tarantino, part of his vast reservoir of useless pop-cultural trivia that he could repurpose to great artistic effect in later years.
I’ve spent more time than anyone really should thinking about TV and whether or not anything from the so-called golden age of television will survive and what it would look like to create a proper canon of something as unwieldy as television shows that can run days, even weeks, in length if viewed in one sitting. And while I imagine the answer is yes—even if 200 years from now people are shocked we thought The Simpsons was any good when Dinosaurs and Cop Rock were right there in front of us all along!—I also wonder if our desire to make everything available forever is going to wind up making canonization much more difficult.
The natural state of the commercial artistic world is ephemerality, one in which a thousand books are published, ten become “hits,” and maybe one is remembered even ten years later. It’s that very ephemerality that leads to permanence: as works are forgotten and most of what is made fades into the mists of time, that which is left—that which succeeds with each given generation, that which remains vital and read and watched and loved and passed on—doesn’t get overwhelmed by an unending, obscuring fog bank of mediocrity.
Look, I understand people who worked on these shows and movies being upset at their disappearance. But I have started to wonder if, for reasons of general cultural hygiene, we aren’t better off purging more artistic misfires from our collective cultural memory banks.
Hope you check out this Friday’s episode of Across the Movie Aisle, in which we discuss the death, and rebirth, of the cable bundle.
Before we get started with the pop culture stuff on this Memorial Day, I thought I’d pass along this piece from Will Selber in which he shares the stories of some of those killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope you give it a read.
This week, I reviewed the remake of The Little Mermaid and argued (I think fairly convincingly if I do say so myself) that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is one of the most artistically destructive blockbusters of the last 15 years.
Last week’s episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood with Colby Day about the amount of free work that goes into getting screenwriters paid work is one of the most popular episodes of the show. I hope you give it a listen—it will really help you understand why the writers are so frustrated—and make sure to tune in on Saturday when we have a VERY SPECIAL GUEST: The Entertainment Strategy Guy, making his debut podcast appearance.
(By the way, if you wanted to add a nice review or rating to the BGTH Apple page, I wouldn’t complain. It helps with discovery!)
If you’re in the Dallas area, I’m doing an episode of Aaron Reynolds’s (the creator of Effin’ Birds) live show, Bootleg Safari, at the Dallas Fan Expo on June 10. We basically talk about the crazy junk that gets sold with malformed corporate branding. It’s going to be fun. Come say hi!
Assigned Viewing: Saving Private Ryan (Paramount+)
A somber assignment for your Memorial Day viewing.
I hate this take. Also, part of the problem is the list of unstreamable anywhere movies includes great films of all kinds. PCU, Cannonball Run, Il Postino, Dogma, Better Off Dead, etc.
One of the benefits of streaming, as opposed to buying shows on DVD, is that there are shows that only a few people are interested in but nevertheless a subset of people may want to see. Such niche cases would not be available to buy on DVD (or books would be out of print), but digital could still grant access.
There are a bunch of early TV shows that people wish we still had access to, but did not survive because tapes got recorded over because of cost, now regretted.
Having said that, if shows just move to other platforms that's OK. And there is also lots of junk especially broadcast/cable TV that is probably OK to drop.