Where is Netflix?
Netflix is free of all geographical limitations but required to produce content for everywhere. Is that why its originals come across so curiously ungrounded? Take recent reality hit Restaurants on the Edge. Already onto a second series, the show follows three Canadians as they travel around the world telling failing restaurants to serve more ‘local’ food.
The difference between this and Ramsay’s oeuvre is the sense of place. Kitchen Nightmares is grounded. He takes note of the location, the clientele, the theme – and then inevitably instructs them to serve ‘his take’ on a posh burger and a Caesar salad. At least he tried.
Restaurants on the Edge exists in the strange non-place of Netflix. Everything local is seen through the eyes of the visitor. And so little thought is given to customer base, culture or connotations of particular foods, pricing, location – all the things that make a restaurant or bar successful. Or the fact that not every bar in Hawaii serves poke bowls and pounded taro; or that Hong Kongers don’t eat exclusively Hong Kong street food.
When Netflix makes a travel/food/reality show designed for hungover people to watch while looking at their phones, this isn’t really a problem. What happens when this way of seeing the world is applied to comedy or drama?
Ricky Gervais’ After Life is about a grieving husband – Tony – putting his life back together after the death of his wife. It is set in the fictional town of Tambury – the kind of place that exists in the imaginations of Daily Mail readers and Conservative Party members. It is a town where being a feminist means reading poetry about your menstrual cycle; where picking up curb crawlers is a lifestyle choice rather than a consequence of addiction or sex trafficking; where working at a local newspaper pays enough to buy a three-story semi-detached house.
Should this matter? Seinfeld’s New York isn’t the real place. Fawlty Towers couldn’t possibly survive as a business. Surely sitcoms are allowed to set their own parameters for what is normal? With After Life though, we are asked to take the comedy seriously. There are jokes, but they are there to punctuate the pathos. Set in a town out of sync with reality, Gervais’ dead wife leitmotif misses its heaviest punches.
But while Tambury is like nowhere on earth, After Life looks and feels like something we’ve all seen before. It reminds us of those comedy/dramas which get it right, those films or series which have made us laugh and cry – even if After Life itself never quite manages either.