It was supposed to be Netflix’s pre-Christmas smash, but weeks after it set sail, the number swelled to 1,899. The mind-bending multi-dimensional thriller has been canceled with just one season under its belt, prompting predictable protests from its small, if vocal, fanbase and the inevitable online petition to bring it back.
The failure of the program is a surprise on many levels. It was the brainchild of Netflix’s gold team of Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, the German couple behind the slow-burn hit Dark. That series racked up millions of views by taking the Stranger Things formula of annoying kids investigating a supernatural conspiracy and wrapping it in Teutonic gloom.
If anything, Friese and Odar seemed to be on to something even safer with 1899. There was the atmospheric setting of a 19th-century ocean liner, the Kerberos, crewed by a gallery of heroes, villains, and assorted malcontents. Plus, a dimension-hopping mystery that, as shown in the trailers, apparently involved time travel and, always a good thing, a scary kid. On paper, it read like Titanic meets Downton Abbey via JJ Abrams’ Lost. With a budget of $60 million, it was also the most expensive German television project of all time, so generous production values were ensured. What can go wrong?
Many, it turns out. Although Odar recently revealed that 1899 had been canceled (his and Friese’s overall deal with Netflix continues), Netflix apparently broke the news to the producers in December, four weeks after 1899’s release. after a month it feels like an overreaction. So Netflix has never been a company to stand at the ceremony.
At first glance, 1899 was a decent success. Admittedly, it was a far cry from Netflix’s real November surprise, Wednesday: The Addams Family spin-off that revived Tim Burton’s career, made Jenna Ortega a superstar, and introduced Generation Z to the radical concept. to wear black in public. Nonetheless, Friese and Odar’s hair-raising puzzle box racked up millions of views and debuted at number two on Netflix’s global top 10.
But given the budget and expectations, it just didn’t work well enough. She also suffered poor word of mouth. While 1899 delivered its share of unexpected twists, culminating in a satisfyingly hair-raising payoff in the final episode, many viewers may have felt like they’d seen it all before. (Warning: spoilers follow.)
We had been promised a period piece full of secrets. However, by the end of the first episode, it was clear that Kerberos was merely a computer simulation. And that the whole story was a glorified episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Nobody was what they seemed. The failures were actually the work of dystopian mainframes creaking and groaning behind the scenes. In other words, Charlie Brooker with a German accent.
Once you’d figured that out, and who hadn’t? – everything that followed felt like filler. 1899 is further hampered by Netflix’s traditional problem of too much content being distributed too little. From the laborious House of Cards of a decade ago to the recent Harry and Meghan documentary, Netflix has made an art form of filling your TV with filler. 1899 suffered from that worse than most, and unlike Harry and Meghan, she couldn’t keep up with the promise of juicy anecdotes about Harry having a shouting match with Prince William.
The series was also too cold to the touch. Emily Beecham did her best as Maura, a neurologist who claimed to be traveling to the United States alone but was actually looking for her missing brother. Like Anton Lesser, as Henry Singleton, Maura’s father and the creepy owner of Kerberos.
Unfortunately, none of them scored very high on likability. Neither do the rest of the characters. They were an unattractive hodgepodge of socialites from all over Europe and a rag from “below” toiling in the Stygian bowels of the ship. Regardless of their position, they all lacked any trace of warmth. Long before the mystery unfolded, the public could be forgiven for losing interest. 1899 had all humanity of an opaque glass.
However, these are ultimately strange details. To solve the enigma of the cancellation of 1899 it is necessary to look beyond the aesthetics and delve into the numbers. Because while subscribers watched 257 million hours of 1899, only 32 per cent made it through the entire eight-episode season (according to figures from UK data analytics company Digital i). Compare that to the 80 percent who completed the mega-hit Squid Game, the 73 percent who beat Heartstopper, or the 60 percent who choked on the steampunk animation Arcane, and it’s no mystery that 1899 found itself in the danger zone.
Sandman author Neil Gaiman recently confirmed that completion rates are more important to Netflix than top-of-the-line viewing numbers. He urged devotees of the Netflix adaptation of the series to make sure to watch it in its entirety. Sandman was expensive to make, he said. The more people who got drunk to the end, the better the odds for a Netflix renewal.
“They are looking at completion rates,” he said. “So people who watch it at their own pace [i.e. not bingeing immediately] do not appear.
The biggest mystery of all is why Netflix is so obsessed with completion rates. One theory is that viewers who watch a full series are more likely to renew their subscription, which is all Netflix cares about. Critical buzz and a place in the water cooler conversation are fine. The bottom line, though, is that it’s about a) keeping audiences paying for their Netflix fix every month and b) attracting new subscribers.
“As far as I can tell, everything Netflix does is based on how it’s driving subscriber growth,” Baby Sitters Club creator Rachel Shukert told Vulture. However, she stressed that this was simply the best guess of hers: Netflix never actually tells producers or directors what goals must be achieved in order to renew. “I want to be very careful because it’s a lot of guesswork, but I feel like Netflix’s internal metrics can change from month to month. Something that was fine three months ago suddenly isn’t what they need anymore.”
Either way, with a completion rate less than half that of Squid Game, 1899 was against it. There’s also the problem that the landscape has changed radically since Dark debuted in 2017. This year’s headline-grabbing shows have been all about spectacle, from the roaring dragons in House of the Dragon to the howling holes in the Tolkien’s parody of Amazon’s $1 billion The Rings. Of power.
With impressive ratings and a devoted following of 1899, it didn’t hit an iceberg. But while decent viewership numbers were once enough to keep a cult series afloat, that’s not enough anymore. As evidenced by the box office figures released Wednesday (1 billion hours of viewing and counting), to qualify as a hit today, a drama really has to fly. In the end, 1899 couldn’t escape gravity. And so, it was doomed to sink without a trace.