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5 January 2023

Netflix can’t stop cancelling its best shows – 1899 is proof

The most ambitious shows on the platform are axed before they reach their peak, frustrating writers and viewers alike.

By Marc Burrows

It can feel almost like a bereavement when your favourite show gets cancelled – and with the way Netflix has been swinging the axe lately, fans are barely through the various stages of grief before another favourite is brutally offed and we have to start all over again.

The latest victim is 1899, the ambitious, multi-language mystery box from the creators of the hit German show, Dark. “With a heavy heart we have to tell you that 1899 will not be renewed,” the showrunner Baran bo Odar announced via Instagram on Tuesday (3 January). “We would have loved to finish this incredible journey with a second and third season, as we did with Dark. But sometimes things don’t turn out the way you planned. That’s life.” The key word here is “finish” – the cancellation of 1899 is particularly painful because the show had been written around a three-season arc. The emphasis was on the mystery; there were hints at a bigger, weirder truth yet to be unveiled. The show was building to something, and taking its time doing so. A wild cliffhanger at the close of the season implied that things were just getting going. Now, that story is left dangling loose.

Netflix has previous here. Archive 81, another propulsive sci-fi series, was cancelled last year after a single season – just as people were starting to talk about it. In 2019, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s widely acclaimed The OA was pulled after its second season. Like 1899, it ended with a bonkers finale and a fistful of unanswered questions. Warrior Nun, Fate: The Winx Saga and Sense8 were also cut short after two seasons despite vocal teenage fanbases (though the latter was eventually granted a two-hour special to wrap things up).

A show’s future depends on its performance, obviously, though Netflix has always been secretive about what metrics it expects its programming to hit. “When we have to make our decisions, it’s about the long term and the longer-term viewing,” the company’s Peter Friedlander told Variety at the end of last year, with frustrating vagueness. “We are always looking at many variables.” The company operates in an increasingly tough marketplace. When Netflix had the streaming world almost to itself, it took huge risks and produced an unending river of content. (A 2017 South Park joke had execs answering the phone with “Hello, Netflix – you’re greenlit.”) But with Disney, Apple and Amazon entering the market – three of the biggest companies in the world, with endless resources – plus competitors such as Paramount and Warner/HBO with their bottomless back catalogues of intellectual property, it’s understandable that Netflix has to make tough decisions about which shows to prioritise.

It still hurts though. And it’s maddening. Shows that capture us from the start get ripped away once we’ve poured hours and hours of our lives into them, while potential future favourites never get the chance to find their feet. In the early 1990s, Star Trek: The Next Generation became one of the most beloved TV shows of all time, but its first two seasons are extremely ropey. It needed 40 hours of television to find its feet, let alone its audience. Thirty years later, and 2022’s critically acclaimed The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself was cancelled just six weeks after its premier. What chance did it have?

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We’re constantly told we’re in a golden age of television drama. A time of “peak TV”. It would be nice if we were allowed to climb those peaks all the way to the top and enjoy the view – without someone blowing up the summit before we got there, wasting all the time and energy we expended along the way.

[See also: Happy Valley review: as magnificent as ever]

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