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Can Netflix build a factory for appointment TV?

Jon Stewart and John Mulaney.
Ryan West
Jon Stewart and John Mulaney.

A week's work of live programming on Netflix wraps up this evening with the final episode of comic John Mulaney's twisted talk show re-invention, Everybody's in L.A.

So it's worth a moment to consider the double-edged results in the streamer's attempt to create an avalanche of appointment television in just seven days.

On one hand, you've got the juggernauts of Katt Williams' Woke Foke live standup comedy special last Saturday, plus the roast last Sunday of champion quarterback Tom Brady – humbly billed as the Greatest Roast of All Time.

Both specials dominated Netflix's viewership charts this week, as Williams' viral trash talking and a procession of boldfaced names cracking tasteless jokes on Brady's wealth, good looks and failed marriages kept the country buzzing. (See below how Nikki Glaser stole the show with her barbed cracks on host Kevin Hart.)

And then there's John Mulaney.

Building an anti-talk show

In truth, my heart is completely with Mulaney's defiantly oddball project, which turns its back on many of the reasons you would do a show like this live in the first place. He kicks off every episode reminding viewers it is live with no delay, citing the time and temperature.

But he doesn't really provide much of a reason why he's delivering that information and he doesn't reference the day's news or current events – stuff which can distinguish a live TV event. He takes calls with questions from viewers – which makes sense for a live show – but often ends the conversation by asking what car they drive. When they answer, he hangs up; no punchline or indication why he asked the question.

Everybody's in L.A. actually feels like Mulaney's attempt at an anti-talk show, in the same way David Letterman and Conan O'Brien deconstructed and lampooned basic tenets of television. It is often a delicious dance between truly funny surprises and awkward moments, with experts on subjects like palm trees and the paranormal sitting alongside comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman.

Announcer/sidekick Richard Kind and a food delivery robot named Saymo.
Ryan West / Netflix
Announcer/sidekick Richard Kind and a food delivery robot named Saymo.

But Mulaney's show has run out of gas over time, slowly becoming less entertaining each night. Mulaney has also discovered a painful truth about standup comics who become TV hosts; it's tough to ask questions of guests while making them look entertaining.

A flex that hints at the future of live streaming

Mulaney's fading experiment, along with the Brady roast and Williams special, are part of theNetflix is a Joke Festival, which features hundreds of comedy performances across Los Angeles – a gigantic flex aimed at showing how the streamer has become the go-to destination for veteran and emerging comics.

But these projects also felt like a test of Netflix's ability to offer live programming without glitches, which would also rack up lots of viewing time.

It's obvious that there are two types of TV programming where streamers are still struggling to match the success of traditional platforms like broadcast networks and cable channels: live spectacles, including sporting events, and topical news and talk shows. So it means something to see streaming's most successful service try to present several days of live programming with a similar energy.

Netflix probably sees this week as a roaring success. People are still talking about the Brady roast in other corners of media, as participants pop up on assorted TV shows and podcasts. And they have more live content coming, including a boxing match in July between 27-year-old Jake Paul and 57-year-old former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, and WWE professional wrestling showsnext year.

There's even rumblings that Netflix may work out a way to get an NFL pro football gameor two.

Indeed, even as Netflix has pioneered the idea of binge watching TV on the viewer's schedule, it's also plain that fans want appointment television. These are shows so special, you have to watch them as they are happening – either because you can't wait, or to avoid spoilers, or to have a communal experience.

The Williams, Brady and Mulaney shows prove Netflix can offer more of these moments. Charting what form that takes — and how their competitors react – will probably be one of the most important media stories of the next year.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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