Critic's Notebook: 'Nanette,' 'Set It Up' and Netflix Discovery Syndrome

Netflix spends a ton on high-profile original programming, but recent weeks have seen a romantic comedy ('Set It Up') and a stand-up special (Hannah Gadsby's 'Nanette') become word-of-mouth sensations.
Courtesy of Netflix
Hannah Gadsby Nanette

There's been a new season of Arrested Development on Netflix for a few weeks and I haven't felt even the slightest desire to sample it. This is the sort of thing that would have boggled my mind just over five years ago, when I'd have told you that Arrested Development was a comedy pinnacle and new episodes would be an unimaginable gift from the TV Gods.

Eventually I'll watch those new Arrested Development episodes, but I suspect I'm not alone in my reticence. Using the purely anecdotal prism of my Twitter feed, I've sensed a drop in recent weeks of discussion of the big ticket shows Netflix has pushed on viewers, the sort of thing that might freak the streaming giant out — except that I've noticed a huge increase in Netflix Discovery Syndrome.

Netflix Discovery Syndrome is the process through which a new Netflix property I've basically never heard of on Thursday — keeping in mind that I do this for a living and it's very hard for something to premiere without my vague awareness — reaches bizarre oversaturation by Sunday night. It's a much more organic, user-driven process than if everybody were to spend an entire weekend talking about Lost in Space or new episodes of Luke Cage. Netflix, of course, needs both kinds of successes, the successes born of hefty production outlay and promotional juice, but also the successes born of discovery and conversational momentum.

A great example — the best example, really — of this phenomenon is Hannah Gadsby's Nanette, which premiered this past week.

You might have missed the existence of Nanette initially because Netflix has gone all-in on comedy specials and they arrive in such volume and from so many recognizable sources. It's none of my business how much money Netflix has spent on this pursuit, just as it's probably none of my business what the returns have been, from Netflix's perspective. From an audience perspective, it's become increasingly easy to establish tiers both in terms of the comic's material and in terms of the aesthetic presentation of the specials. One can see why recent specials from John Mulaney and Ali Wong have stirred conversation, while I haven't even thought of Chris Rock's Tamborine once since I watched it, even though I still reference Bigger & Blacker constantly.

Yes, Netflix has created a stand-up special avalanche in which it's easy to get snow-blind. At the same time, you have to know what the current stand-up marketplace looks like to recognize that Hannah Gadsby's Nanette stands alone.

Nanette starts light, with Gadsby, who hails from Tasmania of all places, explaining the title and touching on the evolution of her comic voice. Maybe 10 minutes in, it shifts and becomes something very different. The last hour of Nanette is Gadsby's explanation for why she intends to leave stand-up behind. It's an autobiography, a confessional. It's a manifesto of personal identity. It's a detailed summation of joke construction that could be a textbook on its own. It's an art history lesson. It's hilarious, because Gadsby's timing and perspective fuel every sentence. It's painful, because Gadsby's emotions and perspective fuel every sentence. It's funny. It's INTENSE.

There's always a struggle with stand-up specials not to remember that the filming of this routine was the culmination of weeks or months or even years of honing this exact same material in venues big and small and that most specials are cobbled together from multiple shows and that absolutely nothing in the special is truly spontaneous. This is presumably also true of Nanette and yet it feels immediate. You come away from the special wondering how Gadsby possibly could have done this same show the night before and how she could ever do it again. You can believe this was a show that existed only in this moment and you feel elevated from being a part of it.

I'm not a student of stand-up, so one of the few things I can compare Nanette to is the 2012 Tig Notaro set at the Largo that begin with, "Hello. I have cancer."

I am a student of current TV and you won't see anything better on TV this month than Nanette.

As Netflix Discovery Syndrome entries go, I caught up with Nanette relatively early. I watched it on Saturday night and it stood up to the burgeoning hype.

It took a bit longer before I could get to Set It Up, which was last weekend's Netflix Discovery Syndrome favorite.

Set It Up is a Netflix original movie, another classification that has become so pervasive that it's hard to know when something is notable and when it's another needle about to get lost in the digital haystack. Its success speaks to an apparently starvation-level situation when it comes to romantic comedies.

Directed by Claire Scanlon, whose background as a comedy editor is felt in every frame of this breathlessly paced feature, Set It Up is… fine. Heck, I'll even say it's good!

It's an example of a genre that's usually done with hacky adherence to a formula done with a little freshness. Zoey Deutch and and Glen Powell are entirely likable as leads and Katie Silberman's script has some truly amusing dialogue. The movie also has a cast full of appealing co-stars including Pete Davidson, Meredith Hagner, Jon Rudnitsky and Titus Burgess.

Set It Up is an interesting illustration of the difference between comic chemistry and romantic chemistry. My feeling was that Deutch and Powell have the former in spades, yet almost none of the latter. The movie's best scene involves the two leads and a box of cheap New York City cheese pizza and there's no point at which Deutch's chemistry with Powell achieves the heat of her chemistry with the pizza.

The things Set It Up captures well in terms of the emboldening power of friendship and the mixture of glamor and desperation that come from entry level work in the big city are similar in many ways to the things Freeform's The Bold Type does well. [It's also the same thing Starz's Sweetbitter does on a much lower level.] The Bold Type is a weekly version of this kind of sparkling workplace comedy, but The Bold Type is also a show of ambitious substance. Set It Up is a movie that avoids substance at every turn, to a degree that it's probably intentional. The Bold Type is designed as a show that's tied to the current moment, while Set It Up is designed as a movie that almost could have been made 30 or 50 or 75 years ago with few changes to its backdrops or social mores, except that those backdrops and mores feel generic in a way that they never would in the true classics of the genre. Set It Up has very little to say about journalism or venture capital or love in 2018. It just goes about saying that nothing in a completely diverting way.

Hollywood would do well to pay heed to how hungry audiences were for Set It Up, that social media has elevated this low-key winner to a must-see triumph.

I want to close here with another Netflix show I've caught up on the past couple weeks, and one that I wish were being talked about in the same way or at least talked about as much.

The Break with Michelle Wolf is terrific and it feels like it's getting a bit of traction in early-release clips, though maybe not as much traction as a regular weekly show. That's a pity.

I've been a Michelle Wolf fan since her first Daily Show appearances. She's as aware as anybody that she's not going to be everybody's flavor of comic and she's quick to joke about her voice and her hair and more. I wouldn't tell you that if you disliked Wolf on The Daily Show or Late Night with Seth Meyers or even in her not-wholly-representative White House Correspondents' Dinner monologue that The Break will change your mind.

I think Wolf doesn't want to be angry, she'd rather have fun, but she can't avoid being angry so she's determined to have fun being angry and that's the ethos of The Break. In that respect, the show's title is a misnomer. This is not a show that offers a break from the late-night cacophony about Donald Trump and other contemporary nightmares associated with our president. It's more of the same, delivered well.

So far, The Break is a lot of monologue, stretched over several platforms. Wolf opens with a traditional standing monologue and then generally moves her commentary to either a desk or couch. As she puts it, she's a triple threat. She has yet to repeat a segment, though most of her segments have been variations on the type of commentary from the monologue, whether playing off of Hannibal Buress in a segment called "Hate It or Love It," eviscerating CNN's guest selection in something called "Entertainment Explosion!" or holding a comedy roast for paper doll versions of the Trump Administrations in this week's "Teeny Roast."

Episodes have also featured filmed segments and those have sometimes left politics aside entirely. I don't know why, but I'm still giggling about the commercials for a new version of Alexa that you feed lunch meat. The musical number about the New York Times' Opinion page was extremely well done. Others have been less effective.

Only five episodes in, The Break has become yet another late-night-style show that I look forward to every week and it's the first of Netflix's experiments in this space that I've really enjoyed.

The Break is worth discovering along with Nanette and Set It Up and you'd better do it fast, because folks will be on to their next Netflix discovery by Friday night.