It was supposed to be Netflix’s big pre-Christmas hit, but a few weeks after it aired, the 1,899 figure surged. The eerie, multidimensional thriller was canceled with just one season under its belt – provoking predictable outcry from its small but high-profile fanbase and the inevitable online petition to bring it back.
The failure of the series is a surprise on many levels. It was the brainchild of Netflix gold team Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, the German couple behind the slow hit Dark. This series has garnered millions of views, taking the Stranger Things formula about obnoxious kids investigating a supernatural conspiracy and wrapping it in Teutonic gloom.
If anything, Friese and Odar seemed even more confident with 1899. There was an atmospheric setting of the 19th-century ocean liner, the Kerberos, with a rogue crew of heroes, villains and assorted malcontents. Plus, a dimension-hopping mystery that teased in the trailers apparently involved time travel and – always a good thing – a scary baby. On paper, it looked like Titanic met Downton Abbey by 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 assured. What could go wrong?
It turns out that a lot. Although Odar only recently revealed that 1899 was canceled – his and Friese’s overall deal with Netflix still stands – Netflix apparently gave the news to the producers in December, four weeks after the release of 1899. Writing off $60 million after a month seems like an overreaction. Then Netflix has never been the company that stood by the ceremony.
At first glance, 1899 was a hit of decent size. It’s true that it’s been a long time since Netflix’s real November surprise, Wednesday, the Addams Family spin-off that revived Tim Burton’s career, made Jenny Ortega a superstar, and introduced Gen Z to the radical concept of wearing black in public. Nevertheless, Friese and Odar’s spooky puzzle garnered millions of views and debuted at number two on Netflix’s global top ten.
But given the budget and expectations, it just didn’t work well enough. Poor word of mouth also suffered. While 1899 brought many twists and turns, culminating in a satisfying hair-raising payoff in the final episode, many viewers may have felt they’d seen it all before. (Warning: there are spoilers.)
We were promised a piece of an era full of mysteries. However, by the end of the first episode, it became 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 glitches were actually the work of dystopian mainframes creaking and groaning behind the scenes. In other words, Charlie Brooker with a German accent.
Once you’ve figured it out – and who hasn’t? – everything that followed was like padding. 1899 is further hampered by Netflix’s traditional problem of having too much content spread out too thinly. From the labor-intensive House of Cards from a decade ago to the recent Harry and Meghan documentary, Netflix has created an art form out of filling its TV with filler. 1899 suffered more than most – and unlike Harry and Meghan, it couldn’t tie you down with the promise of juicy anecdotes about Harry arguing with Prince William.
The series was also way too cold to the touch. Emily Beecham gave it her all as Maura, a neurologist who claimed to be traveling alone to America but was actually looking for her missing brother. So is Anton Lesser as Henry Singleton, Maura’s father and the fearsome owner of Kerberos.
Unfortunately, none of them received a very high rating for likability. Neither do the other heroes. They were an unattractive collection of regulars from all over Europe and a rag “downstairs” toiling in the Stygian bowels of the boat. Regardless of position, everyone lacked even a trace of warmth. Long before the mystery was revealed, viewers could be forgiven for losing interest. 1899 had all the humanity of an opaque sheet of glass.
However, these are ultimately redundant details. To solve the mystery of the 1899 appeal, you need to go beyond aesthetics and delve into the numbers. Because while subscribers watched a pretty good 257 million hours of 1899, only 32 percent made it through the entire eight-episode season (according to British data analytics company Digital i). Compare that to the 80 percent who completed the mega-hit Squid Game, the 73 percent who made it through Heartstopper, or the 60 percent who devoured steampunk arcane animation, and it’s no secret that 1899 is in the danger zone.
That completion rates matter more to Netflix than prime viewership was recently confirmed by Sandman writer Neil Gaiman. He urged fans of the Netflix adaptation of the series to make sure they watched it to the end. He said Sandman was expensive to make. The more people who made it to the end, the better the chances of Netflix renewing.
“They’re looking at completion rates,” he said. “So people watch it at their own pace [i.e. not bingeing immediately] don’t show up.”
The biggest mystery is why Netflix is so obsessed with completion rates. One theory is that viewers who watch a series to the end are more likely to renew their subscriptions – which is what Netflix ultimately wants. The critical hype and place in the conversation about water cooling is fine. But the bottom line is that it’s about a) viewers paying monthly to fix Netflix and b) attracting new subscribers.
“As far as I know, everything Netflix does is based on how it drives subscriber growth,” said Vulture, Baby Sitters Club creator Rachel Shukert. However, she stressed that these are just her guesses: Netflix never really tells producers or directors what goals need to be achieved in order to renew. “I want to be very careful because there is a lot of guesswork, but it seems to me that Netflix’s internal metrics can fluctuate from month to month. Something that was fine three months ago is suddenly not what they need anymore.
Either way, with a completion rate of less than half compared to Squid Game, 1899 was against it. There’s also the issue of the landscape, which has changed dramatically since Dark’s debut in 2017. This year’s eye-catching shows focused on spectacles, from roaring dragons in the House of the Dragon to howling holes in Tolkien’s parody of Amazon’s $1 billion Power Rings.
With impressive ratings and a dedicated follower in 1899, he didn’t quite hit the iceberg. But while a decent viewership was once enough to keep an iconic series afloat, it is no longer enough. As the blockbuster numbers released on Wednesday showed – a billion hours watched and counting – to be successful in this day and age, drama needs to really take off. At the end of 1899, he couldn’t escape gravity. And so he was doomed to sink without a trace.