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By Kevin Nelson · September 19, 2021
The story of Netflix is much like the classic tale of an outsider from humble beginnings. The simple DVD mailing service had bigger aspirations, and those aspirations, as well as its ability to adapt to the internet’s impact on daily life, helped it position itself as thought leaders in the competitive streaming race.
So, it makes sense that Netflix was the first big streamer to start producing its own original films and TV series, scoring huge hits with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black in 2013. But what led to the success of Netflix’s programming?
Their credits are a reflection of their innovative spirit. They hire risk-takers who aren’t afraid to push the boundaries of storytelling. From interactive movies to diverse voices, Netflix is a factory of creative freedom.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Netflix Original Series that embody this spirit of exploration and innovation.
Written and Directed by Scott Frank, The Queen’s Gambit is a limited prestige series, a format that was big in the nineties then fell off until it made a resurgence in the last few years.
The miniseries reflects Netflix’s brave spirit, following the coming of age story of an orphaned child as she develops her genius chess game despite her ever-shifting domestic life. Her very existence unapologetically bucks the traditional social gender roles of the era in which it’s set. She knows what she loves and goes after it.
The structure of the episodes is also innovative in that it mirrors a chess game. In fact, each episode represents specific stages of a chess game.
Take the first episode “Openings” for example. The first phase of a chess game is called the “opening,” when players begin to develop their minor pieces (pawns, knights, bishops, etc.) to take control of the center of the board. In this episode, we see the different “moves” Beth makes that will eventually put her in advantageous or detrimental positions throughout her life, namely learning how to play chess from Mr. Shaibel and abusing the “vitamins” at the orphanage.
If screenwriters approach a project that is centered around a game, they can use the rules and gameplay to help make informed decisions about the story. Frank consulted world-renowned chess players, not only for pointers on the technicalities of the game but also to help form the story.Download the Pilot script
Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, was rejected over a dozen times by various studios and production companies. They were running out of options. That is, until Netflix decided to take a risk on their strange little horror/sci-fi period series.
The brothers created a show that tapped into the childhood nostalgia felt by a generation as they waded into the depths of adulthood. It’s a callback to simpler times, full of references that create a sense of comfort. They delivered an Amblin-style coming-of-age story that quickly turns sinister as a convergence of popular 80s tropes ignite our sense of memory.
The show’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t hold back on the horror and sci-fi aspect of the story. Real moments of terror are born in the drama experienced between characters. It’s a concoction of genres that blend together perfectly.Download the Pilot
The Haunting of Hill House was a refreshing return to the gothic horror genre where ghosts aren’t just specters that scratch the surface but ghouls deeply rooted in the character’s trauma and grief. It reveals how surviving a terrifying experience that resulted in the loss of a loved one can linger inside of your psyche like a ghost, waiting for when you least expect it to jump out of the shadows and take the rest of your souls.
Episode 5, “The Bent-Neck Lady”, is the perfect example of how you can subvert your audiences’ expectations. The title of the series makes you think of every haunted house show or movie you’ve ever watched. You go into it with preconceived notions that any lingering presence must have been there already. The reveal of the identity of the Bent-Neck Lady makes use of the audiences’ prior knowledge of the genre to direct expectations one way for greater impact of the truth.
Whereas most horror films are reliant on instant gratification and jump scares, The Haunting of Hill House sets an eerie and somber tone and slowly builds up suspense while unraveling the mystery at the root of the haunting. What’s scarier, forgetting whether you turned off the stove or not, or watching the stove slowly burn a pot without being able to move? The build-up of anticipation isn’t released until the resolution, leaving the audience haunted by the experience.Download the Pilot script!
Created by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us is a miniseries that recounts the real events following the lives of the five black and Latino teenagers and their families after they are wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting a white woman in Central Park.
When adapting stories based on real events, there are a number of places where you can get the information you need. For DuVernay, that meant going straight to the source. After an exchange of tweets, DuVernay set out to tell the stories of these men.
As she told Rolling Stone:
“There’s a world in which this could’ve been more of a true-crime, follow-a-detective, whodunit story. But when I decided to firmly root the story in the men’s voices and their stories as boys and their families, all of the rest of that fell away.”
Most retellings of high-profile crime cases tend to sensationalize the events as if plucked straight from the tabloids. When They See Us is firmly rooted in the real men that the characters were based on. By being respectful of both the facts and their subjective points of view, DuVernay is able to tell the full story with heart and empathy.Download the script for S1E4
The Crown is one of those series that you’d expect to see on-screen somewhere in the future. After all, it is centered around the real royal family, many of whom are very much still alive to see their exploits dramatized on screen. Most biopics and historical dramas are about famous figures who have passed.
Writers who wish to approach fictionalized nonfiction should look no further than this series to see how it’s done. Some conversations are a part of public record, though most show what may have been going on behind closed doors. This blending of fact and fiction has to be done carefully in order to avoid scrutiny.Download the Scripts
Ozark helped fill the void of family-oriented crime dramas left in the wake of Breaking Bad, and it was Netflix’s first offering to the genre. The series had big shoes to fill and plenty of skepticism prior to release, but Ozark was able to deliver with its distinct tone and deep character dives.
As the seasons progress, the Byrd family keeps digging themselves deeper and deeper into their graves. Every episode is centered on the members of the family as they go to further lengths in order to stay alive. More laws are broken, the debt over their heads hangs heavier by the minute. This constant conflict cranks up the tension and suspense as the characters figure their way out of the latest hole they dug for themselves.
There’s a page-turner quality to the Ozark script. The pilot episode moves along at a brisk pace as the Byrds solve one conflict that only leads to greater conflicts. The episode has constant cliff-hanging moments that leave the reader wanting to know what comes next. The drama was so intriguing, audiences were happy to go deeper with them.Download the Scripts
The Umbrella Academy is one of those pilots that’s as entertaining to read as it is to watch on the screen. The writing style and formatting choices of writer Jeremy Slater reflect the manic spontaneity of the source material.
Adapted from a comic, the pilot is a perfect encapsulation of what to expect from the show. It’s off the wall yet grounded, gleefully tragic. The free-form of Slater’s writing style is nearly as dysfunctional as the family itself. There’s a wicked sense of humor that leaves readers and viewers questioning their own moral compass.
This was the first time the precedent of Rated-R superhero films like Deadpool and Suicide Squad was attempted in the hour-long show format with an equally successful reception.Download the Pilot script
Bridgerton was the perfect escapist fantasy for audiences yearning to break free from lockdown during the Pandemic. The show offers an alternate aristocratic past where race doesn’t determine one’s social standing and love affairs abound. There are plenty of juicy scenes that caused audiences to get all hot and bothered. In a time where intimacy and closeness were scarce, these are all things audiences longed for.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of creating something audiences didn’t know they wanted and didn’t ask for, but giving them exactly what they want and need when they need it most. Bridgerton did just that. Chris Van Dusen created a rich, inviting world that offered people everything they could ever desire. They were able to escape from all the troubles of the world for a little bit.
With the success of other feel-good stories like Ted Lasso, Hollywood is pining for comfort entertainment.Download the Pilot script
Creator Jenji Kohan’s adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir quickly became Netflix’s most popular original show. In typical Netflix fashion, Orange is the New Black offered a different perspective of the life of inmates. Often shown in a brutal light, Kohan was able to humanize the women living in prison. Instead of depicting the inmates as the antagonists, Kohan shows the real reason behind the tough living conditions: corruption, budget cuts, the privatization of prison, overcrowding, and other issues that inmates face.
The series is structured around flashbacks for each of the characters, showing how they ended up in prison. This gives each character in an ensemble cast plenty of time to grow throughout the season. It also allows writers to add depth to their characters. They aren’t just criminals living in despair, but people with real issues who experience the entire emotional range of the human experience.Download the Scripts
Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, Never Have I Ever is a sharp coming-of-age comedy with plenty of teen drama. Loosely based on Kaling’s childhood experiences, the show is an authentic look at what it’s like to be a first-generation Indian-American dealing with the death of her father, her struggling relationships with her mother and cousin, as well as her social life at school.
Narrated by John McEnroe, the show has a lot of Netflix’s pioneering spirit. Hollywood still has a long way to go in many areas, one being representation. Netflix has long been a supporter of bringing on diverse voices to tell their own stories and for the first time, Indian-American children can see themselves excelling onscreen with the terrific performance by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.
Sometimes a writer’s sharpest tool is their own honest perspective.Download the Pilot script
Netflix is at the forefront of attracting the highest level of talent both above and below the line. If its original series are any indication as to why, then it has to be because Netflix puts value in storytelling that isn’t just thrilling to watch but to make, as well.
Adapting and taking risks is what gave Netflix its edge in the beginning. Writers can learn from that. By examining some of the most popular films and shows produced by the world’s leading streaming service, you can get a better understanding of what’s currently popular on the market. When it comes to Netflix’s original programming, fortune favors the bold.