TV’s New Favorite Thing Is the Surprise Release

Hey, look, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) are back! Photo: Bettina Strauss/Hulu

This morning, Hulu announced that it has picked up the fourth and final season of UnREAL, a series whose first three seasons aired on Lifetime. But the streamer isn’t adding UnREAL next month or two weeks from now. It’s available right now, immediately. Surprise!

“Surprise!” has increasingly become a way that networks roll out their shows. Showtime provided less than two weeks’ notice that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? would debut Sunday night. Before the initial teaser was released, there was no hint the show would be airing in July. Netflix announced the May 29 debut of Arrested Development season five less than a month in advance, and did the same with the second season of 13 Reasons Why. Netflix has been a pioneer in this regard, unleashing brand-new shows like The O.A. with next to no publicity and then letting word-of-mouth do its job.

For streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, it’s easy enough to take this sort of shock-and-awe approach. Unlike broadcast networks, which have specific time slots to fill and advertising to sell against their programming, streamers can be more flexible and reactionary with their programming decisions. Even a premium cable network like Showtime can jiggle things around a tad more easily because they don’t have to worry about commercials. Plus, given how many subscribers watch via apps like Showtime Anytime or HBO Go, they are trying to operate more and more the way the streamers do.

The question is whether this approach benefits the shows and the viewers. Because I can tell you right now who it does not benefit: TV critics. I know, I know, you’re playing “My Heart Bleeds for You” on the tiny violin you keep inside your Sharp Objects dollhouse because no one ever, ever considers how the TV critics feel. (Won’t someone think of the men and women who are paid to sit on their butts and watch television?) For real, though: It is hard enough to keep track of everything that’s coming to the 80 million networks, platforms, and color-coded YouTube channels even when we know about each series well in advance. Now we have to anticipate surprise programming, too? If I go outside right now, is it possible that Making a Murderer season two will be lurking around the corner, ready to pounce? If I go to sleep for a few hours, will I wake up to find out that Shasta McNasty was rebooted, is improbably great, and has already been fully binged in anticipation of a just-announced season two? It’s not safe anymore, people!

Regular viewers may not feel the pressure to keep up in the same way that the “professionals” do, but I have to imagine they feel a little panicky when they suddenly realize there’s another show to add to their “must-watch” lists. Yes, there is a certain pleasure and sense of discovery that comes with surprises, not to mention the smug feeling one gets after bingeing a season that other people didn’t know had even arrived yet. This is why surprise album releases and pop-up stores and movies like The Cloverfield Paradox successfully generate so much buzz, at least temporarily: The market is so oversaturated with things to consume that being the first to know about a surprise album, movie, or TV show feels like an accomplishment.

In terms of getting media attention, the surprise approach can work well in certain circumstances. Take the two most recent examples: Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show and Hulu’s pickup of UnREAL. For practical reasons, keeping Who Is America? on the down low made sense. The less people knew about it in advance, the easier it was for Cohen to go out and perform his acts of undercover comedy. But once the Kinder-Guardian cat was out of the bag, the fact that both Cohen and Showtime had kept the whole thing hidden enhanced the sense of curiosity about the project. Whether it was good or bad, the hush-hush-ness around it made it feel like a must-see.

Unlike Who Is America?, UnREAL is not a new show and doesn’t represent a cable TV comeback for a comedy star. It is a pitch-black drama about the sleazy realities of reality TV, a once-buzzy show that lost its shine during seasons two and three. If it had debuted on Lifetime later this year, fans and critics would have paid attention to it, but probably not a whole lot. Releasing its final season like a surprise Childish Gambino single is a way to add fanfare to a series that could have very easily died a quiet death. The sudden arrival give it a little juice, at least for loyal viewers.

But surprise won’t work for every show. For Who Is America? and UnREAL, it’s a solid strategy because one has an established name behind it and the other has an established audience. While some totally untested shows have turned into breakout hits by taking an under-the-radar approach — Stranger Things is a great example of that — that is by no means the norm. In May, the same month that brought us Arrested Development season five and 13 Reasons Why season two, Netflix also released Safe, a new drama starring Michael C. Hall that arrived with minimal hype and generated minimal chatter. That’s the downside. People can’t experience the thrill of discovering something that’s so under wraps, it’s practically been buried, which is a fate that befalls far too many series these days.

Which is why I think networks should be very sparing with their surprise rollouts. If everyone starts to take that approach, the wow factor will fade quickly, and the fanfare about each surprise will overshadow the others. Pop music has already been wrestling with this problem, having been inundated with so many surprise releases over the past few years that it’s hard to process or appreciate one before another comes along. It’s easy to imagine the same issue arising in TV. The most important thing a good series can do these days is stand out and seem fresh, but an unexpected arrival can only help a show do that as long as every other show isn’t doing the same thing.

So be bold and go in the other direction, TV networks: Announce your shows a year in advance! Provide screeners months ahead of time! Eliminate all sense of mystery! That will definitely make you stand out. It may even engender good will with a bunch of jittery TV critics who must remain in a perpetual, catlike state of readiness out of fear that the next big television thing is going to strike during that millisecond when they decided to blink.

TV’s New Favorite Thing Is the Surprise Release