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Why Netflix’s One Day at a Time Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal

Photo: Michael Yarish/Netflix

When Netflix announced that it was cancelling One Day at a Time on Thursday, it sparked an outpouring on social media that’s long become familiar when a beloved show ends abruptly. There were sad, resigned statements from the creators, fury from the fans, and the inevitable, perpetually unwelcome “ … and this surprises you?” jabs from the peanut gallery. There was a quick clamor for the show to be picked up somewhere else, be it the nascent Apple streaming service, a broadcast network, or anywhere else that might give the acclaimed sitcom an additional season.

The cancellation of One Day at a Time was different in one major way, though: Critics and fans alike weren’t merely frustrated and sad, as they often are when their favorite shows get axed; they felt a sense of betrayal and disgust at how Netflix chose to announce the news. Rather than a straight-up explanation of a business decision, it felt like Netflix was trying to help its subscribers break up with One Day at a Time via tweet. If indeed making the show no longer made financial sense, then some measure of that blowback was unavoidable, regardless of how it broke the news. But this was the all but inevitable result of a social media strategy aimed at turning a multi-billion-dollar media company into your Online Friend.

First, the show’s cancellation was announced in a tweet by @netflix, couched in the personal but obfuscating “we.”

The logic the tweet offers for ODAAT’s cancellation — that there were “simply not enough people” to justify renewing the show for another season — is frustratingly opaque. Netflix is happy to tout its audience numbers when they’re impressive, but only releases that information in uneven, potentially misleading bits here and there, not in a systematic way that covers its whole programming slate.

That’s made it hard to know how big a hit any Netflix show is, unless, of course, you totally trust Netflix when it says lots of people watched You and Bird Box and Sex Education. It also means there’s no way to contextualize what “simply not enough people” means for One Day at a Time and its cancellation. Did not enough people watch it, or did not enough people subscribe to Netflix because of it? Are we talking viewers in the U.S., or internationally? How many fewer people watched One Day at a Time than Santa Clarita Diet? There’s no way to know!

All of this is Netflix’s prerogative, of course. The company isn’t required to release any audience data. But when it cancels a series that’s beloved by a vocal fanbase — the kind of show that engendered “save this show” stunts with skywriting — and then explains the decision is due to viewing statistics that it won’t reveal, it’s no wonder people get upset.

Netflix’s main Twitter feed turned the announcement into a thread, going on to thank the creators and cast for their work and for the beautiful show they made. It was a nice sentiment, at least until the real kicker came at the end:

One Day at a Time is a beloved show for many reasons, but a big part of its appeal has always been how personal it is. It features a Latinx family held together by a single mother who’s also a military veteran. It has queer and non-binary characters, and includes discussions of identity and race as an everyday part of life. It tells stories about depression, immigration, substance abuse, and sexual assault. The show speaks deeply to its audience because it considers, in a bracingly direct way, topics that other sitcoms sensationalize, objectify, or ignore. It’s the kind of show that packs the room at conventions and TV festivals, where people who stand up in the fan Q&A portion of panels end up weeping because the show means so much to them.

The final tweet in Netflix’s thread is infuriating because it’s meant to be a recognition of how important the show has been, but it also positions “your story” — that is, the idea of diverse and equitable representation on TV — as a replaceable commodity. “Yes, One Day at a Time will be gone,” the tweet suggests, “but we’ll make some other show that has characters and stories like these. Just not this show that you already love.” The implication is that stories that carry representational heft can be swapped for one another, that this sudden gap in Netflix’s programming can be filled by something else that will simply fit into the box ODAAT leaves behind.

It’s also an effort to make sure Netflix is framed as a good, conscientious, thoughtful content creator. Instead of owning the cold corporate logic of this cancellation, the tweets attempt to remind everyone how much Netflix cares, how much it understands the way fans feel. They’re an attempt to soften the blow, to make the company look better even while it twists the knife.

The One Day at a Time cancellation is frustrating because Netflix is not going to keep making a show that people love. But the disgust and fury expressed about it today come from the way Netflix acted like everyone’s friend in the process. It’s a social media strategy that’s driving this specific announcement, but it’s also been fueling the company’s social interactions for a long time now. Netflix is not just one Twitter account; it is many, spread across accounts dedicated to individual titles, but also differentiated corporate brand identities like @seewhatsnext, @netflixfilm, @dontwatchhungry, @NetflixIsaJoke, and @strongblacklead.

Those accounts aren’t just plentiful iterations of the Netflix brand set loose on social media. They produce voice-driven, often humorous, personal-seeming content that mimics the way real people speak to one another online. @NetflixUS and @StrongBlackLead tweet in the first person. @NetflixIsAJoke produces meme-tweets and humor about Netflix programming. @NetflixFilm baits the ever-snappish Film Twitter community. Occasionally, the various accounts “talk” to one another as though they are individual humans communicating on a social media platform, rather than multifaceted branches of a massive corporate social strategy made to interact with one another like tiny Netflix sock puppets.

One Day at a Time’s cancellation felt like a betrayal because, according to Netflix’s own best efforts at public engagement, the show wasn’t being cancelled by a giant faceless media company. One Day at a Time was cancelled by Your Online Friend @Netflix. As one decision about one show among an overwhelming slate of programming, it could have been a sad day for fans and nothing more. Instead, thanks to Netflix’s extensive social media efforts, it felt insulting, tin-eared, and greedy. It felt personal.

Why Netflix’s ODAAT Cancellation Feels Like a Betrayal