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Netflix, the Obamas, and the new cultural elite streaming your way

As the Obamas latest production hits Netflix, Big Issue TV editor Adrian Lobb asks: Is there anything that can stop the new golden age of global cultural players filling up our screens?

When Michelle and Barack Obama signed on the dotted line for a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with Netflix back in 2018, they joined a select and exclusive entertainment community.

These days, they stand alongside Oprah Winfrey (Apple), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Amazon Prime), podcaster Joe Rogan (Spotify), Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, David Benioff and DB Weiss, plus newcomers Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (all Netflix) as the select few global players able to launch their creative visions into the public consciousness with few barriers.

What America’s former first couple bring to Netflix is clear. The Obamas are a popular, powerful, respected and socially conscious global brand, capable of leading the conversation across the planet. When the Obamas speak, the world listens. So when they make a television show, the world will watch. Right? That’s the unarguable logic behind the deal.

The power this affords them is immense. Who else is allowed to produce such a breadth of television and film, across all genres? None, so far, among the list of big players above – though watch this space, because Harry and Meghan might just try.

In an age where the algorithm looked set to be king when it came to commissioning, global fame can sidestep the system

Shonda Rhimes is behind some of the biggest TV shows of all time, from Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal. Now leading her Shondaland crew, which signed a $150m deal with Netflix in 2018, she has already struck gold in tried and tested TV drama territory with Bridgerton’s runaway success. Benioff and Weiss’s $200m deal is about making as many Game of Thrones spin-offs as audiences will countenance – seven, according to the latest calculations. Rogan’s $100m exclusive deal with Spotify is about the streaming giant trying to elbow other platforms out of the growing podcast market.

Ryan Murphy — the producer behind Glee, Nipp/Tuck and American Horror Story, among others — is as prolific as ever. With a longform Andy Warhol documentary in the works, Halston (starring Ewan McGregor as the design legend), more Ratched and more true crime in the form of a miniseries on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, many argue he will struggle to justify his $300m Netflix deal until he comes up with a critical and popular hit to rival Bridgerton.

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In an age where the algorithm looked set to be king when it came to commissioning, global fame can sidestep the system. Because who is going to stop them, and why would you want to?

So it is that the Obamas can bring preschool puppet food show Waffles + Mochi, which went in to development at their Higher Ground production company under the working title ‘Listen To Your Vegetables and Eat Your Parents’ to the screen two years after their Oscar-winning documentary American Factory.

That film detailed a culture clash between blue-collar US workers and the factory’s new Chinese owners, coming out in support of unionised labour but painting a nuanced picture of the decline of big industry in the US. They followed it with Crip Camp – an empowering doc about a summer camp created by teens living with disabilities, and Becoming, based on Michelle Obama’s memoir of the same name.

The range of output is set to grow bigger still. Coming up is a major series looking at America’s National Parks, another potential Oscar contender as Riz Ahmed leads an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s stunning 2017 novel Exit West – an inventive, magical take on the refugee crisis. Then there’s a doc on the unsung hero of Edmund Hillary’s Everest mission Tenzing Norgay, a new sci-fi film from Rian Johnson, an adaptation of Young Adult thriller Firekeeper’s Daughter and The G Word, based on Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk about the unravelling of the American system of government during the Trump era.

“We created Higher Ground to tell great stories. This group of projects builds upon that goal and the incredible path forged by films like Crip Camp, Becoming, and the Oscar-winning American Factory,” is how the Obamas proclaimed their most recent slate of shows.

“From science-fiction to the beauty of our natural world to the relationships that define us, Higher Ground continues to strive for fresh perspectives, compelling characters, and a healthy dose of inspiration.”

So what does it all tell us about their vision? Plotting a narrative thread through their roster of shows and films in development is perilous. But is it too much to say that, while Donald Trump was in the highest office, Higher Ground have set about producing nothing less than a restatement, a reassertion, a re-upped and rewritten vision of the American Dream?

Theirs is a dream soundtracked by the workers’ songs of Barack’s podcast pal Bruce Springsteen in American Factory, populated by a cast of progressive Sesame Street-style puppets in Waffle + Mochi, and celebrating the US as a land of great beauty and opportunity for all.

And it’s coming to a screen near you via Netflix – starting with a series starring Michelle Obama as a shopkeeper, alongside a talking mop named Steve and Queer Eye’s Tan France guest starring as a potato…

Adrian Lobb is The Big Issue’s TV editor 

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