Lockwood & Co epitomises Netflix’s YA problem

Ali Hadji-Heshmati, Cameron Chapman and Ruby Stokes in ‘Lockwood & Co’  (Parisa Taghizadeh)
Ali Hadji-Heshmati, Cameron Chapman and Ruby Stokes in ‘Lockwood & Co’ (Parisa Taghizadeh)

What do we mean when we talk about Young Adult fiction? Utter the term YA, and you will most likely picture something resembling Lockwood & Co. Netflix’s newest No 1 series has all the hallmarks of a YA smash. A mixed-gender group of teenage protagonists. A healthy dollop of the supernatural. A shelf-load of lore. Adapted from novels by Jonathan Stroud and created by Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish, the series follows a trio of juvenile ghost-hunters, played by Ruby Stokes, Cameron Chapman and Ali Hadji-Heshmati. It’s a CGI-laden fantasy melodrama, big on quips, and even bigger on action. And yet, Lockwood & Co also follows another of Netflix’s time-tested YA rules: it’s not actually very good.

Look back through the past five years of original programming, and you’ll see that the YA market is a well that Netflix has returned to many times. But the results have been mixed, to say the least. The streaming service’s back catalogue is laden with forgotten, indistinct YA series. Some of these lasted for multiple seasons before facing cancellation – programmes like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Locke & Key, Firefly Lane, or Ryan Murphy’s The Politician. Others were culled after just one run of episodes – insipid teen dramas such as The Society, One of Us is Lying or Raising Dion. Given that Lockwood & Co has remained at the top of Netflix’s TV chart for more than a week, it seems more than possible that it’ll return, at least for a second series. But make no mistake, Lockwood & Co is trite, unedifying filler – despite what some of its fans say.

The problem isn’t that Netflix is incapable of making good programming for teenagers. Indeed, many of the streaming platform’s most successful series could reasonably be assumed to fall under the YA umbrella – from Stranger Things to Wednesday to 13 Reasons Why. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The thing with series like Stranger Things or Wednesday is that while their subject matter might scream YA, they are marketed not at teenagers but at everyone. They are, to some extent, embarrassed to be bracketed under the “teen” banner – or, at least, careful to circumvent any embarrassment among adult viewers.

Of course, this is not purely a Netflix issue. The biggest blockbusters of any given year are all what would traditionally be considered adolescent fare. The rise of the superhero movie as the dominant box office force speaks to a growing conflation of the teenage and adult markets.

The problem with this – or, rather, one of the problems – is that it has effectively cannibalised the market for teenage-specific programming. There are clear advantages to having stories that cater specifically to the YA market; teenagers need programming that is intended for them and just for them, stories that can explore the knotty, embarrassing melodramas of adolescence without the need to sanitise them for the older, wiser masses.

It’s all well and good that series like Stranger Things or Wednesday can strike it big with a general adult audience. They were designed to do so. But it means that teen-specific programming is left with only the discard pile – series that aren’t glitzy or “prestige” enough to merit the big all-ages push. At some point, this must change. “YA” isn’t some kind of pejorative word. It’s a genre that needs excellence and investment as much as any other.