Mail-order divorce

Netflix delivered any movie I asked for directly to my door. And yet, somehow, it just wasn't enough.

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Mail-order divorce

Everyone who gets back together with an ex says the same things. This time it’ll work, we say. I won’t be such a fool this time, won’t feel pressured, won’t let our problems pile up as the costs of our relationship accrue by the month. This time it’ll all be different.

And that’s what I thought this past December when, for the third time, I reinstated my membership to Netflix.com.

Netflix, of course, is the phenomenally successful online DVD-rental company that has rewritten the rules of movie rentals — and written video stores halfway out of existence. The company’s advertising hook is that customers never pay late-return charges. Customers pay a flat fee ($19.95, rising to $21.99 June 15) and are mailed DVDs from Netflix’s library. Customers are allowed to keep three DVDs checked out at any given time; when you’re done with a DVD, you simply mail it back, postage paid, to Netflix. When the company receives it, it’ll mail you the next DVD off your rental queue. Instead of traipsing to your local video store, you can watch a steady stream of films, never running out, because even as you finish watching “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Matrix Revolutions” is arriving in your mailbox.

The Netflix model is working. The company’s first-quarter revenues are up 80 percent in the last year, and Netflix boasts nearly 2 million subscribers. In the vocabularies of many culture snobs, “to Netflick” has become synonymous with “to rent,” as in, “Yeah, I Netflicked the ‘Freaks and Geeks’ box set this week.” I know people who have gone buck-wild on their Netflix queues, stockpiling the maximum of 500 DVD titles for future viewing and dreamily pasting their queues to Internet message boards.

“If you stacked every DVD we ship in a single pile,” Netflix’s starry-eyed P.R. material claims, “the stack would grow by 1,600 feet each day and be taller than Mt. Everest within a month.” The company believes itself to be a Force For Good: “If Netflix members, instead of receiving movies by mail, drove two miles each way to a rental store, they would consume 250,000 gallons of gasoline per day and release 750,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.” Apparently, nine out of 10 Netflix members are satisfied enough to recommend the service to friends.

I guess I’m that one other guy. I hate Netflix.

We go back a long way, Netflix and I. When I rejoined Netflix for the third time, I brought with me a history of failed Netflix relationships. At the time of our first dalliance, in 2000, Netflix was a tender young thing — less than a year old, and part of the brave new world of online convenience. Just as my new best friend Kozmo.com could arrange for a smiling dreadlocked messenger to deliver a pint of Chubby Hubby in minutes, so could Netflix keep my new DVD player well-stocked. Never again would I pay late fees! Never again would I, weeping, search the apartment for something worth watching! As long as my queue was full and my heart was stout, I would never run short of cinema.

That first relationship started hot but fizzled fast, a victim of Netflix’s caprice. The best DVDs were unavailable. Customer service was spotty. It all came to a head the dark night of “The Limey.” As I neared the climax of Steven Soderbergh’s fractured thriller — What happened to Jenny?! — the DVD began skipping, sending sound and picture skittering across the screen. At first I thought Soderbergh’s jumpy editing had just gone feverish, but I soon realized Netflix had sent me a faulty disc. Left with no recourse at 1 a.m., I angrily broke off our courtship, canceling my Netflix service. To its credit, the company let me go gracefully, refunding a month’s charges and apologizing for the snafu.

In 2002 Netflix sent me an e-mail. Everything would be different now, Netflix said. Its growing pains were over. Netflix had shipping centers across the country, thousands more DVDs, efficient customer service. Kozmo was gone, the home-delivery bubbles had burst, but Netflix was thriving. Come back to me, Netflix said. Come back to me.

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I was a fool. I came back.

Our second relationship was stormy and dramatic. I stormed out of Netflix two short weeks later when every movie on my queue was unavailable. Netflix couldn’t keep its dignity this time; it begged me, pleaded with me, told me it could change. Did I only want two movies at a time? Did I want a lower price? Netflix’s beseeching wore at me until, late one night, I agreed to renew for one more month. The next morning I awoke gasping — I was trapped! In the cold light of day I sent Netflix packing. I thought I’d never hear from the company again.

Last fall, my wife and I found ourselves frustrated by the lack of video stores in our part of Manhattan, so far uptown that our friends refer to our neighborhood as “Canada.” Our only video store had been Papo’s Video, a mediocre joint notable only for its bandwagon marketing; done up in Blockbuster’s blues and golds, with a Blockbusteresque font in its logo, Papo’s was yet another in the long line of classic New York fakes, immortalized in “Coming to America’s” “McDowell’s.” (“They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs.”)

Then Papo’s closed. And I found that the only thing worse than having a mediocre video store in my neighborhood was having no video store at all. It was then, at the moment of my greatest weakness, that Netflix swooped in.

Oh, it all started out great. Netflix really had changed — we received every DVD in a day, and they had nearly everything I wanted in stock, and the DVDs were in good condition. We watched “Capturing the Friedmans” and “All the Real Girls” and “Thirteen.” I developed a sudden craving for “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” and two days later its sweet melodies arrived at my door. Just like Satan and Saddam, me and Netflix were gonna make it work!

But then: “Friday Night.” “Raising Victor Vargas.” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” And that’s when things went bad.

One’s a stately erotic reverie by French auteur Claire Denis; one’s a hardscrabble tale of growing up in Washington Heights; one was the highest-grossing independent film of all time before Jesus came along. I ordered them because I thought I should, or because they were impressive-sounding, or because it’s really easy to click “Add to my queue” on a Web site. They arrived en masse almost four months ago and haven’t budged from atop my cable box since.

“Friday Night.” “Raising Victor Vargas.” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I know I should watch them — I hear each is really good, in its own way — but I managed to pick the three movies most perfectly calibrated to inspire my lack of interest. I know I should mail them back and move on with my life, but that would be admitting defeat. I have already paid an average of $26.60 for the privilege of watching each of these DVDs gather dust atop my cable box, their bright red postage-paid envelopes growing dimmer by the day.

Netflix and I have reached the heat death of our once-sizzling relationship. It feels like work watching all these movies. It feels like an obligation to keep this relationship alive.

With Netflix’s rate increasing to $21.99 next week, I’ve resolved to give our relationship a little break. That’s a lot to pay to not watch movies. And I just got a come-hither e-mail from another good-looking DVD-rental site, the one run by Wal-Mart. I know its selection isn’t as broad, but it might be nice to pay a mere $18.76 to not watch movies for a change.

And hey, who knows? Maybe it’ll really work out between Wal-Mart and me. It’s a good company, with decent selection and a good delivery infrastructure. Its site is attractive and functional. It seems to really respect me as a person.

Maybe this time it’ll be different.

Dan Kois is a writer and a fiction editor of At Length magazine.

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