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Netflix TV Exec Weighs In: ‘Wednesday’ Season 2, Henry Cavill’s ‘Witcher’ Exit and ‘Stunning’ Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

When Netflix renewed Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” last month, the streamer was careful not to call the next chapter of the comic book adaptation a second season — but did not explain why. The reason: Netflix is considering releasing the next installment in batches a la “Stranger Things” Season 4, rather than its traditional binge model. 

“Everything is on the table when it comes to ‘Sandman,’” Netflix’s head of U.S. and Canada scripted series Peter Friedlander tells Variety. “It’s an innovative show.” 

That “everything is on the table” approach seems to be one Netflix, which launched its ad-supported tier last month, is embracing with open arms across the board in 2023.  

Of all the “how it started, how it’s going” stories coming out as the year ends, Netflix might have one of the best ones, boasting a steady stream of mega hits including Tim Burton’s “Wednesday” (which has now crossed one billion hours watched in just three weeks) and Ryan Murphy’s “Dahmer – Monster” and “The Watcher” in the final months of a 12-month period marked by steep subscriber drops in the first half. 

Jenna Ortega in “Wednesday”/Netflix Variety

“Yes, it was challenging at the beginning of the year, but from my perspective as a programmer, we really had these extraordinary hits all year long, and it wasn’t just at the end of the year,” Friedlander says. “‘Bridgerton’ Season 2, ‘Inventing Anna,’ ‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Ozark,’ that’s all in the first half of the year. Now, looking at the second half of the year, what a true thrill it is to see that the viewers are discovering and falling deeply in love with shows that are wildly diverse.” 

In a Dec. 9 research note in which he upgraded the streamer’s stock price target from $300 per share to $400, Wells Fargo equity analyst Steven Cahall pointed out Netflix has released “its top three most-watched English-language TV shows in the company’s history” since its big second-quarter stock hit: Stranger Things” Season 4 (Part 1 on May 24 and Part 2 on July 1), “Dahmer – Monster” (Sept. 21) and “Wednesday” (Nov. 23). 

“Five of our Top 10 most-watched English language series of all are from 2022, which is extraordinary,” Friedlander said, referring to “Stranger Things 4,” “Wednesday,” “Dahmer – Monster” and “Bridgerton” Season 2 occupying slots 1-4 and then “Inventing Anna” in No. 10. “Actually, I would say six of the Top 11 — because ‘Ozark’ Season 4 was in the Top 10 and got knocked out by ‘Wednesday.'”

“It’s encouraging and exciting to see how much engagement there is, how much people want to not only come to Netflix, but to finish these shows and then talk about them,” Friedlander says, adding that the TikTok trend based on Jenna Ortega’s already iconic ‘Wednesday” dance and set to Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary” is a favorite example of his. “Engagement. That’s what we’re pouring all of our efforts into.” 

Still to come are the December premieres of “Emily in Paris” Season 3, Michelle Yeoh-led “Witcher” prequel “Blood Origin,” and the Noah Centineo CIA series “The Recruit.”  

And then there’s 2023, which will see the launches of: “Bridgerton” prequel “Queen Charlotte,” “That ‘90s Show,” David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ sci-fi epic “The Three-Body Problem,” Shawn Levy’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” “Shadow & Bone” Season 2, “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 2 (watch Variety‘s exclusive trailer here), “The Witcher” Season 3 and “You” Season 4, as well as “Griselda,” starring Sofia Vergara from Eric Newman, the Sackler family saga “Painkiller,” from Pete Berg and Newman, “The Diplomat,” starring Keri Russell, and “Beef,” from Lee Sung Jin starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong.

Peter Friedlander, Head of UCAN Scripted Series Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix GAEL TURPO

Friedlander comes at his programming plans in a different way than many executives, due to his background. He began his entertainment career as a PA who drove actor Gary Sinise around on an indie film set.  

“He mentored me and asked me to be an assistant, so I went on a film journey with him.” Friedlander ended up at Tom Hanks’ Playtone, where he served as the executive in charge of HBO’s “Big Love” for its five-season run. Then came Netflix. 

“They were seeking out their very first executive to oversee ‘House of Cards’ when they were transitioning into original programming, and I was lucky enough to be the executive they selected,” Friedlander says. “Though I hadn’t had any studio or network experience; I came into it as a producer.” 

Friedlander has relied on that mindset amid the tough choices he’s made this year as part of Netflix TV chief Bela Bajaria’s team. 

“The experience of making content allows me to be a better executive by really understanding how the decisions are getting made,” he adds. “And the energy on set and the excitement around what people are making really fuels me and it’s important and allows me to do the best version of my job.” 

Here, Friedlander speaks with Variety at length about 2022 in review and what’s to come next year.

How did you decide on the trio of “Emily in Paris” Season 3, “The Witcher: Blood Origin” and “The Recruit” to be your final push for 2022?  

It comes down to the variety of offerings, truthfully. “Emily and Paris,” which is returning with such a strong season three, it’s just the most delightful, heartwarming, fashionable show out there. We feel like that’s a great offering in this part of the year. Then we have Noah Centineo, who has been one of our homegrown actors that we couldn’t be prouder about starring in this CIA show, “The Recruit.” I just came from the premiere last night and I’m still buzzing from it and to see how audiences responded to it was uplifting. Noah’s a star and this is going to be really celebratory of what he can do as an actor, and I think he’s going to have a large career ahead of him. So to have a fun CIA show that is full of twists and turns, and Alexi Hawley, who is such a brilliant storyteller, and Doug Liman, who is the perfect director to break out the show, that’s another element of variety to the offering. And then here we are with “The Witcher: Blood Origin,” part of one of our biggest franchises and it’s starring Time’s Icon of the Year Michael Yeoh. Could there be anyone more iconic than Michelle? Seeing her success and then knowing that we have the good fortune of having her be in this “Blood Origin” story, shot during COVID, it’s all fortuitous. I think fans will love it. It’s an expansion of a franchise, which is also important to us. These all speak to the diversity and the variety and the quality that we’re looking to bring.

“The Witcher: Blood Origin”/Netflix Courtesy of Netflix

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jan. 1, which is the premiere of “Kaleidoscope,” an incredibly innovative show with Giancarlo Esposito. This to me, personally, speaks to what the opportunity has always been from a streaming platform to use the technical innovations that can come from being on this type of platform. And finding the right storytelling married with the abilities of the product, it’s rare. And to find the storytellers that are so passionate about doing something that’s so unorthodox and challenging — it’s incredibly challenging to produce, it’s hard for the actors, it’s challenging for the storytellers, it’s challenging for the post. But the results we think are going to really speak to the audiences. Because it’s a heist show. Everyone loves solving and experiencing a heist show.

Still looking at this year: Season 2 of “Wednesday,” this has to be a conversation you are having right now, yes? And do you think there’s a chance that you could expand the world outside of just “Wednesday,” perhaps projects or a movie focused on the other members of this Addams Family?

You may know what I’m going to say — but I have nothing to confirm at this time. I am optimistic about “Wednesday.” We’ll leave it at that.

Weirdly, because it feels different, but we’re just two weeks into the launch of “Wednesday.” So we’re still really at the beginning of this cultural phenomenon. And there’s a lot to absorb and learn about it. It’s striking how quick something like this can explode on Netflix, and there is a lot you want to hear back from fans and audiences. It’s not just the dance, it’s people dressing up and buying makeup and wanting to look like Wednesday Addams. The resurgence, for me, it’s something that’s been in the culture for a long time — but never this pronounced. It’s something that we want to study and understand why this is such a phenomenon. And I think so much of it is Jenna’s extraordinary performance at the center. But that supporting cast, across the board, are legends: Gwendoline Christie, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzmán and Christina Ricci! 

The marketing approach to “Wednesday” was sizzling. Whether it was the billboards that say, “Honk if you’re dead inside,” or you’re at the airport and you saw those TSA messages inside the bucket, it was everywhere and they really contributed to making it such a hit.

I was sad about “The Midnight Club” cancellation and to hear about Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy leaving for a new overall deal at Amazon. But I know you do still have the upcoming “Fall of the House of Usher” with them and I’d love to get insight on why “Midnight Club” didn’t work out and what led to their decision to move their overall deal from Netflix?

We do have “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which I think is going to be a a brilliant show and Mike and and Trevor are our wonderful creatives. And we have had a successful partnership and sometimes, as deals do, the needs of the deal can change on both sides. And we wish them all the success in the world in their future because they are so talented and I am grateful that we have “Usher” to continue to work together on and to celebrate as exactly what Mike does so well. We will hold off on any details of “Usher” until later, but it will be impactful.

“The Midnight Club”/Netflix EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

Do you think it will be a 2023 title?

Nothing to confirm yet, we’re still in post.

Let’s talk about what we know will be 2023 titles, many of which are Season 2s of shows: “Ginny & Georgia,” “Vikings: Valhalla,” “Sweet Tooth,” “Shadow & Bone,” “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Sex/Life.” What does that stack of sophomore year shows represent for you?

I think it speaks to the success of the past. We’ve been able to break out Season 1s and bring out Season 2s in a timely fashion and, at the same time, continue to introduce new Season 1s, as well as Season 3s and beyond. From my point of view, it really just speaks to the success of the slate and continues to round out the offering and it’s worth mentioning it’s done inside the COVID bubble of it all, too. I think it’s something that we work hard to do. You can put a lot of energy into these Season 1s and you want them to bear fruit and hopefully continue.

On the flip side, several new shows were canceled this year after just one or two seasons, including “Archive 81,” “Raising Dion,” “First Kill,” “Resident Evil,” “Fate: The Winx Saga” and “The Midnight Club.” I know there are specific reasons behind each cancellation, but I’d like any more insight you have on why these shows didn’t work out, as they did each make multi-week appearances on Netflix’s weekly Top 10 lists.

I think you will hear this from many folks, but the cancellations are the hardest part of this job and when I think about the work that both the creators and all the people at Netflix put into them, we care passionately about them, and it’s not something that we take lightly. It’s just a frustrating part of the job that’s been a part of our business forever, so this isn’t a new experience to have cancellations, and hopefully we can continue to bring in shows that continue. 

What about the Top 10 list aspect — when a show does well, it can be more confusing to viewers why it was canceled.

I think the Top 10 is a useful tool for people to find shows, discover shows, talk about shows and also helps you for viewing. The Top 10 really serves in that way, and I think that’s something that speaks to the popularity in that moment, and I think that’s what it’s really about in that moment. And then when we have to make our decisions, it’s about the long term and the longer term viewing. We always are looking at many variables, too. The Top 10 is just one variable in that.

“First Kill”/Netflix Brian Douglas/Netflix

We’ve heard you have a new project in the very early stages of development with Joe and Anthony Russo called “Jet Black,” a high stakes action drama set in the world of professional race car driving. What can you tell us about that potential series?

“Jet Black” is a new piece of development that we’re partnering with the Russos on, and it’s set in the world of car racing and heists and World War II. And it’s led by the vision of Matthew Michael Carnahan. It’s quite a scopic experience and I will leave you with that. But it’s a big undertaking for us and a priority.

“Bridgerton” prequel “Queen Charlotte,” which is coming in 2023, is a very exciting, big example of building out popular franchises. But there is an inherent risk in trying to please fans. How do you decide what’s worth it and what isn’t in the franchising space?

When you meet Queen Charlotte inside the “Bridgerton” universe, you can’t help but want to know more about that character and her background. So it felt like a natural exploration to go into her background. And I couldn’t be more excited about “Queen Charlotte” and the expansion of the “Bridgerton” universe and the Shondaland slate. It truly is stunning and so I am glad that you are excited about it. It’s a justified enthusiasm because it is going to live up to your expectations. And “Bridgerton” 3, I was meeting with the showrunner yesterday in London and she gave me all sorts of exciting details about Season 3 that I’m not going to share with you.

“Queen Charlotte”/Netflix Netflix

Speaking to continuations of things — “The Watcher” and “Dahmer – Monster” were two mega hits for you this year, both out of your deal with Ryan Murphy. I know that they have both been renewed, so I’d love to know more about their future and about Ryan’s future with you, as his current overall deal will be coming to an end soon.

I can’t speak to the deal, but I can speak to what we have coming with “Monster” and with “The Watcher” and the fact Ryan had two extraordinary hits so close together on the service. It felt like such a moment for him. This is from someone who is so masterful at storytelling, but he’s also masterful at building out franchises. So to have two shows that are continuing from his brilliant mind and the way that he thinks about it, it’s just perfect for us. It’s a bit of a “watch this space.” Creatively, I can’t reveal anything yet — but I do think there’s real enthusiasm around the partnership to tell those stories. 

Have any of the reactions to “Dahmer” from real-life victims’ families given you more to think about when adapting real stories in the future seasons?

I think in any case, the storytellers handle these matters with real sensitivity and thoughtfulness and they do their research and we support them in that way. 

“Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”/Netflix COURTESY OF NETFLIX

I’m a big “Avatar: The Last Airbender” fan and I’ve been waiting years for your version. Are we getting close to seeing something from the Netflix adaptation soon? I just want a first look.

I think it’s going to be what you want it to be. It’s pretty special, just as an IP, it’s very special, something like “The Sandman,” and we want to handle it with deft hands for fans and to also bring new life to it in a way that both honors the original and celebrates its new iteration. It’s a stunning spectacle.

These shows are very big productions and it takes a ton of time, both on the production side and in post, so you have to respect the long journey for some of these shows to deliver what hasn’t been done on television before. And that’s what we have for a lot of these types of shows when we’re working on them, whether it’s “Avatar” or “One Piece” or “Three-Body Problem,” these are big, visual spectacles that you have to honor the process and respect that, when you’re breaking ground in visual storytelling or you’re on the visual vanguard of storytelling, that takes R&D, that takes a lot of trial and error to get it right. But that’s the intent, that’s the hope, is that you’re bringing eye candy matched with impeccable storytelling into these worlds. The journeys are long, but hopefully fruitful. Being part of these spectacle shows, each one is bespoke, each one goes on its own journey and it’s a little bit in between film and television, so you have to break the mold every time you’re working on one of them and it’s rewarding across the board when we get it right.

Liam Hemsworth, Henry Cavill in “The Witcher”/Netflix Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images | Everett Collection

Speaking of another VFX heavy show, “The Witcher,” I know you have one more season with Henry Cavill still to air, but all already announced the Season 4 renewal and that Liam Hemsworth will be taking over the role of Geralt. What was the decision there to not end it with Henry and to instead continue it and recast?

Henry is an extraordinary Geralt and I think Liam will continue and also be an extraordinary Geralt. There has been a legacy of of amazing, iconic characters where the actors have changed and we’re hugely optimistic about this. We will continue to honor the IP, the fans, the storytelling, all the way through. 

“Stranger Things” Season 5 — I’m not going to ask you when it’s coming, because I know you’ll just say you don’t know. But there is talk of a spinoff, and you are staying in business with the Duffer Brothers and working on new projects with them. How are you balancing that workload internally and with them?

We balance it by having a very healthy, fruitful partnership. No, it really is and it is a wonderful partnership and they are hard at work on Season 5 and I will not tell you anything about anything when it comes to “Stranger Things.” But they are hard at work and they are true geniuses. Working alongside them and watching them support “Stranger Things,” it blows my mind constantly to see how focused they are, how passionate they are. Then on the other side, it just won three People’s Choice Awards and it’s the Google search of the year, this is so beloved. And you get it when you are working with them and seeing how they work and seeing how they work and how much they pour of themselves into this show, you get why it’s connecting with people. They love their fans. 

On the comedy side, what are you most looking forward to next year?

We have a really exciting comedy slate and I think Tracey Pakosta has done a brilliant job in continuing to find new voices. We have “That ’90s Show” for fans of “That ’70s Show,” “On My Block” spinoff “Freeridge,” “Unstable” with Rob Lowe, Michelle Buteau’s “Survival of the Thickest,” we have a show from Vince Staples. The lineup is going to speak to all different points of view, but really, really hilarious stuff.

And if we’re doing a recap of our year, let’s not forget the Netflix Is a Joke Festival. It was a remarkable feat, also in the middle of the COVID of it all, to pull off that level of talent all coming together. The comedy festival sold over 260,000 tickets throughout Los Angeles, and hosted the first-ever stand up show at Dodger Stadium. It has been another success within this year that we should also celebrate.

Just when we kicked this conversation off, we were talking about ’22 and into ’23, one of the successes of our business is that people are really engaging, engagement is high and that’s the goal of what we do. And so to actually see people engage repeatedly, to see the drum beats of the success from “Bridgerton” at the top of the year to “Wednesday” so far at the end of the year, it really speaks to what we’ve been hoping to achieve, which is engagement, and that’s what we’re pouring all of our efforts into.

This interview has been edited and condensed.