Other than a cluster of Netflix executives, it’s fair to say that nobody saw the cancellation of The Irregulars coming. A reimagining of the Baker Street Irregulars, featured in several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Irregulars opened to strong reviews in March. “The Irregulars not only puts the young street gang at the head of their own series, but it also catapults Holmes’ usually straightforward detective work into the realm of the supernatural, a move that the afterlife-fascinated Doyle probably would have applauded,” wrote Gwen Ihnat at A.V. Club.
The Irregulars was the most-watched streaming series for the week ending April 4, according to Nielsen. User reviews, it should be noted, were not as gushy as those written by professionals. “There’s barely any connection to Holmes,” was a common complaint. Unlike the critics (who had been informed in advance), many viewers apparently tuned in expecting to see more of the famous detective in what was promoted as a Conan Doyle-inspired show.
“It’s closer to Scooby Doo in tone, poorly paced and badly acted,” complained one viewer, although — as Robert Lloyd noted in his rave for The Irregulars — there’s nothing wrong with a Scooby-gang mystery. And there were plenty of positive comments like, “Enjoyable, if you can accept that this is not a historical show,” which were posted on Metacritic in roughly equal proportion to the pans.
Yet here we are, four weeks later, and The Irregulars is indeed “historical,” at least in network terms. It was an unusually swift cancellation by Netflix, which has never been shy about pulling the plug on a show that wasn’t clicking with audiences. Except that … it was clicking with audiences. Even Netflix’s own top-10 list of most-watched shows — one of the few rays of light allowed to shine outside its black box — had The Irregulars topping the chart.
The quick hook was even more surprising given what a very Netflix show it was. The Irregulars bore all of the hallmarks of the data-driven TV-show creation process that Big Red is well on its way to perfecting. If you’ve watched any of its homegrown teen romcoms or reality series or sci-fi dramas, you know that the streaming colossus leaves little to chance. Netflix’s servers take the pulse of its subscribers billions of times a week, counting how many times we scroll the screen, watch a trailer, add things to our watchlist and — once the fog clears from our overwhelmed heads — pick a show to watch (or not).
Even more than Disney+, Netflix has an almost intuitive sense of what its customer base wants. If there was a show in 2021 that seemed to reflect this data-driven approach to show creation, it was The Irregulars, starting with Tom Bidwell, the show’s creator. “The Irregulars may be the mother of all Netflix Algorithm Shows,” Dan Fienberg astutely noted, and not just because Bidwell is “a Netflix favorite” and because “Netflix has the Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. Sherlocks, plus the well-received Enola Holmes,” but because the algorithm was practically crying out for a show that was basically Holmes “meets Stranger Things meets Bridgerton.”
The only flaw in Fienberg’s logic was when he added, “It hardly matters whether The Irregulars is successful on its own terms if it's familiar on so many others,” because as it turns out, success still matters. To that end, some data dropped on me by the streaming hub Reelgood are instructive. Reelgood monitored Netflix’s top-10 list and found that The Irregulars only finished No. 1 for a single day, then spent another 17 days hanging around the top 10, then vanished. Compare that with, say, Ginny & Georgia, another show out of Netflix’s machine-learning lab (“a wannabe Gilmore Girls–meets–murder mystery,” as one critic put it). Ginny & Georgia spent 29 days at No. 1 alone, and more than three months in the Netflix top 10.
So what, right? Netflix has hundreds of new shows a year, they can’t all be in the top 10. But the data Reelgood pulled from its own servers — some 2 million streaming users in the U.S. — painted an even darker picture. Compared to Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit, The Irregulars debuted poorly, only getting about 60 percent of the audience of those other two Netflix originals. And then as Bridgerton held steady and Queen’s Gambit actually grew in viewer engagement over time, The Irregulars lost 80 percent of its audience share and crashed out of Reelgood’s top 10 in just two weeks.
By the way, if you’re wondering why Netflix drops all of the episodes of a series at once instead of doling them out week by week, I think we have our answer — because it gives Netflix feedback quicker on whether a show is connecting with its audience or not. Yes, Netflix is giving up the chance to generate excitement and anticipation for a hot show by artificially forestalling the climax. But this isn’t sex, it’s show business. And if you’re making budget decisions for 2023, as Netflix execs surely are, wouldn’t you want to go back to the lab and have it spit out another Sherlock Holmesian concept and spend money on that, rather than something that’s not working? NBC used to air a Friends knockoff every six months, and it felt like it consumed a quarter of all the oxygen at the network just to get one of those lead balloons launched. Now Netflix can throw millions at a show, watch it break, sweep it away and try again with hardly anyone noticing.
Mind you, that’s only an educated guess. Not even industry reporters know a whole lot of what goes on inside Netflix’s Santa Monica Boulevard suites. But we should get used to seeing what happened to The Irregulars happen to a lot of other shows. Whatever Netflix is doing, you can bet it will be imitated across streaming world.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.