National Treasure reveals streaming's secret problem.

National Treasure: Edge of History is at its best when it mimics the pace of the film series. On a streaming service that is not always possible.

The first season of National Treasure has completed it's first season on Disney Plus. Overall, it has been an excellent addition to the series even without Nicholas Cage. However, it highlights one of the issues with original shows designed for streaming. The pacing feels forced.

Streaming services calculate the success or value of a series by views of individual episodes. Crucially, they also do this by hours or minutes watched. In their most basic form, they are tech companies, and need you to stay logged on for as long as possible.

The result of this is the current trend of “10-hour movies.” Stories that used to be told as a two-hour film, are now stretched out to their maximum. Characters are explored, slow burns are encouraged, but so too is filler material. The 90’s were littered with John Grisham thrillers. These same sorts of stories have now been expanded into sometimes exhausting mini-series.

The success of this form of storytelling relies entirely on the quality of writer and editors.  Only Murders in the Building remains tight and engaging. The long form gives it room to switch tones and for multiple threads to play out.  Most Marvel shows could use a tighter edit. After over a decade worth of movies, we know how these stories are supposed to play out and can spot filler episodes easily.

From a narrative perspective, there is nothing wrong with filler episodes in television. They can offer moments of reprieve as story arcs ramp up and intensify, offering nuggets of worldbuilding or character insights that help enrich audiences' connection with the in-series universe.

However in the world of streaming, filler becomes obvious, and feels all the more redundant. A half-hour episode of filler TV in a weekly series is more forgivable than an unnecessary half-hour in a 10-hour movie.

Vying for eyeballs amid increasing competition

With the wide variety of enticing options out there, offered by rival streaming services as well as other video content platforms such as Twitch, YouTube and TikTok, buy-in into a series is much higher than it was previously.

Streaming services have the added challenge of having to vie for attention against all the other plethora of distractions that the viewer holds at their fingertips. That's not to say that television viewers always devoted their full attention to their screens. However, in most cases, the television offered the most interesting entertainment, put on to make folding the laundry or other menial housework go by more enjoyably.

Now, the streamed television show may merely be only one of many tabs open on a viewer's device, as they simultaneously trawl social media, online window shop, or anything else the endless void of the internet has to offer. Any nugget of filler or redundant material makes these distractions, which are only the click of a mouse away, seem like the more enticing option.

This is just all the more apparent as streaming services offer picture-in-picture functionality for their platforms in which video appears in a floating window that remains visible even as the user opens other sites or applications. This mode of ambient viewing further pushes streamed media into the role of background entertainment.

Faced with these challenges, streaming services can either embrace the role of ambient entertainment, churning out content made to be played in the background, with plot points intuitive enough that they can tune back in at any time without missing anything major, or they need to employ any means of narrative technique they have to ensure their stranglehold on their viewers' attention.

Direct-to-streaming movies are not exempt from this pressure. Rian Johnson may not have made Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery specifically for streaming, given that it was Lionsgate that originally greenlit the sequel. The limited theatrical release that received was clearly more a PR move made to get viewers to stream the film.

However, it is undeniable that its success on the streaming platform can be attributed to its re-watchability. Johnson's manipulation of the the murder mystery formula, in conjunction with the plethora of narrative detail that he incorporates into every scene means that even when viewers know the resolution to the mystery, they still feel inclined to re-visit the film to catch tidbits they may have missed the first time around.

Netflix has also been investing more in foreign language films and series. Part of this can be attributed to a desire to capture a wider market. While foreign language media asks a little more of its viewers initially, it also offers a different set of solutions to the challenge of capturing audiences.

Viewers can't click away when they need subtitles to be able to tell what is going on. Foreign language media also adheres to a different set of conventions and cultural context, which can be refreshing for a viewer who has grown tired of the all-too-familiar tropes of Hollywood.

The same old tricks, just with better execution

Here is where National Treasure comes in. It is one of the more successful reboots or legacy sequels. It has the look and feel of the two John Turtletaub films. Lisette Olivera is a convincing lead as Jess in the series, and Antionio Cipriano brings the weird Nicholas Cage energy as Oren. Catherine Zeta-Jones recaptures her 90’s peak stardom as the treasure hunting nemesis.

The story is pure National Treasure. It follows Jess and her friends as they uncover the truth about her lineage and race to find a treasure with clues left to them by Harvey Keitel’s Agent Sadusky.

The differences between the two-hour films, and this series is pacing. It runs for 10 episodes, and obviously wants you to commit to all of them.

This leads to diversions in the plot. Oren and ex-girlfriend Tasha [Zuri Reed] find time to stop and have a long heartfelt chat at home despite the constant ticking clock. Jess explores her relationship with Ethan [Jordan Rodriguez] and Liam [Jake Austin Walker.] With the latter finding room for two musical numbers when danger is already afoot.

In the two Cage movies, the conversations and chemistry are explored on the run. The relentless pace and constant motion are central to the films. It is what makes them work despite being completely ridiculous in nature and by design.

The audience does not have time to work out if Cage and Diane Kruger make sense as a couple, or if Justin Bartha’s Riley Poole is a useful assistant. The plot moves so fast, and each set piece feeds into another. The audience is pulled along for the ride.

When National Treasure: Edge of History slows down, which it constantly does, the plot holes become more obvious. Disney Plus wants you watching as many hours as possible, but it is to the detriment of the story.

It is still a much faster moving show than Willow or even Boba Fett was. The plot is clear from the first episode, and it does not waste time world building or setting the stage as much as others.

National Treasure: The Edge of History is highly entertaining, but not because it avoids the typical structure of a streaming series. It works because it executes the same tricks better.

Every episode slows down to make it longer, and each hour ends on a cliff hanger. The technique is not dissimilar to a soap opera, the aim for many streaming shows is to take up as much time as possible. This is prioritized over telling the story. Where a film can be as long or as short as needed to work, a series must take up nine-ten hours at least. They need us logged on to that website.

To be clear, National Treasure is far easier to watch than most shows, but the technique is clearer because we have the movies to compare it with.