By Jim Sabataso
For pop-culture consumers of a certain snarky stripe, “The Soup” was required television. The E! network series was a welcome weekly purge as host Joel McHale (“Community”) invited you to join him in the back of the class to drag reality TV and celebrity culture. For more than a decade, the series took the stuffing out of some of the worst shows on TV and endures as a hilarious example of low-key comedic brilliance.
Since its cancellation in 2015, fans have had little options to fill the void. Daniel Tosh’s “Tosh.0” is too web-focused and mean-spirited. Ditto “@Midnight,” which while more pleasant, was still essentially YouTube on shuffle.
Fortunately, Netflix is here to help with “The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale,” a new 13-episode series airing weekly. The format is essentially “The Soup” in everything but name. McHale is again in front of a green screen commenting on TV clips and the occasional viral video amid interstitial sketches and celebrity cameos.
McHale remains charmingly smug as he does his aloof, cool-guy schtick. That charm has always been the show’s secret weapon as it helped to compensate the inherent laziness its format. However, after more than a decade — two if you count “The Soup” predecessor “Talk Soup” — I am left wondering if the snarky clip show routine has run its course.
To be sure, the first two episodes of “TJMSWJM” are entertaining and deliver more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. A pretaped tour of Netflix HQ has McHale encountering a number of his streaming service colleagues, including a mini-reunion with “Community” costars Alison Brie and Jim Rash. It’s the kind of bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you humor that was a hallmark of “The Soup” until E! execs (e!xecs?) demanded McHale and Co. stop making fun of the Kardashians.
Similarly, cameos by Kevin Hart, Kristen Bell, Jason Priestley, David Oyelowo and series executive producer Paul Feig offer up some decent laughs as they take a meta approach to celebrities plugging projects. Another bright spot is the apparent budding feud between McHale and NBC “Today” show employee/YouTuber Donnadorable. We even get a callback to “The Soup” character Mankini, now referred to as the non-intellectual-property-infringing One Piece Man.
A new addition is the show’s focus on international TV. So far the clips have, thankfully, not been pitched as pointing and laughing at another culture. Rather, they demonstrate a recognition that bad TV is universal. For example, a montage of South Korean soap opera clips showing people getting hit by cars reveals a humorous, if shocking, cultural obsession.
But while it feels good to be back with McHale, the show’s one-noteness is increasingly apparent. The slipshod, slacker aesthetics — lazy segment names, amateurish title cards — don’t click the way they used to.
Neither do the clip-reel jokes. At this point, we’ve been immersed in reality TV culture for so long that our sense of schadenfreude is finely tuned. We’ve internalized McHale’s aloof snark. The clips speak for themselves, making punchlines extraneous and obvious.
For fans of “The Soup,” there is a lot to like about “The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale.” It’s a welcome return of a once essential piece of pop-culture criticism. New viewers, however, may struggle to figure out what all the fuss is about.
CHECK IT OUT
New episodes of “The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale” are released every Sunday on Netflix.