Netflix is designed for impulse decisions. Its whole structure is oriented to throw as many choices at you as possible, narrow those choices just enough to make you click on something, and keep you clicking for hours, weekends at a time. Netflix’s occasional forays into regularly scheduled programming work counter to this design, and that friction could sink The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale, one of the more cutting talk shows the service has to offer.
The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale is just like The Soup you remember. The Netflix housing means McHale can use more colorful language and relax his wardrobe but not much else has changed. McHale hops in front of a graphics-laden green screen and tears down one viral clip after another. His commentary is sharp and the jokes crackle with contempt, but the angle has changed slightly since E! circa 2008.
McHale used to tackle trash television from that genre’s preeminent channel. He was punching straight ahead, and it felt scrappy. Laughing with McHale’s snide comments toward the Kardashians or Honey Boo Boo was to position yourself at odds with all of that, and even though that position felt intellectually superior, it also felt like a grassroots movement. Joel wore a jacket and tie, but it felt like you were catching him at an after-work happy hour instead of the office hallway. This guy was only pretending to be corporate.
The Joel McHale Show carries a different tone. McHale’s 46 now. He’s a veteran of the industry and has built a sound critical reputation, and that cred changes his barbs a little. The jokes here are more cynical and they cut deeper, but they punch downward more, too. McHale used to feel like the class clown, but these days he’s more like a bully who picks on the popular kids. These are worthy comedic targets, but they’re also pretty easy shots.
The more obvious change from The Soup to The Joel McHale Show, however, is the shift in platform and distribution. Netflix will release one episode of Joel McHale every Sunday for 13 weeks, a departure from their usual all-at-once release strategy. This makes sense given the nature of Joel McHale, but it doesn’t make sense given the nature of Netflix, which makes you question the reasoning for this pickup in the first place.
Netflix has, or had, other shows that release piecemeal: Chelsea put comedian Chelsea Handler behind a traditional talk-show desk three times a week until Netflix canceled it last year. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is a monthly interview show with David Letterman that’s two episodes into a modest six-episode order. The Letterman show works because it doesn’t quite matter when you watch the interviews, but Chelsea probably tanked for the opposite reason—you had to watch those episodes right away—and The Joel McHale Show has that exact same problem.
Netflix doesn’t want to be a mere streaming service on your phone or TV; it wants to be your TV, period, and these traditionally released shows underline that vision. The Joel McHale show is a responsive program. It finds viral clips and videos and lets a very funny man riff on top of them, but that reactionary style doesn’t make sense on a platform that can’t put its customers onto a schedule.
Netflix users treat the service like a buffet: They sample and taste and try new things and go back for seconds and thirds of the treats they like best. Netflix, however, wants users to treat their content like Taco Tuesday: Every week, at the same time, we’re headed down to the same place for the same thing. It demonstrates a lot of faith in their own power, but it also demonstrates a lack of understanding in regards to Netflix customers. The worst part is, the loser here is Joel McHale.
Because even if you like the pilot of The Joel McHale Show, the chances of you circling back to it every Sunday are slim to none when it’s suddenly competing against the next season of Jessica Jones, or the new Everything Sucks!, or the old reruns of The Office you love watching. Once you’re through those shows and think about going back to Joel McHale, it’s too late, because you’ll be watching him make jokes that were only timely weeks or months ago. Lose-lose.
The best part of The Joel McHale Show illuminates what might be its most sensible way forward: the end credits. The final scroll features a rollicking, delightful song about the very fact that, since it’s Netflix, no one is probably watching the final scroll. It’s self-aware and surprising and the smartest joke of the episode, and that’s where the humor can aim next: Netflix itself. This is a giant corporation with an ingrained business culture and a slew of cliches regarding its shows, customers and dealings. Targets abound. Lock on.
Joel McHale turned The Soup into a tear-it-down-from-within riot fest, and he can do the same here. Even if his new show faces structural issues out of his control, he can still make the show into something valuable and immediate by commentating on its own uphill battle. Then, when Netflix really is all of TV, we can have The Joel McHale Show as something that tried to resist the machine, even if the machine had it doomed from the start.