Reviewing Netflix’s latest show, the inventively titled The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale, reminds me of trying to review Channel 4’s take on The Great British Bake Off. While that show came with far higher expectations and many fans with their knives already sharpened, the ultimately underwhelming niceness of it all feels eerily similar. Honestly, there is little that we can actually review here, because the show is exactly what you think it’s going to be. Indeed, like Bake Off the second time around, it is near identical to its much-beloved predecessor. The differences are so minute that they barely matter. After all, we’re all here because we miss The Soup, and Netflix were ready to fill the gap.
McHale hosted The Soup on E! for over a decade. And to many viewers, it was the only show on the network worth tuning into. Amid the celebrity arse-kissing, the sycophantic red carpet coverage and the endless assembly line of Kardashians and their hangers-on, McHale’s snark-fest provided some much-needed respite. As reality TV came to dominate the cultural sphere, descending into such embarrassment and carefully choreographed chaos, McHale and his predecessors were our regular reminders that none of this was normal. Every sardonic thought you’d had about The Bachelor was given the appropriate punchline with McHale and his ragtag team. As a Brit, The Soup was almost an anthropological examination of a strange land and the confounding figures it elevated. At the time, our reality TV offerings hadn’t reached levels anywhere near as squirrely as America, so McHale was akin to a taller, younger David Attenborough. Having the host be someone with Hollywood-ready handsomeness made the experience that much funnier.
2018 is a much different time from when The Soup was at its peak. We have a reality show star for President. There’s more television than ever that demands our attention. And all those strange international series The Soup would mock weekly are available readily for the rest of us to watch. McHale himself is a bigger star too. He’s headlined comedy tours, a few sitcoms, and can even played Chevy Chase in a movie! He headlined the White House Correspondents Dinner! He was a favourite for the role of Green Lantern! That unfiltered charm that seemed so tailor-made for The Soup has new outlets, and you can’t help but wonder what brings him back to this format. This time, he doesn’t have to wear a suit. But as comforting as it is to see him back in front of that tiny studio audience with the green screen behind him, it feels like McHale’s moved on. This is the gig you do in between the bigger stuff. But then again, I guess it was always that.
In many ways, it’s pretty genius of Netflix to revive this format. Sure, others have replicated it over the years to varying degrees of success, but the style comes with boundaries and barriers the streaming platform can quickly cast off. McHale has talked before about the restrictions that came with working at E!, including Kris Jenner herself trying to get him to clamp down on the Kardashian jokes. With Netflix, there’s probably only so far he and his team can take the gags. (Don’t shit where you eat.) But it seems more affectionate in tone. A quick tour through the Netflix lot in the first episode—with cameos from Alison Brie and Mike Colter—emphasizes how inherently simultaneously wacky and all-consuming the service is. When you offer something for essentially everyone, you can afford to have Joel McHale poke fun at you.
Netflix has also opened the available targets to McHale’s team wider than one could ever hope. Korean dramas, like the ones featured heavily in the first episode, are easily available on the streaming service now. Even though the intent was snarky, Netflix’s Ultimate Beastmaster gets better promotion from The Joel McHale Show than I’ve seen anywhere else. With The Soup, the audience was always going to be small, but The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale now has full-on international clout that it seems keen to take advantage of. It offers a beneficial relationship for both show and platform: The mocked show looks ridiculous, and you can check it out as soon as this episode is over, right here on Netflix!
With the exception of being able to swear, little has changed. And that’s hardly a bad thing. McHale remains winning and highly watchable. He’s charming with just the right amount of sarcasm, cutting but never descending into smarm. Sure, he’s self-aggrandizing. How could you not be when that’s the title of your show? But as with The Soup, he’s always known when to apply the breaks and douse the fires in a healthy batch of self-loathing.
Television’s never been as good as it is now, but it’s also never been as bad. Reality TV is cheap to make. It hooks in small but loyal audiences. And we’ve moved well beyond the need for good taste. It means McHale and company may never run out of material, so this format can continue well into the next decade and beyond, if they so desire. Whether you have the desire to watch this show will lean heavily on how much you enjoyed The Soup. But in these nostalgia-tinged times, when what we crave most is the stuff we’re most familiar with, there’s a warmth to be found in an old favourite returning to do what it always did.
The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale is available to stream every Sunday night on Netflix. The first season will be 13 episodes long. Mankini is unavailable for comment.