We Need The Soup Back as a Remedy to Peak TV OverloadPhoto Courtesy of E! Network TV Features The Soup
When The Soup aired on E! in 2004 there were less than 250 television series that were currently airing. The show targeted the increasingly absurd and stupid moments on TV that an average person would never have time to discover. Host Joel McHale relished in making fun of what TV was becoming, highlighting the insanity of the newly thriving reality TV genre, the often ridiculous drama of police procedurals, and even targeted the shows on E! Itself.
In 2015 The Soup was canceled. When the series went off the air there were 1,436 TV series currently airing; an almost 7x increase in 10 years. That number has only continued to increase, with 2022 clocking in at over 2,000 TV shows, the first time the number has gone over 2k. Streaming and primetime combined have produced too many series to keep track of. But in this age of increased content I find myself wanting someone who can comb through the insanity and show us the highlights. We need The Soup now more than ever.
The Soup started as a retooled version of Chat Soup, an E! series that focused specifically on the silliness of talk shows and launched the career of Greg Kinnear. When The Soup with Joel McHale aired, the show broadened its horizons, using more formats such as an increased amount of sketch comedy, and making fun of scripted series and celebrity news alongside the usual chat show targets. Over the course of 618 episodes, the series built a pantheon of running gags and inside jokes that gave it its own unique voice when parodying and mocking the transformation of the TV landscape.
The Soup sifted through TV for its viewers, letting you know what was happening on shows you would never watch. The series can sometimes feel dated in its early 2000s sensibilities, especially with its dissection of celebrity scandals and the birth of the reality TV star. The show was crude and sometimes mean, but never went completely overboard. The Soup was trying to help its audience, taking on the burden of watching truly horrible shows. But it was simultaneously mocking the TV-hungry entertainment industry that was comfortable putting absolutely anything on television, regardless of quality.
The Soup provided a much needed addition to the TV landscape: commentary. Shows in a vacuum are only so entertaining, the ability to dissect and even make fun of their execution creates a fuller ecosystem. The Soup thus acted as a check to TV, showing that someone could be watching, and that craziness wouldn’t be able to hide on an undiscovered channel. Weird local news story? The Soup was there. Schlocky soap opera meant for retirees? Not an excuse for horrible writing.
In the absence of The Soup, the video commentary industry has turned digital. TikTok and YouTubers are the ones who find the weird shows and movies to dissect now. Commentary YouTube channels are a natural evolution to what The Soup did: Find something strange, show a segment, make some jokes, even perform a sketch that further emphasizes the insanity.
But as technology becomes faster and more connected, the online commentary system has become unstable. An excellent recent example can be seen in the virality of the TV series The Good Doctor, which has been operating as a standard medical procedural since 2017. It averaged 11 million viewers over 6 seasons. Recently short clips were uploaded to TikTok depicting strange scenarios on the show. These clips got put on Twitter. Suddenly an online community who had no clue the show existed is relishing in mocking its insanity. The show is in the top 30 most popular series on cable, but through online commentary you would think it was under-the-radar. The work of The Soup has been outsourced to thousands of internet users who frame their commentary through the lens of “isn’t this crazy?” The result? A culture that comments but has nothing to say, jokes bonded only in mockery without craft or intention. To put it simply: it’s boring.
The Soup has had two failed attempts at being resurrected. The first was in 2020 with a 13th season hosted by comedian Jade Catta-Preta that got shut down due to the COVID pandemic. E! has tried to scrub all proof of this reboot from existence; all the YouTube channel videos have been deleted along with its presence on official cable websites. The only evidence of the show I could find was on its Instagram, a full episode is almost impossible to track down. The laughless silence between jokes and the horrible 2020 timing never gave the show a chance to succeed.
There’s also the spiritual sequel to The Soup: The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale on Netflix. That show features a similar format, with McHale making fun of various viral clips, TV moments, and general pop culture news alongside sketches. The big gimmick is the high-profile guest stars that pop in each episode, featuring everyone from Ice-T to Ray Liotta to Drew Barrymore. But The Soup thrived off of being able to recount that week on TV, something The Joel McHale Show could never do through the binge model. The format was entirely wrong for what the show was supposed to be. The series was canceled a few months after airing.
When I say I want The Soup back, I also want its evolution. One of the frustrating aspects of The Joel McHale Show was the lack of change in how the series could function. The rest of the market is changing. The YouTube commentary space is fine for its aims but it works best in specificity. A video zeroing in on a specific show or movie as an intense deep-dive is a perfectly satisfying watch. YouTubers don’t have the bandwidth to scour all of TV like a full-time writing staff does. On the other hand, TV trying to tackle online culture can often come off as a mixed bag. It was one of the weakest aspects of the original Soup, and didn’t work on the Netflix series either. The medium of TV needs to be confronted through the medium of TV.
But The Soup’s greatest attribute was its scope. It made me think “Is this really something that airs on TV?” Now I have no idea what’s out there. TV is about to explode with shows and content, and yet nothing exists that adequately fills the hole it left behind. The ability to find all the trash and put it together made The Soup a vital service. It found a pattern in the chaos and strung it together with silly jokes and the most insane 15 second clips you’d ever seen. Peak TV is a beast only a great economic upheaval can slay. But at least a show like The Soup could provide us an arena to watch the creature squirm in.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Gold Derby, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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