If Fox told you they wanted you to host a talk show, you’d probably do whatever you needed to make that a reality. You might bend over backwards, trade a bit of your dignity or scruples, or otherwise make some iffy compromises. What Just Happened??! with Fred Savage is—to answer its title question—what happens when that job is offered in a pop culture landscape on the cusp of self-cannibalism. What Just Happened??! exists because host Savage simply “didn’t want to do a talk show ,” but still wanted the gig. This mercenary origin only led to an absurdly commercialized show that serves as the logical conclusion for fandom’s bleak current trajectory.
What Just Happened??! is a talk show, akin to AMC’s Talking Dead and Talking Saul, devoted to discussing the televised events of The Flare. The thing is, The Flare isn’t real. The made-up sci-fi drama is based on some made-up sci-fi books by a made-up author. Savage pretends to love all these made-up things, even more than hosts usually pretend to love the subject of whatever they’re hosting. With the amount of lore baked into this show, it’s surprising that they didn’t just spend the extra week and self-publish The Moon Is the Sun at Night series. At least then one layer of fiction would be peeled from this nigh-impenetrable pop culture in-joke.
These kinds of talk shows are a reaction to genre fandom and the social media discourse that has helped make TV recaps reliable content. TV has long had talk shows about politics, sports, celebrities and more. So why not TV itself? More pressingly, why not zombies? In fact, why bother to make it about anything? This absurd extension of the water cooler discussion—which ditches any sort of source material for the frustrating tautology of fictional fiction—could only take place in a culture where postmodernism’s irony has been fully replaced by a bright-eyed New Sincerity. The problem with sincerity is that capitalism will always exploit it. What Just Happened??! devolves the populist zeal of the subgenre into an inevitable bastardization that highlights the already-present relationship between owners of art and fans of art.
The recap show was already a standard-bearer for the obscene, profit-minded echo chamber that has come to dominate the genre side of pop culture. Marvel movies rule the box office. Game of Thrones ran TV. Comic conventions are big, big business. Catering to fans is all that matters—and now studios and corporations have figured that out. Pop culture’s devotion to hyper-dominate genre properties means that the blind-hype whitewater is being fed by plenty of toxic tributaries. It also means that it will soon be so polluted that something like What Just Happened??! will be indistinguishable from the “real” version of that talk show.
The idea that people will love an aftershow without needing to watch the actual show sounds like a trite satire, but What Just Happened??! never even finds that level of insight. The show is stuffed with the kind of schlubby self-loathing internalized by the incels of the world, but then they forgot to write the jokes. Or perhaps they knew that was besides the point. Few things in the series would become more palatable if they were a parody of actual subject matter. The first episode, “Flarenomenon,” is one of these. While the grammatical and logical gymnastics the show requires are at least somewhat novel for network TV, these flourishes serve no purpose. They have nothing to say. “This is not a spoof or a lampooning of anything,” Savage said in an interview. “This is definitely using the fervent fandom that defines after-shows, and the pop culture that come up around pop culture, and embrace [sic] it.” What does that mean?
Embracing enthusiasm without having a subject to be enthusiastic about sounds more like mass hysteria—like one of the dancing plagues of the late Middle Ages—than fandom in the traditional sense. Only, look back at that quote. It’s “using the fervent fandom.” [My emphasis] We’re already at peak cynicism. Savage shouts every line, mugs to the camera, and generally acts like Chris Hardwick or Jimmy Fallon on the days where they must sigh in the mirror and say, “You just have to get through this night.” Without a layer of critical thought between show and subject matter (The Flare and its actors are just as straightforward and bland as the framing show) there is only the thinnest barrier between what’s happening on the show and the bald contempt held by those producing it. It’s like reading an April Fool’s press release for fun. You know you’re being sold instead of entertained, but even that Pyrrhic victory is unattainable here.
Late night variety show basics, like splitting the program into various segments that each cater to a particular part of the audience, become a mockery. Each part of What Just Happened??! only seems dedicated to pleasing sponsors, guests and other economic beneficiaries. After one or two unfunny bits, the show still helps promote the real-life projects of people like Savage’s The Grinder co-star Rob Lowe, and sell real-life products like Wendy’s Frosties. In fact, the only fake thing about the aftershow is what separates it from being a string of commercials or press conferences. As fandom spirals out of control, Savage is right. What Just Happened??! doesn’t feel like a spoof. It feels like pop culture’s tragic endgame.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.