Barry’s frequent lampooning of Hollywood has always been one of the Emmy-winning comedy’s greatest assets. But in the HBO series’ third season, it’s almost too good, too real.
This season, Sally (Sarah Goldberg) has seemingly achieved her dreams. She’s filming Joplin, a streaming series she created, wrote, and stars in that is based on events from her life. We’re treated to the ins and outs of the experience, from meetings with distracted executives and long, stressful shoots to awkward press junkets and exhilarating premieres. It’s the type of storyline that pays off on Sally’s ambition, and easily connects with audiences who recognize the immense pressure she is under. But like the rest of Barry, it’s also deeply—and sometimes unexpectedly—funny, like when Sally is asked about abuse, a serious topic her show deftly tackles, during a press junket and then is immediately questioned about who should be the next Spider-Man (a storyline inspired by something that happened to star and co-creator Bill Hader. Sally chooses Ben Mendelsohn, by the way). But it’s when the show uses Sally’s story to take not-so-subtle jabs at streaming services like Netflix and the TV industry at large that its Hollywood arc reaches new—and unfortunately all too real—heights.
In the fifth episode, “crazytimesh*tshow,” Joplin launches on the fictional streaming service BanShe. Just 12 hours later, though, the show—which has a score of 98 on Rotten Tomatoes—is kicked off the homepage and barely searchable in the streamer’s database. The company tells Sally it’s canceling the show because “the algorithm felt it wasn’t hitting the right taste clusters.” Meanwhile, a similar series that has received exceptionally poor reviews, is popular because it is hitting all the right “verticals.” It is a perfect distillation of the current state of TV and the mysterious metrics that reign supreme and determine what’s renewed and what’s canceled in a viewing environment unreliant on ad sales and in which the ratings system of old no longer applies.
In the near decade since Netflix debuted its first original program and kicked off the Streaming Era, the TV industry has become reliant on technology and data to such an extent that it’s near impossible to uncouple them from the art that’s being made. While Nielsen knew what certain viewers with their boxes were watching and when, we’ve given streaming services like Netflix, Apple TV+, Hulu, and HBO Max full access to our viewing habits and interests, and they, in turn, have used them to discern any number of things about us and about TV in general, including which shows are watched the most and where they’re most popular, but also what scenes people have watched over and over again, the exact moment someone bailed on an show, and what thumbnail images are clicked on the most. When Barry turns its sharp wit and well-trained eye toward algorithms making decisions instead of the people in the room, it falls under the “it’s funny because it’s true” banner, but it also gives voice to a nagging thought: that the art—what’s happening on screen—doesn’t even matter in the end.
When Sally and her team question why Joplin is being canceled and suggest there hasn’t been enough time for viewers to find it or for it to build word of mouth, it’s frustratingly familiar. As one BanShe executive explains, though, “The algorithm takes word of mouth into account, but it considers other things, too. For instance, if viewers see someone eating dessert within the first two minutes of the episode, they’ll almost always finish the entire season. [...] The same goes for Central Park, kittens, Dev Patel.” The specific mention of the first two minutes is no doubt a reference to the way Netflix once reported streaming numbers (it has changed its tune in the wake of the success of the South Korean drama Squid Game), but it also highlights the impossibility of determining what actually makes viewers watch a TV show, let alone finish an entire season of one.
“Why do you even bother watching cuts, giving us notes, if you’re just going to let some machine make all your decisions for you?” a furious Sally eventually asks, no doubt giving voice to the same questions and emotions many artists in her shoes have felt over the years. When Netflix canceled The Baby-Sitters Club after just two seasons earlier this year, much was written about what goes into the streamer’s decision to renew or cancel. After all, The Baby-Sitters Club, a show aimed at young women that ultimately transcended demographics with its grounded approach to storytelling, was beloved by critics as well as viewers. It appeared to be popular and was nominated for (and won!) awards. But none of it mattered. Obviously, it wasn’t the first great show to be canceled before its time, nor will it be the last. But the shocking development underscored what appears to be Netflix’s primary goal for creating content, which is not to create meaningful art or even entertain and retain its loyal subscribers, but grow its global subscriber base. With one swift swing of the ax, we got a glimpse into how this goal influences the company’s decisions.
With Netflix’s reliance on the “adjusted view share,” a shadowy metric that considers numerous factors and reflects how valuable the company considers viewers to be, BanShe being a slave to its own weird algorithm is a pitch-perfect takedown of a muddled streaming landscape that has become impossible to predict or understand as more and more services have entered the market. It’s just too bad Barry doesn’t also offer a solution for how to fix a system that is clearly broken.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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