The title of the recently canceled Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous sounds ambitious, but that’s the point. Bo Burnham’s satirical MTV “reality show” about celebrity skewers a culture that tells everyone they can be a star. It’s a sharp subversion of the genre from the network that — by inflicting Jersey Shore on us — is a major part of the problem.
The series follows the titular Zach as he makes a weekly attempt to rebrand himself and become famous. The pilot episode sets the tone for the show well, as a family member dies and Zach seeks out a starring role at the funeral. The comedy is darker than MTV’s standard fare: Is Zach a sociopath, or is he just desperate for attention? The constant demand for reshoots of his real life are ridiculous, but then, so much of the “reality” we consume happens exactly the same way. It’s scripted, directed, and edited: Zach Stone just pulls back the curtain.
So why is a show this good getting canceled?
The obvious reason is that it never found its audience. And while we can blame MTV’s lack of promotion — seriously how many people even knew Zach Stone was on the air? — I think the vast majority of viewers just didn’t get it. So many of those who would have appreciated the joke have long since given up on MTV. (Their loss. Awkward is one of the best shows on TV.) Which leaves a lot of viewers who likely tuned in and scratched their heads.
I’m not calling these people stupid, and neither is Bo Burnham, who took to Facebook to respond to his show’s cancellation:
bq. I don’t think MTV’s audience is dumb. I don’t think young people in general are dumb or stupid or shallow. I love my generation. I really do. I believe that the “internet generation” (or “cyber generation” if you want to sound even lamer) is very misunderstood and underestimated. What many older people dismiss as my generation’s short attention spans, I see as young people hunger for density, demanding that every second of material that you give them is worthy of their time. This challenge, though daunting, is a good thing. It pushes art forward.
Burnham goes on to acknowledge that he’s a bit older than MTV’s main audience — he’s an ancient 22 — and that his show may have appealed to a slightly older demographic. Burnham might seem young, but he’s well above what MTV is looking for, as the network attempts to draw in 14- to 17-year-olds, “who have different preferences than the 18- to 25-year-olds who make up the older portion of the millennial generation (a cohort born roughly between 1981 and 2000 and also known as Generation Y or the Facebook Generation).”
I think the age gap between Burnham’s generation and MTV’s younger viewers, however slight it may seem, actually had a huge impact on how Zach Stone was received. The current MTV audience has grown up watching talentless “personalities” earn fame and fortune doing nothing: to them, what is Zach Stone parodying?
Those of us in our twenties grew up watching the transition: from The Real World, where normal people got airtime but then quietly faded away, to The Real Housewives, where wealth and fame became interchangeable, to the Kardashians, which took the concept to a new extreme. And now in an era of YouTube celebrity, anyone can aspire to household name status. There are countless Zach Stones out there, to the extent that I wonder if tweens appreciate the absurdity.
Sure, there are people who didn’t like Zach Stone because they didn’t think it was funny: I don’t want to suggest that it was simply too meta and went above everyone’s heads. But I do think the series could have thrived elsewhere, on a network whose audiences would have better connected to the show and fully appreciated the satire.
In his Facebook post, Burnham suggests that the show may have a second life elsewhere. I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t ever want to see someone as undeserving as Zach Stone become famous — but I’d love to watch him try.