The fourth season of “Veronica Mars” is a triumph. It has all the great writing and acting from the original UPN and CW series, but it’s far more mature: Familiar without being overly nostalgic, shocking without being hackneyed, and funny but not flippant. And yet it’s almost ruined by a single scene.
In the fourth episode, Veronica (Kristen Bell) and Logan (Jason Dohring), are having an awkward conversation about Veronica’s ex, Leo (Max Greenfield), and Logan diffuses the tension by flipping on the TV.
Except he doesn’t just turn on a random channel. He suggests he and Veronica watch “Harlots,” a series that just happens to be available on Hulu, the very same streaming service that brought back “Veronica.”
Yes, the cynical, capitalism-skewering “Veronica” stops an episode so the camera can linger on a scene from “Harlots,” allowing for some quick corporate synergy that’s not only obvious but nonsensical. Can longtime fans of the series really imagine Veronica or Logan choosing to watch an 18th-century period drama about prostitution? I certainly can’t imagine them having the attention span or patience to binge-watch TV at all.
Hulu isn’t the only offender. Netflix has made a habit of promoting other shows in its original movies, be they corny holiday offerings, star-studded rom-coms or interactive science fiction. And it makes sense: Such plugs are free advertising in a TV landscape that’s more crowded every day. But it’s hurting storytelling, and it has to stop.
It was kind of cute the first time I saw this strategy surface at the end of 2018, in Netflix’s Christmas movie, “The Princess Switch.” The princess, played by Vanessa Hudgens, curls up with her love interest to watch Netflix’s Yuletide film from the previous year, “A Christmas Prince.” It made sense: Both were royalty-themed Christmas movies, rooted in the Hallmark movie tradition of cheesiness and a lack of self-awareness. So the idea of their characters watching (and even crying at) similar Christmas movies was amusing. But once was enough. When, soon after, I watched the main characters in “The Holiday Calendar” sit down to watch Netflix movie “Christmas Inheritance,” it was decidedly more annoying. And when this kind of brand synergy happens in more prestigious titles, it’s even more troublesome. Ali Wong’s celebrity chef in this year’s delightful rom-com “Always Be My Maybe” caters a Netflix wrap party for a fictional series that stars Kevin James as a young Benjamin Franklin. Sure, there’s a joke about how horrible the made-up show is, but also an opportunity to name-drop “The Crown” as the party she wishes she could cater. The joke falls flat, because it’s just not self-effacing enough.
Netflix didn’t self-promote so much as giving itself an ego boost in 2018’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” the interactive film that’s part of the sci-fi anthology series. Depending on the path you take, you can tell the main character you’re watching him on Netflix. Even in science fiction, where anything is theoretically possible, the lily was plenty gilded before Netflix jumped into its own film.
Product placement in shows has been a staple of TV for years. There are ways to make something as unnatural as Burger King menu items work in the script, and great series like “30 Rock” and “Arrested Development” have had their product placement and made fun of it, too. But it’s hard to pull off, and a list of egregious onscreen advertising would be far longer than a list of tasteful or funny promotions.
Streamers, I get it, it’s a tough world out there. Disney+, Apple+, HBO Max and something from NBCUniversal are all coming to fight for viewers, most of them ad-free. There are only so many ways to compete, so why not remind your loyal viewers just how great some of your other programming is? After all, don’t traditional networks and cable channels do the same?
These things are all true, but they doesn’t make flagrant plugs any more palatable. It’s annoying when an entire episode of “Superstore” takes place at a Golden Globes party because NBC airs the Globes. It’s frustrating when “Black-ish” goes to Disney World to show off the rides because ABC is owned by Disney. It’s downright horrifying when “Hawaii Five-O” stops a scene for a full minute so a character can evangelize about Subway sandwiches.
To be fair, watching Hudgens shed a tear at the ridiculous “Christmas Prince” is far less intrusive than sitting through loud and grating commercials in the middle of your favorite series, or hearing constant mentions of Acuvue on “Smallville.” But streaming, for many viewers, is attractive in part because you pay to take marketing out of the TV-watching equation.
So just let Veronica and Logan cuddle on a couch and sit in complex silence. Let “Black Mirror” think of technology that isn’t accessible to us already. Let Christmas movies refrain from promoting too many other Christmas movies. And just let us binge series endlessly without being reminded just how much TV we’re actually watching.