Asked to use a particular phone, Whedon might say yes. “If we need to talk about the wonder of that phone? I don’t know.” Television is a mass art, requiring compromise, pragmatism, he knows—but the line creators draw should not be about “How coolly can I do this? The most artful can be the most unethical.”
LIZ: So, we wrote a product integration sketch.
LIZ: But we wanted to run it by you first, because it’s about how GE is making us do this, and we were kind of hoping that the GE executive in the sketch could be played by you.
JACK: Oh, I get it. The whole self-referential thing: Letterman hates the suits, Stern yells at his boss, Nixon’s “Sock it to me” on Laugh-In. Yeah, hippie humor.
Which is more naïve, Whedon’s belief in the radical power of storytelling—or the notion that every integration is acceptable, as long as the suits and the creatives stay friendly?
Could Whedon’s experiment really suggest an alternative to the Branded Universe? I want to believe in that possibility. But I know there’s another future, and it’s by far the more likely one, especially now that the economy has crumbled for real. In this version, that creative riddle that stumped Dick Blasucci on Mad TV has been solved. It is indeed possible to create subversive comedy that also sells Yarises. On most TV series, brands are woven indiscernibly into each plot twist—while on others they are referenced openly, with tremendous finesse, because there’s no longer any distinction between what’s funny and what moves the needle. Characters are designed as shills or consumers from day one. Shows themselves are brands, actors are brands, and so are songs and sodas, and these entities link and detach with the elegance of acrobats. No one will see a distinction between a scriptwriter and a copywriter—least of all an audience member—because that frog has boiled beyond recognition.
Welcome to the new Golden Age, fortified with optimism.