Carpool Karaoke review: Apple TV+ show runs completely out of gas

Carpool Karaoke needs to pull over [Apple TV+ review]

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Carpool Karaoke review on Apple TV+: Carpool Karaoke will never die. No matter how hard some of us might wish for its demise.☆☆☆☆
Carpool Karaoke will never die. No matter how hard some of us might wish for its demise.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+ is trying to kill me, specifically, the guy writing this. They’re trying to kill me. Send help. I am begging you, find someone, call the United Nations. You see, Apple TV+ bought Carpool Karaoke from The Late Late Show With James Corden — and it’s bringing the dreadful reality show back for another season.

The only saving grace is that Corden is not here, presumably because he’s harvesting the tears of children. There’s puff journalism, and then there’s treating the idea of Carpool Karaoke as some beloved cultural fixture and allowing celebrities the chance to “prove” how well they can sing and how fun they are.

Carpool Karaoke: The Series review

Did you know celebrities like singing, or that they all like to prove it? Well now you can watch them do it in a car. Like you could for the last four seasons of this show. Carpool Karaoke, where the celebs sing in the car like they’re alone, is no longer just a fixture of a late night talk show. It’s become self-aware and gone rogue. But don’t panic, it’s all fun and games in the immobile Carpool Karaoke car. Celebrities get in, they sing, they confess some harmless secrets, they show us that they’re just like you and me. Then they get on with their very rich lives while you go back to paying taxes and worrying about COVID.

Reality TV ain’t right

The CBS Corporation officially merged with Viacom, the owner of MTV, Comedy Central and a dozen other network subsidiaries, in 2019, becoming Paramount Global. This was essentially a formality. CBS and Viacom had been buying and selling, merging and splitting, since the 1950s under different leadership.

Most of this corporate shell game can be chalked up to ego on the part of the owners, but also there’s something to be said, from a tax standpoint, of shaking up your name and holdings every couple of months or years so that it can be more difficult to track exactly who owns what and for how long.

When Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, died in 2020, Gideon Yago, who had been an underpaid reporter on MTV networks for a dozen years and a network functionary before then, wrote that the networks under the auspices of Viacom and CBS were run like “sweatshops.”

A formula for cheap TV

Here’s how Yago, writing for Vanity Fair, described the environment at MTV:

That meant having workers labor for days, often weeks, straight, without any discussion of overtime; routinely firing employees just shy of the legal mandate to provide them benefits, only to rehire them days later and restart the clock on their contracts; blacklisting permalancers who attempted to organize; and the wholesale I.P. theft of young workers who didn’t know any better. Though not credited, I was in the room when a 24-year-old P.A. originally pitched the idea for what became the blockbuster franchise My Super Sweet 16. She received a $125 day rate. My former permalance colleague who came up with and pitched the format that became Jersey Shore was given, I believe, a Starbucks gift card. I never had it quite that bad; I was just sent to cover the invasion of Iraq without health insurance.

The hideous rise of reality TV

Chief among Redstone’s innovations at Viacom was reality TV. He was sick of kowtowing to unions and the on-air personalities who could grow popular enough to gain real bargaining power, because then they might ask for commensurate wages for their loyal crews.

So what if… he wondered, the shows were retooled as endless documentaries about “real people.” Then no one would have a job long enough to be loyal to anyone anymore. Crew contracts could be redrawn to shoot night and day without overtime because there was no script to follow, and thus no ordinary working hours.

Plus, using cheaper video cameras meant not needing a coherent style, so anyone fit enough to operate a camera could shoot anything. Actors wouldn’t have to be paid union rates because average Joes were brought in to be on The Real World or Jersey Shore and they’d be replaced at the end of the season before anyone’s stock had risen enough that they might consider asking for a raise.

I might be wrong, but I think the only consistently employed on-air personality at MTV is Ridiculousness host Rob Dyrdek, a man who looks like he hasn’t had more than two hours of sleep a night since the Carter administration.

Get in, loser, we’re ruining television

Carpool Karaoke review on Apple TV+: Gosh, will the fun never end?
Gosh, will the fun never end?
Photo: Apple TV+

Les Moonves retired as head of CBS (leaving Redstone’s daughter Shari in charge, just in time for the Viacom merger) in 2018. Actually, he was outed after allegations of sexual harassment and assault, remanded to his beautiful mansion with his wife and kids and his estimated $800 million net worth. I’m sure that taught him a lesson.

Before he left, though, he oversaw (if not personally) the changing of the guard at The Late Late Show, which filled the 1 a.m. time slot that followed Letterman then Colbert (a job formerly occupied by Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson). The replacement was the son of a bible salesman and a social worker named James Corden.

The rise of James Corden

Like a lot of British TV fixtures, Corden had sort of just started appearing places — on fiction, on pop news segments. He’d been a stage actor as a teen. Then, throughout the 2000s he started writing and appearing in more and more shows. Then, suddenly he was everywhere. You couldn’t escape him.

Corden wasn’t particularly charming. He had a decent enough singing voice but was always in a great big hurry to remind us of the fact, which made it a lot less cool.

A huge part of his early fame came from playing underdog characters. But that became impossible when he was worth millions and giving unspeakably bad performances in Into the Woods and Cats. So something else had to be done. Some other home had to be found for Corden. He started hosting The Late Late Show in 2015. Because, let’s be honest, no one ever stops being famous.

… and the sad history of Carpool Karaoke

Corden’s live TV persona was initially that of a guy who was just happy and charmed to be in front of an appreciative studio audience. In a few months, this curdled into a smug, hungover contempt for his audience, barely masked by the expensive smile and chummy rapport with guests.

When a witness reported that Corden refused to comfort his wife or hold their crying baby on a plane, no one was surprised. The joy on Corden’s face was actually a mask concealing a withering stare at all of god’s creatures, even his own offspring and the woman who carried it in her womb for nine months.

A dreadful idea from the start

There’s no better summary of the shift in Corden’s humors than in the history of Carpool Karaoke. In 2011, for charity, Corden asked his icon George Michael to drive around with him and sing songs in his car. It was a charming bit of hero worship just as Corden was starting to lose that spark of life behind his eyes. When he migrated to CBS, he decided to resurrect the bit. Thus was born a cheap and popular TV segment.

It was perfect in its way. Redstone’s strike-breaking measures could be upheld because you didn’t need writers for the segment. You didn’t need to pay the guests. You could claim fair use for the music rights, provided the songs didn’t go on for more than a few seconds uninterrupted by the voices of the host and guest(s). And the cameras are all mounted on the car towing them, so you don’t need focus pullers so much as you need a good driver.

Just like that, you have the supposedly authentic sight of Michelle Obama or Migos or Henry Kissinger or whoever bopping along to the sounds of Bruno Mars or 4 Non Blondes in a Lexus, looking almost human as they say, “You know, James, I studied a little singing in college” or whatever their PR teams have told them to bring up while promoting their new animated movie where a dog joins SEAL Team 6.

Stars and ‘stars,’ all ready to ‘sing’

Carpool Karaoke review on Apple TV+: Who are <em>these</em> people? Who could say?! You don't know, do you? They could be anybody. Maybe they broke out of San Quentin prison? Or invented a new kind of bread?
Who are these people? Who could say?! You don’t know, do you? They could be anybody. Maybe they broke out of San Quentin State Prison? Or invented a new kind of bread?
Photo: Apple TV+

Corden plans to retire from The Late Late Show next year to spend more time showing Barton Fink the life of the mind. His parting gift to us is selling Carpool Karaoke to Apple TV+. Up until now, I had an unprecedented run of never watching even a single second of Carpool Karaoke. (The first season on Apple TV+ arrived before I started writing reviews for Cult of Mac. Apparently, that season, too was a mistake of nature.)

So thanks, James. Truly.

Better still, go-getter that he is, Corden isn’t even in this version of the show. The guests interview themselves. Obviously this isn’t true — their jokes are prewritten (there are cue cards in the glove box they reach for every so often). But it’s hysterical to me that Corden helped hatch the first chat show without a host. Sumner Redstone is shedding a single tear in hell, thinking how proud he is of his boy.

Such insights …

Carpool Karaoke review: How quirky. It's a horse carpool.
How quirky! How relatable! It’s a horse carpool. 
Photo: Apple TV+

So now we get to see “charming” sights like this:

  • Sidney Sweeney bragging about the expensive cars she owns.
  • Zooey Deschanel singing to the Property Brother she left her husband for after they met on a previous episode of Carpool Karaoke.
  • Rapper Saweetie and singer Anitta torturing a 7-Eleven clerk (whose pained reaction shots at two millionaires twerking during his minimum-wage shift are used for comedy in pure reality-TV fashion) and singing along to censored versions of their own songs in a boat being towed by a Humvee through Glendale, California.

My personal favorite might be the completely charmless family of TikTok star Charli D’Amelio, a child whose existence had thankfully eluded me until today. Wikipedia tells me she has a career in social media. Her family’s antics are as charming as an attack by fire ants.

Why would anyone want to get to better know a family that became famous for telling us about themselves on their phones? What is there to know about an 18-year-old from Connecticut who’s famous for TikTok videos? Was she in a war? Did she save the president? Did she tap-dance across America without interruption?

Anyway, not content to simply annoy me on my television, they spend their episode screaming tuneless Spice Girls covers at strangers on the street who look like they could benefit from some of the millions of dollars that went into making this show.

Is this what Apple TV+ is all about?

I don’t know. I just … is this what Apple TV+ viewers want? Do they really want this? Or are they too tired to demand more? Do they know there’s more to ask from the world?

Does James Corden dream when he sleeps, or does he only see an infinite and all-consuming darkness stretching its formless hand toward him beckoning him to shed his hideous earthly shape and become nothing? Do you think he can still listen to music, or does it make him throw up like Alex DeLarge hearing Beethoven?

Does Corden’s father ever trip over old boxes filled with the King James Version Bibles he once sold to pay for his son’s future, spilling books out onto the floor, one of them by chance open to Isaiah 14:5? Does he stoop to pick it up and find his eyes drawn to the passage about the felling of the king of Babylon?

“The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked, the sceptre of the rulers. The whole earth is at rest…since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us. Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! Art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

James Corden may not sit next to the singing celebs on Carpool Karaoke anymore, but his presence will always be felt. Luckily, you don’t need to get in the car. It’s going somewhere from which you can’t return.

☆☆☆☆

Watch Carpool Karaoke: The Series on Apple TV+

All six sickening episodes of Carpool Karaoke: The Series season five premiere Friday on Apple TV+. Watch them if you dare.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.