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Deal or No Deal Island and the 30 Rock-ification of Reality TV

Tina Fey predicted the future with the fictional MILF Island. How did we get there in real life?
  • Joe Manganiello in Deal or No Deal Island (Photo: NBC)
    Joe Manganiello in Deal or No Deal Island (Photo: NBC)

    NBC viewers who tuned in to the NFL playoff game between the Browns and the Texans on January 13th got a bit of a treat afterwards, with a sneak preview screening of the upcoming reality reboot Deal of No Deal Island, a Frankensteinian mashup of the studio game show Deal or No Deal with the island setting (and one of the cast members) of Survivor. It's the kind of craven studio creation that could only be dreamed up by the most deranged analysts of focus-group data or the writers room at 30 Rock.

    The idea of a "30 Rock show" is a familiar concept if you've been around social media the last decade. It's shorthand for the kind of quick parodies of network-TV garbage that 30 Rock would toss off: misogynistic crime-drama crap like Bitch Hunter (starring Will Ferrell!) or pandering Sex and the City knockoffs like Gals on the Town. Most plentiful were the reality TV parodies, which sharply skewered the genre's tropes (see the two note-perfect Queen of Jordan episodes for Housewives parody at its finest) and the dunce-level programming decisions that were behind them.

    Deal or No Deal was subject to its own 30 Rock parody in a show called "Gold Case," dreamed up by Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) as an elevation of the Deal or No Deal concept by replacing the money in the case with pure gold. It was not the most well-thought-out idea.

    Of course, you can't add the word "Island" to the end of a reality show title without invoking the spirit of MILF Island (FBoy Island learned this lesson). 30 Rock's vision of a completely inappropriate reality competition among sexy moms and teenage boys poked fun at the solemn ceremony of Survivor and the trashy appeal of Temptation Island.

    Deal or No Deal Island is neither as bad of an idea as Gold Case nor as distasteful as MILF Island. It's honestly not a terrible concept, as contestants compete in island-set games to retrieve the iconic Deal or No Deal silver briefcases, play strategy games among themselves to see who goes up against the Dealer, and then presumably (the preview episode only showed the first half of the premiere) the players will go up against the Dealer one -by -one in a high-stakes game of financial chicken.

    At best, the show is able to get you invested in the game play, and the presence of Survivor legend "Boston" Rob Mariano is a compelling wrinkle. At worst, watching Deal or No Deal Island makes you feel like you're watching a network, a host (Joe Manganiello, looking handsome and trying his best), and the contestants trying very hard to make this all seem like more than a slapped-together reality mishmash. In other words, more than a 30 Rock parody.

    This is far from the first time that Tina Fey's award-winning comedy series has been applied to a silly reality TV concept. Every time a Floor Is Lava or FBoy Island premieres, it's hard not to imagine Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy singing that show's praises in his signature husky tone. "Lemon, it's a show where women compete for a proposal from a Prince Harry lookalike." "Where have you been, Lemon? Selena Gomez is our most talented cooking-show pop star!" Or, how about a cooking show on Quibi where contestants had to re-assemble dishes after the ingredients were shot out of a cannon? What about the concept of Quibi itself? Pure 30 Rock.

    Now that reality TV has gone beyond parody, the question is how we got here. Has the whole genre just surrendered to the low opinion of one of its harshest critics? The first and most obvious answer is that there is so much TV right now. Just hours and hours that needs to be made to grow subscriber bases and fill programming grids on cable, and there are only so many good ideas under the sun, so programming executives and creatives start dipping into the "Not a real idea but wouldn't it be funny if…" bucket.

    The other simple explanation is that the 30 Rock writers were great at their jobs and very astute observers of pop culture. The NBC sitcom predicted the game-ification of dating shows that would manifest on Love Is Blind and Too Hot to Handle because the writers saw the direction that dating shows like The Bachelor were heading.

    The one aspect of 21st-century TV programming that 30 Rock most notably discerned wasn't its sleaziness or stupidity — it was its shamelessness. The current landscape, especially the reality genre, reveals the triumph of shamelessness on TV. There's nothing sleazy or tawdry about Deal or No Deal Island, but it's definitely shameless. It's brazen in the way NBC took Deal or No Deal, a reality game-show fad that had run its course by 2019, and paperclipped it to a successful show like Survivor. There's no elegance or intelligence to the concept, just the chutzpah that says "This is so dumb, it just might work.

    NBC and the producers of Deal or No Deal Island know that they're going to get called out in the media for a hackneyed concept and mocked on social platforms. But those who embrace such shamelessness believe all publicity is good publicity, and that if a show can own its own stupidity, it can be successful. It's not an incorrect assumption, nor is it necessarily sinister. Netflix's Nailed It! is based on a social media meme about cooking failures, and the show steers into the silliness of that idea with such humor and aplomb that it works. In RuPaul's Drag Race, RuPaul is constantly rewarding queens who know the entertainment value in just making something as stupid as possible.

    But shamelessness on TV isn’t always so benign. When coupled with cynicism, it can have a corrosive effect on art. It's just a matter of where to draw the line. MILF Manor, the show that most obviously took 30 Rock's parodies as a dare rather than a warning, was both trashy and deeply cynical. So was Squid Game: The Challenge, according to many who found the perversion of the original series's anti-capitalist message to be in bad taste. (Then again, ask someone like John Waters about the value of bad taste.)

    Ultimately, Deal or No Deal Island is as deeply silly an idea as Big Brother Ultimate Holiday Bake-Off, Bachelor on Exile Island, and Top Chef: Ultimate Girls Trip, three shows that I just made up but might be real a year from now. 30 Rock may now be more prophecy than parody when it comes to the shamelessness of TV executives, but there's a real risk of drowning out the handful of reality concepts that are actually new and innovative, like The Traitors, by flooding the market with shows drawn from mix-and-match Reality Mad Libs.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Tina Fey