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The Late Great

Bo Burnham Was at His Most Prescient in Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous

The Inside comedian explored the weirdness of youth culture and social media in his canceled MTV comedy.
  • The cast of Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous (Photo: Everett Collection)
    The cast of Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous (Photo: Everett Collection)

    When Bo Burnham released his acclaimed Netflix special Inside in 2021, it vaulted him to a new pinnacle of popularity. The guy who first made a name for himself recording irreverent songs in his childhood bedroom for YouTube had come a long way: Inside won Burnham a Peabody and single-handedly got him halfway to an EGOT.

    But the themes explored in Inside have popped up in Burnham’s work from the beginning, from those early parodic tunes to his 2018 feature debut Eighth Grade. Burnham has always had more on his mind than raunchy puns. He has always been preoccupied by the ways the internet and social media have changed us — especially a younger generation increasingly living their lives on camera, thrust into the spotlight long before they’ve finished figuring themselves out.

    Perhaps the best example of this is Burnham’s one-season MTV sitcom Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, still easily his most underrated work. This is Burnham’s show through and through: In addition to starring and sharing a co-creator credit, he served as an executive producer and writer, shaping the direction of the show from its initial premise (dark satire about a shallow young man’s single-minded pursuit of fame) to the slightly more empathetic story it became.

    Filmed as a mockumentary, the series follows Zach Stone, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate who hires an expensive camera crew to follow him around and film his journey to fame. In each episode, Zach tries a new wacky tactic to get famous, with each episode title named accordingly: “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be a Recording Artist,” for example, or “Zach Stone Is Gonna Make a Sex Tape.” Zach even stages a new theme-song sequence every time.

    A decade has passed now since the premiere of Zach Stone, a show that aired at the perfect time and yet quickly struggled in the ratings. The early 2010s were a transitional time for MTV, which was scaling back music programming and producing more original scripted programming — hits like Teen Wolf and Awkward. Sadly, Zach Stone went the way of the American Skins, and later Sweet/Vicious: canceled after just one critically praised season.

    Maybe the series just wasn’t a great fit for the network; Newsday called it “almost too clever, funny and ironic for MTV.” Or maybe the abrasive protagonist was to blame. Zach appears on screen almost constantly, and his presence can be overwhelming, from his relentlessly annoying theater-kid affect to the toxic way he treats his family and friends. It’s no surprise that Burnham has said the British version of The Office is his favorite show ever, referring to David Brent as a major influence in the creation of Zach Stone.

    At times Zach achieves supervillain levels of vibe-killing, lashing out in deeply immature and inappropriate ways when he doesn’t get what he wants. When his friend and longtime crush Amy (played charmingly by Caitlin Gerard) starts dating the sweet, uncomplicated Nick (Robbie Amell), Zach can’t keep his obvious jealousy to himself, insulting the guy repeatedly even though Nick and Amy are both (perhaps unrealistically) patient with Zach’s antics. And he repeatedly takes his kind-to-a-fault mother (Kari Coleman) and shy college-bound friend Greg (Armen Weitzman) for granted, enlisting them for his schemes and frequently treating them like employees.

    None of this would work if Zach’s ridiculousness wasn’t also very, very funny, but your mileage may vary in that regard. His rivalry with his younger, more athletic and popular brother Andy (Cameron Palatas) provides some of his more solid roasts, usually revolving around his preppy wardrobe: “mini Mitt Romney” and “Maroon 4” come to mind, along with copious references to Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. More broadly, Zach’s passion for life and his often-extravagant displays of affection nicely offset his specific blend of unearned confidence and straight-up idiocy. This is a guy who knows what he wants and won’t let anything stand in his way, as his reluctantly tolerant father (Tom Wilson) points out in the finale. There’s something brave about what he’s doing, even if he behaves like a selfish brat.

    It’s impossible not to feel for Zach at least a little bit, especially the longer we get to know him. This is ultimately a show about an insecure, vaguely delusional kid, and every episode reserves at least a kernel of empathy for him, usually following some jaw-dropping public humiliation when his get-famous-quick plan doesn’t pan out as expected. After Zach buries his feelings about Greg moving away by forcing him to help stage a heroic act, almost drowning him in the process, Greg finally calls him out for being a dick. Zach’s way of making amends is fittingly odd: He packs Greg’s bags himself, earning a sudden big hug from his usually reserved friend in one of the sweetest moments of the series.

    Many of the series’s most vulnerable, tender moments happen when Zach instructs his camera crew to stop filming — a direction they rarely follow. It’s a treat to watch the crew come to life as minor characters over the course of the season, agreeing to Zach’s increasingly insane demands without much protest. (“It’s a livin’,” the boom operator replies after Zach’s mom asks, “So you guys are filming my son watching porn?”) They’re here because Zach is paying them to be here, but the sheer amount of time they spend with the kid endears him to them. They can’t help getting a little invested in his personal life.

    Still, even with the show’s occasional moments of refreshing sentimentality, making Zach such a consistently bad friend is a bold move — especially when that extends to building a whole will-they/won’t-they on a relationship that viewers might not necessarily support. The first few episodes in particular do little to sell us on Zach and Amy’s potential love story; those episodes are a bit repetitive, with Zach ignoring Amy’s obvious crush and ditching their plans for other clout-chasing opportunities.

    When the second half of the season leans smartly into their connection, they do develop a certain Jim-and-Pam charm. It’s easy to get swept up in the cuteness, if only for a few minutes at a time. But it never really feels likely that a relationship would work between the two; Zach is far too ego-driven, and finding love was never his primary goal. The season (and, unfortunately, series) finale finally moves forward with Zach and Amy’s relationship, but ends on a foreboding note that suggests Zach’s time in the spotlight could take priority over anything between them — same as it ever was.

    We’ll never get to see how that would’ve played out, but maybe it’s for the best: after all, future seasons of Zach Stone may have posed a challenge, especially with Amy and Greg both in college. Zach’s journey could resemble something like Cary Dubek’s in The Other Two (another incisive satire about the allure of celebrity), with Zach getting closer and closer to fame while still falling on his ass and compromising his personal life at every turn. Regardless, the grim ambiguity of its final moments offers a fitting sort of ending for a series whose mile-a-minute gags always disguised something more dangerous.

    Burnham’s specials have garnered a lot of acclaim over the years, peaking with Inside. But his most prescient insights happen when he turns his gaze outward: tackling the weirdness of youth culture and social media through stories of flawed, anxious people who just want to be seen, no matter who’s watching.

    Ben Rosenstock is a culture writer and critic who primarily covers TV and film. His writing has appeared in Vulture, TV Guide, and TIME, among other publications.

    TOPICS: Bo Burnham, MTV, Bo Burnham: Inside, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, Caitlin Gerard, Cameron Palatas, Kari Coleman, Robbie Amell, Rory Scovel, Tom Wilson