Sunday, April 10, 2011

Scaling the Fourth Wall: TV Shows about TV Shows

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 10, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld: Curb Your Enthusiasm
I've always been a sucker for self-referential media: be it celebrity cameos, intentional genre-busting, fictional characters meeting fictionalized versions of themselves, and everything in between. (My favourite Woody Allen film is The Purple Rose of Cairo, I continue to believe that Last Action Hero is an underrated masterpiece, and no-one probably applauded more than I did for Nathan Fillion’s Firefly shout-out in last season’s Halloween episode of Castle, walking on-screen in full “Captain Mal” gear.) And the most popular and entertaining form these stories have taken is the show about a show: films and TV about making film and TV. It’s a conceit that's been around since Shakespeare, and whether it’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or 30 Rock, there will always be something especially compelling about a show within a show.

Last month, I wrote about the recent Showtime sitcom Episodes. This dark comedy stars Friends alum Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc, and tells a story as old television itself: the trials and tribulations of making a television show. In this case, it was the story of a married British comedy writing team who had the misfortune to have a hit series of theirs optioned by an American network. As I wrote, Episodes, for the most part, works well (in large part due to the talents of the BBC television veterans who play the show’s leads), and is definitely worth checking out.

But some of the weaknesses I identified in Episodes have got me thinking about just how tricky it can be to make a television comedy about making television comedy.  It’s one thing to dramatize or satirize the process (from Singin’ in the Rain to The Player, Hollywood has long been its own favourite subject), but it is quite another to film a comedy about how empty and compromised sitcom production can often be. Episodes mostly held its own, but it’s swimming next to some big fish: The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Extras. Here we're going to look at why I believe these shows, in particular, are so successful.