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A TBTS Good Idea™: Television about Television about Television

October 2, 2009

One of this decade’s prevalent formulas for successful, high-quality television series has been the “television about television” approach. Two common versions of these series are the “mockumentary” and the “making-of-a-fictional-TV-show.”

The Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant masterpiece The Office is the prime example of the “mockumentary” aesthetic. We see fictional characters interact with each other in natural settings, but they’re always aware of being in front of cameras. The Office justified this fourth-wall violation by openly mentioning that a BBC crew was in the office of the Wernham-Hogg Paper Company to film a workplace documentary. The American import of The Office, a great series in its own right, is less successful with the integration. There have been a few half-hearted mentions of the film crew, but at this point, they’re five years into filming the purported “documentary,” and so the device requires a fairly substantial suspension of disbelief. Thus far, new ABC comedy Modern Family doesn’t even go that far—the characters talk to an interviewer and cameras whose presence isn’t justified at all (an absence that actually hews closer to the technique as popularized in such Christopher Guest movies as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman).

NBC’s award-winning 30 Rock epitomizes the “making-of-a-fictional-show” variation of TV about TV, as does the second season of Extras, the other Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant masterpiece. Curb Your Enthusiasm also ventures into this territory, especially in the current season that features a much-anticipated Seinfeld reunion. The premise here is simpler: the setting is behind the scenes of a fictional television show, and the characters are the writers, producers, directors, and stars. [Side note: find and buy/rent as many episodes of The Larry Sanders Show as you possibly can. Now.]

My Good Idea™ is to give viewers more of this type of TV comedy. Lots more. Luckily, some industry folks agree, including Showtime, who’s partnering with the BBC to produce a new series called Episodes, starring Friends alum Matt LeBlanc. In Episodes, LeBlanc will play himself after he’s been tapped to star in a lousy, dumbed-down American adaptation of a popular, high-quality British sitcom. In other words, Episodes seems poised to be a fairly gross and derivative knock-off of 30 Rock, Curb, and Extras:

Celebrities playing exaggerated versions of themselves? Check.

Reality-mirroring plotlines about former sitcom stars struggling to find new success? Check.

Flustered writers and producers “slumming it” on broad shows that do lowest-common-denominator comedy? Check.

The only thing missing is the “mockumentary” construct, which to me seems like the next step in the evolution of this formula. In fact, I challenge other networks and production teams to see how far you can go down this reflexive rabbit hole. You should keep adding level upon level of “meta-television” awareness, until you eventually disappear so far up Ricky Gervais’s ass that you come out smelling like his Tuesday dinner.

Maybe Starz and Univision could partner on a show that goes behind the scenes of a crew who’s making a mockumentary about a Hollywood studio that’s doing a new show about a former telenovela star who reinvents himself by starring in an groundbreaking new mockumentary about the televison industry.

And then, my next Good Idea™ will be to pitch an edgy new comedy series that adds still more levels to what those guys are doing. In my series (working title: Executive Producer), there will be so many layers that former late night icon Arsenio Hall will end up firing Arsenio Hall from a new show that’s failing because he can’t score an interview with Arsenio Hall, who’s staging a comeback after years of being typecast as a talk show host.

And then I’ll be waiting for that callback, Cinemax.

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