Sunday, April 10, 2011

Scaling the Fourth Wall: TV Shows about TV Shows

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld in 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.

Garry Shandling as Larry Sanders on The Larry Sanders Show.
The progenitor of the contemporary meta-sitcom is HBO’s groundbreaking The Larry Sanders Show, which aired from 1992-1998. Garry Shandling stars as the titular Larry Sanders, host of a late night talk show in the vein of The Tonight Show (where Shandling had been a regular guest host, in the years leading up to Jay Leno’s takeover in 1992). When the series follows the characters off camera, it aims to break open the veneer of false spontaneity and faux celebrity camaraderie of the talk show format, but the talk show itself – which we catch glimpses of in short segments, and which, for the first season at least, were filmed in front of a live audience – is genuinely funny, sweet, and invariably entertaining. The darkness of Larry Sanders lies in the insecurity and neuroses of its characters, and not in any profound contempt for its subject matter.

The most recent season of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (also on HBO) – which climaxed with the filming of a Seinfeld reunion show – took this deconstructive conceit one step further. Though in many ways Curb has perhaps always been implicitly about turning one of American network television’s most successful sitcoms inside out, this last season clearly demonstrated the genuine affection for the product that David clearly feels. The premise of Curb’s seventh season is that Larry (the real-life co-creator of Seinfeld), in a bid to woo back his now-estranged wife Cheryl, finally agrees to bring the old Seinfeld cast back together, which reopens a standing debate over that series’ controversial final episode. Playing out Larry David’s own ambivalences about uncynical endings (he loves the original Seinfeld ending, and the fictionalized Jason Alexander expresses his dislike), this season of Curb re-writes and doesn’t rewrite that most classic series. You just have to watch the brilliant “table read” scene in that season’s penultimate episode (“The Table Read”, Season 7, Episode 9) to see how brilliantly the show can walk that fine line between parody and sincere tribute. Though Larry’s ambivalence over the process is made quite clear, the scene still plays like a master class in TV comedy-writing. Whatever distance Larry David puts between his audience and this new “episode of Seinfeld”, the fact is that what we see of its script is a perfectly feasible and actually very funny show. And the pride that both the real and fictional Larry David feels for Seinfeld is tangible and inescapable, despite the fun Curb has in tearing it apart – which is arguably what the first 6 seasons of the series had always already been.

The cast of Extras.
Extras (BBC/HBO) was Ricky Gervais’ 2005 follow-up series to his immensely popular and influential The Office (BBC, 2001-2003). Extras offers a funhouse parody of Gervais’ own rise to fame through the character of Andy Millman (played by Gervais), a struggling TV writer and actor who makes his living working as an extra in film and television, while he shops around an office comedy to the networks. Andy’s show is picked up by the BBC at the end of the first season, though this turns out to only be the beginning of his trials, as the combination of network interference and his own ego conspires to keep contentment continually out of reach. The show within the show – transformed from the reserved comedy series he’d envisioned into a low-brow sitcom (complete with campy theme song, laugh track, silly wigs, and catchphrases) – becomes a hit with the viewers, but not the critics, sending Andy into a spiral which culminates in the biting and poignant 90-minute Christmas episode that caps its second, and final, season.  But as much as the success of the sitcom pains and embarrasses Millman, a generous viewer of Gervais’ much more restrained and subtle Extras would have to admit that, broad as the sitcom-inside-the-sitcom is, it is a rather funny example of that middle-of-the-road BBC genre. Like the Seinfeld reunion shown in Curb, if it weren’t for Andy Millman’s internal struggle (and his inability to actually know what he wants or how to achieve it), there would be little to make fun of in the show within the show.

What these three shows have, and what the first season of Episodes I feel often lacked, is a genuine love for television itself. It is a delicate game to satirize a world and continue to show real affection for it. As dark as these shows are, Garry Shandling, Larry David, and Ricky Gervais ultimately reserve their greatest criticism for the conflicted characters they portray, and never fail to respect their audience. In the end, these series are ironic love-letters not only to their fans, but to the medium these artists have devoted their creative lives to.

Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. 

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