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Behind the glass teat: 14 worthwhile television shows about television

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1. The Larry Sanders Show
Garry Shandling drew heavily on his experiences guest-hosting The Tonight Show when he co-created and starred in The Larry Sanders Show, a brilliant deconstruction of show-business artifice and the late-night talk show that doubled as one of the most penetrating, darkly funny explorations of male neuroses and sexuality this side of Philip Roth. In a performance so perfect that it seemingly inhibited his ability to play any other character, Shandling takes on the role of a narcissistic talk-show host who relies on his hard-drinking bulldog of a producer (a gleefully profane Rip Torn) to protect him from a scary outside world. He also draws on his catchphrase-happy sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor), a troubled buffoon whose affable exterior just barely hides bottomless rage and resentment. The Larry Sanders Show alternated between videotaped segments of the show-within-a-show and filmed segments of its colorful cast and crew making mediocrity happen day in and day out. Celebrity guests flocked to Larry Sanders for an opportunity to mock their public personas—most famously, David Duchovny, whose man-crush on Shandling provided some of the show’s most excruciatingly uncomfortable laughs.

2. Michael & Michael Have Issues
Ready to let your head spin? Michael & Michael Have Issues is a Comedy Central show in which The State’s Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black play, essentially, themselves, writing a sketch show called Michael & Michael Have Issues; on that show, they talk about “themselves” and perform taped sketch comedy. Those playing along at home see the “behind-the-scenes” bickering between the Michaels (the bulk of the show), a few of the “live” bickering scenes, and all the sketches. Though the show-within-a-show seldom becomes a plot point, it provides a nice backdrop for the tension between the Michaels; they’re forced to work in such tight confines, competing their underlings’ adoration, that it’s no wonder they love/hate each other. This may be the best vehicle for Showalter and Black’s passive-aggressive comedy yet.


3. The Dick Van Dyke Show
Dick Van Dyke wasn’t a film or TV star when he got his eponymous series, but executive producer Sheldon Leonard plucked him from obscurity to star in one of the first situation comedies about television. His character works as a writer for The Alan Brady Show, a variety hour run as a dictatorship by an egotistical comic played (mostly in absentia) by the show’s creator, Carl Reiner. When Van Dyke isn’t at home tripping over ottomans and buttering up wife Mary Tyler Moore to get her to go along with his crazy schemes, he’s in the writers’ room thinking up gags for his boss alongside cynical veterans Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie. At the end of the show’s fifth season, Van Dyke finally finishes the memoir that provides a framing device for the entire series, only to see it rejected by a publisher. Is this the end of our meta-television comedy? Never fear; Carl Reiner suggests that the memoir be transformed into a situation comedy, starring himself playing Van Dyke’s character. And so the cycle begins anew.

4. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
It’s a long way from Moore’s flustered, capri-sporting wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show to her groundbreaking role as an associate producer at Minneapolis’s WJM-TV on her own series. And not just because she’s the one bringing home the bacon and frying it up. As the center of a group of newsroom eccentrics, Moore held together a show about a woman doing something with her life other than looking for a man, though she did go on plenty of dates. She’s stuck with an evening newscast hosted by handsome bubblehead Ted Knight, a writer who delights in making the anchor look foolish, and an old-school newsman boss whose pride in his female protégé requires masking under a heavy layer of paternalism. Although the show’s seven seasons contain plenty of episodes only tenuously related to Moore’s job, her news-show-within-a-show remained at the heart of the show’s comedic universe, serving as the setting for such classic episodes as “Chuckles Bites The Dust.”

5. Sports Night
In the magical world of writer Aaron Sorkin, everyone is doing their best. That tack got him into some trouble with Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, a short-lived series that treated the creation of a Saturday Night Live-like comedy series with the same dewy-eyed awe that Sorkin brought to the leaders of the free world in The West Wing, but it worked well for his first short-lived series, Sports Night. While co-anchors Josh Charles and Peter Krause deliver box scores and quips on the air, producer Felicity Huffman struggles behind the scenes to hold things together, with the help of Sabrina Lloyd and the sometimes prickly guidance of producer Robert Guillaume; it’s all in support of a Sports Center-style news broadcast, and while the whole cast is clearly committed to putting out the best show possible, what distinguishes Sports Night from Studio 60 is that Sports Night’s show is still struggling for ratings, and at heart, it’s just a couple of talking heads snarking about baseball. Sports Night flirts with the same treacle that’s always been a distinguishing characteristic of Sorkin’s work, but it’s leavened by the fact that failure is an inherent part of these characters’ lives; still, they choose to keep bringing the same dedication to their work regardless of its success, which speaks volumes about them, and about how their creator views the business of feeding the idiot box.

6. Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge
At the peak of his meteoric career with the BBC, Steve Coogan’s incompetent alter ego Alan Partridge inexplicably was granted his own television talk show, a version of his Knowing Me, Knowing You radio show with pictures added. Fictitious celebrities and guests with unusual talents were subjected first to Partridge’s fawning deference, then to his pompous scorn as they inevitably proved disappointing. The genius of the Alan Partridge character is his single-minded desire to be a television presenter, a job that seems to anger and frustrate him at every turn. Yet his desperation to keep the job is overwhelmed by his outrage at the horrible guests he interviews. Sometimes the gigolos and talentless singers deserve his scorn; sometimes they simply offend his sense of how the world should work, like the child prodigy into whom he tries to slap some sense. Poor (fictional) ratings doom KMKYWAP after a single six-episode season, but Partridge’s BBC career doesn’t die until his Christmas special, during which he punches the network’s head of programming.

7. 30 Rock
Starting out at the same time as Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and with a similar premise, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock initially looked like it might get lost in the shuffle. A focus on the day-to-day realities of showbiz was ditched early on; instead, 30 Rock showed a world in which NBC was an underperforming subsidiary of a wig company, its president was also in charge of “microwave programming,” and its biggest star was so disconnected from reality that he had to be talked out of sponsoring dogfights by the ghost of Redd Foxx. 30 Rock occasionally reminds viewers that it’s about a TV network, like when they’re treated to the season finale of MILF Island, or Tracy Morgan is awarded a Pacific Rim Emmy, but Fey and her staff of writers realized that focusing on the cast’s rampaging egos, dysfunctional personalities, and surreal behavior would pay richer dividends than clinging too closely to the show’s original premise.

[pagebreak]8. Murphy Brown
As played by Candice Bergen, news anchor Murphy Brown had a real-world impact that normally escapes television characters. She helped throw the 1992 presidential election in Bill Clinton’s favor. She raised breast-cancer awareness and was reportedly behind a spike in the number of mammograms performed during the late ’90s. She gave the world a reason to laugh with Pee-wee Herman again. Brown’s effect on our world was directly related to her visibility in her own—while Murphy Brown, like 30 Rock, was a workplace comedy where the workplace just happened to be a major television network, it was Brown’s role as a high-paid TV journalist that landed her in the crosshairs of former vice president Dan Quayle. After Quayle criticized the character for viewing single motherhood “as just another ‘lifestyle choice’,” Murphy Brown’s newsroom setting responded to that criticism almost in real time, blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction in ways that only increased the sense that Quayle thought he was addressing a real person.

The Canadian Second City TV—later known in its American run as SCTV Network 90—had a brilliant framing device: Most of its sketches revolved around the production of third-rate television programming for the SCTV Network, an underfunded, incompetent outfit run more or less as a tax dodge by sleazy owner Joe Flaherty, a shameless old goat who uses a wheelchair not because he’s disabled, but “for respect.” Soap-opera parodies, a late-night talk show hosted by a druggy egomaniac and his cringing sycophant, a Twilight Zone rip-off run by a incomprehensible Japanese MC, and a horror-movie festival hosted by an indifferent vampire/newscaster were among the regularly featured shows on the network (which had its home in the far-flung town of Melonville); the format perfectly fit the cast’s alternately loving and vicious parodies of shopworn showbiz tropes and venal celebrity immortals. SCTV even once brought us a glimpse of its opposite number, a slapdash Soviet cable network called “3CP1.” From SCTV’s unforgettable parodies of hacky real-world entertainers to original creations, like the relentlessly Canadian McKenzie brothers, the hapless “Rockin’” Mel Slirrup, and ever-hostile funnyman Bobby Bittman, SCTV delivered a pitch-perfect television parody.

10. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
Flawlessly executed to the last awkward jump cut, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace presents its show-within-the-show as a rightfully unremembered relic of the 1980s, the ultimate vanity project for British actor-comedian Matthew Holness, whose titular character bills himself as an “author, dreamweaver, visionary—plus actor.” Befitting his litany of self-granted titles, Garth Marenghi wasn’t just the failed writer of his horror show/medical drama—he was its creator, producer, and star. He even whistled the melodies that spawned its soundtrack. As such, Marenghi is in constant contact with viewers, whether thorough his pigheaded characters or through the retrospective interviews where Marenghi asserts his and the show’s greatness. Though he isn’t the only cast member scoring laughs with the finest bad acting this side of the “I caaan’t stan’ ‘im!” sequence in Singin’ In The Rain, Holness floats Darkplace on Marenghi’s massive ego. Watching him overstep his creative boundaries is hilarious, and it’s even funnier when those boundaries weren’t that wide to begin with.

11. Fernwood 2 Night/America 2-Night
Now that David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Craig Ferguson have each taken their turn at deconstructing the late-night talk show, it’s hard to think fondly of the kind of stale, “celebrity love-in” gabfests skewered by the likes of SCTV’s “Sammy Maudlin Show” and Fernwood 2 Night. But the days of Merv Griffin were also the days where soap operas danced around any and all sexual innuendo, which started to look mighty silly when the characters on the Norman Lear-produced soap satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman started flashing cleaning ladies and checking out Orgasm And You from the local library. Introduced as a summer replacement for Mary Hartman in 1977, Fernwood 2 Night (in its second season, America 2-Night) was an unconventional (though not entirely illogical) way of expanding its parent show’s universe, though the denizens of Fernwood, Ohio were considerably less deadpan when talking about their sexual encounters with aliens from the show’s thrift-store dais. Credit the show’s nervous buzz to the incomparable comedy team of Martin Mull and Fred Willard, playing characters who clearly long for something suburban Ohio can’t give them, even though their handling of guests like Tom Waits proved they didn’t deserve it.

12. The Comeback
Back in 2005, Lisa Kudrow was only a year into her Friends retirement when she created and starred in this short-lived HBO series about a has-been sitcom star who’s staging her comeback through a new sitcom (Room & Bored) and a reality series called The Comeback, about her return to canned laughs. So just to be clear, The Comeback was a mock reality show about a washed-up sitcom actress making a new sitcom, starring recently washed-up sitcom actress Lisa Kudrow. Sound confusing? It wasn’t. In fact, The Comeback is one of the most biting satires of American situation comedies and reality television in recent memory. Kudrow’s character, Valerie Cherish is needy, arrogant, deluded, pathetic, awkward, and completely hilarious. Unfortunately, in 2005, America apparently wasn’t ready to see Phoebe from Friends with her hair in curlers, scared she’s going to be fired as she walks to the writers’ room on her new shitty sitcom, while off-camera, the producer of her reality show (Laura Silverman) shouts, “How are you feeling?… Complete the sentence, ‘I’m feeling blank.’” Which is a shame. Because in spite of the shaky first episode, The Comeback is so dark and funny, it should have been Kudrow’s comeback.

13. Extras
In its first season, Ricky Gervais’ wry, wonderful HBO comedy series focused on a struggling actor, chronicling his embarrassing run-ins off-set with celebs and more successful friends. In season two, Extras shifts when Gervais winds up writing and starring in his own horribly compromised TV comedy, When The Whistle Blows, and the show delves into interesting TV territory: What’s it like for an actor who finally catches a break on a terrible show? What’s it like for an artist who becomes rich and famous creating material that he, and everyone he actually respects, hates? The show shifts to become more about Andy’s ever-changing idea of fame, but also spends time skewering the clueless team behind Blows, who think everything they do is pure gold. In true Gervais fashion, awkward comedy ensues.

14. The Critic
By making their hero balding, doughy television film reviewer Jay Sherman, a man with Gene Siskel’s receding hairline and Roger Ebert’s former girth, Simpsons alum Mike Reiss, Al Jean, and James L. Brooks found the perfect way to simultaneously spoof the absurdities of television and film on The Critic. Jon Lovitz lends his voice and much of his self-deprecating persona to the title role of a smart, good-hearted, slightly pompous movie reviewer who opines on the virtues of the films of the day for a television channel owned by a gleefully deranged Ted Turner-like master of the universe voiced by Russ Meyer/Jonathan Demme repertory player Charles Napier. The movie-review-show-within-a-show afforded the talented writing staff an opportunity to spoof current Hollywood fare and timeless classics without short-changing a delightful supporting cast toplined by Gerrit Graham as the hero’s aristocratic, genially insane adoptive dad. The film critics at The A.V. Club staff can vouch for the verisimilitude of many of the show’s details, like Sherman’s extensive collection of promotional T-shirts advertising half-forgotten films.