Movies + TV

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Shows Within Shows

My TV friends have their own TV friends!

When I was growing up, my parents discouraged me from watching TV. They dismissed it as shallow and vapid—a total waste of time. But I’ve always disagreed. Some of the best fiction writing is happening on television—when writers have multiple episodes each season across which to build characters and a story arc, their worlds can get pretty elaborate. (This is a much more coherent version of the argument I presented to my parents when I was a kid to try to persuade them that I needed to stay up to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.)

Some of my favorite TV moments are when the characters within these fictional universes are themselves obsessed with TV shows. It’s super meta, but also super relatable to anyone watching—OMG, my TV friends have their own TV friends! Sometimes they watch programs that have actually existed, like when the characters on Mad Men talk about catching up on Peyton Place. But the best are those instances when writers go the extra mile to create an entirely new TV show inside their main show, like a mirror reflecting a mirror, an inner inner world, an Inception for the small screen.

Some of these shows-within-shows comment on the first-level show, like The Valley, the teen soap that Summer Roberts was obsessed with, and which mirrored the action going on in her own teen soap, The O.C.

Summer Roberts meets her TV crush, Grady Bridges from The Valley (played by Colin Hanks).

(And, just like The O.C. inspired the reality show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Valley has its own reality-show counterpart, Sherman Oaks: The Real Valley. Are you dizzy yet?)

Other shows-within-shows are obvious parodies of other real-life shows. Fictional programs will sometimes be mentioned in passing on a 30 Rock episode (like when Liz Lemon’s date Wesley compares their relationship to “Russ and Rebecca on Chums”); but sometimes we get to see substantial clips.

I like to imagine that the characters within these shows-within-shows have their own programs they obsess over, creating a never-ending chain of increasingly ridiculous premises. Here are just a few in-universe shows that I secretly wish were real.

Sick, Sad World (from Daria)

Cynical, eye-rolling best friends Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane don’t like most things. But one thing they’re both really into, and not ironically, is Sick Sad World, a “news” program that focused on only the most surreal, twisted stories that lend themselves to punny headlines: “Thomas Jefferson: Philosopher. Inventor. President…and keeper of one saucy journal! The declaration of in my pants, tonight on Sick, Sad World.”

Sadly, you never got to see much of the show beyond the vehemence of its announcer, but really the headlines were all you needed. Sick Sad World was a snappier, more surreal Jerry Springer with a killer logo. It also humanized Daria; as much as I admired the character, she could be frustratingly judgmental of her classmates’ lowbrow interests, while she preferred to take in art films and literatooooor. Her love of Sick, Sad World reminded us that she wasn’t DEEP 24 hours a day, and that she was still a teenager.

The Itchy & Scratchy Show (from The Simpsons)

This Tom and Jerry-type show brought cartoon violence to a whole new, stomach-churning level, as every episode has Itchy (that’s the mouse) finding creatively sadistic ways to off a cat named Scratchy. There was never any punch line to Scratchy’s cataclysmic deaths (don’t worry, he would regenerate unscathed by the next episode), yet every segment would have Bart and Lisa Simpson in hysterics.

Itchy & Scratchy was used as a forum to comment on both the ridiculousness of cartoon violence and The Simpsons’s own cult following (while proving that, yup, there is more than one way to skin a cat). In one Simpsons episode about censorship, Marge is horrified by the brutality on the cartoon that her kids are watching, so she starts a protest against television violence. Her campaign is successful, but the children of Springfield won’t watch the sanitized version of I&S—turns out, kids don’t like cartoons unless there are guts and ridiculous explosions.

Like The Simpsons itself, Itchy & Scratchy attracted a bunch of celebrity guests, including Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. The in-show show made its share of creative mistakes—in a desperate attempt to boost ratings (and a way for the Simpsons writers to satirize the kinds of notes TV creators get from network executives), I&S introduces a new character in Poochie, an obnoxious rapping surfer dog. When everyone in Springfield (except Homer) hates the new addition, he’s yanked back to his home planet—and dies on the journey.

Queen of Jordan (from 30 Rock)

30 Rock is about a show within a show: it’s about the making of a fictional sketch-comedy show, TGS With Tracy Jordan, starring Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and run by Liz Lemon (Tina Fey); and is obviously (but loosely) based on the making of Saturday Night Live, for which Tina Fey used to be head writer and Tracy Morgan one of its stars. Still with me? We see bits from TGS every week, but there are also jokes (sometimes with clips) about other fictional NBC hits, like MILF Island, Bitch Hunter, and Black Frasier.

One in-universe show, though, got extra screen time. Two full episodes of 30 Rock, in fact, were “replaced” by episodes of a fake reality show called Queen of Jordan, a Real Housewives-type program starring Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie, and her entourage. Queen of Jordan introduced an entirely new cast of characters and new stories, while also contributing to the plot of 30 Rock. When Tracy disappears, Liz, in a desperate attempt to find him and save her own show, appears on Queen of Jordan to implore Angie to help her. (Angie, meanwhile, is getting ready to drop her new single, “My Single Is Dropping.” Liz confronts her at the release party. Will this tangled web of chaos lead to an entertaining showdown? Spoiler: yes.)

Inspector Spacetime (from Community)

When his beloved Cougar Town goes on hiatus, TV fanatic Abed Nadir discovers its British predecessor, Cougarton Abbey. When that show is cancelled after only six episodes, he moves on to Inspector Spacetime, a Doctor Who homage, and is immediately obsessed. He starts using the show to heighten his real-life experiences: planning his holidays around viewing sessions with his friends, character role-playing at fancy events, and converting the spare room in his apartment into a “dreamatorium” in which he literally lives out his own fan fiction. Inspector Spacetime becomes a huge presence in Abed’s life, and his relationship to the show is one of the most accurate portrayals I’ve seen of contemporary fandom. Not that I’d know from personal experience or anything. ♦

35 Comments

  • Claire October 30th, 2012 7:19 PM

    MY SINGLE “My Single is Dropping” IS DROPPING!

    Hahaha. I love Queen of Jordan. And Sick, Sad World…and the Itchy and Scratchy Show…and TV, really, in general. Haha.

  • WhereforaWhile October 30th, 2012 7:21 PM

    This is great– But where is House’s favorite Doctor Soap Opera show? He even gets to treat one of the actors in it! Anyone remember? Anyone? God I miss that show.

    WILLLSOOOOONN

  • maggiemadge October 30th, 2012 7:26 PM

    I love these! I wish Sick Sad World was a real show cause I could totally see myself watching it after school. haha…

  • chrissyheart2 October 30th, 2012 7:30 PM

    I love Rookie Mag so much that I started my own Fashion blog! Thanks Rookie!

  • Bree October 30th, 2012 7:42 PM

    Bionic Bunny from Arther = best superhero evahhhh

    • Claire October 30th, 2012 9:36 PM

      Yes! And you can’t forget Mary Moo Cow. Haha

  • R. October 30th, 2012 8:26 PM

    That’s an awesome piece.

    This is a bit unrelated but I keep getting “delivery mail system” e-mails when I try to send a submission… help? :(

    • Anaheed October 30th, 2012 8:30 PM

      Hey, R. Our submission inbox is full again because the hurricane in NYC wiped out my electricity & internet access, so my time online is very limited. It should be back to normal this weekend, fingers crossed. Sorry!

  • Kathryn October 30th, 2012 8:35 PM

    YES, QUEEN OF JORDAN! Also, all of these. YAY TV!!!

    Also, Invitation To Love from the first season of Twin Peaks!

    • kittenmix October 30th, 2012 9:36 PM

      YESS
      i would definitely watch that show if it was real and i would also definitely make an etsy store that exclusively sold Invitation To Love paraphernalia someone make it happen!!!

  • actressgirl October 30th, 2012 9:38 PM

    Don’t forget about Terrance and Phillip. I wish though that we could have seen just ONE episode of Sick Sad World.

  • MissKnowItAll October 30th, 2012 10:29 PM

    Anaheed,
    did you lose power?
    Are you okay?

    • Anaheed October 30th, 2012 11:19 PM

      I did lose power! I’m OK for now though. Thanks for asking, bb.

  • JayKay October 30th, 2012 10:40 PM

    Omigod you can’t forget Moody’s Point from the Amanda show, famously costarring Taran Killam:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ike_2PAos7U

    • Luce October 31st, 2012 1:37 AM

      Oooohmygod Moody’s Point!

      The father had lost his toe! Her mother went missing while hot-air ballooning! Sternum!

      aaaaaah

  • sanguina October 30th, 2012 11:12 PM

    Daria is already kind of a show within a show. It’s a spin off of Beavis and Butthead. and the “dreamatorium” in Community is a reference to Star Trek TNG.

    • Anna F. October 31st, 2012 7:17 PM

      true about daria! And I didn’t know that about the dreamatorium….my Trekkie friends will be so disappointed in me

  • streaked lights October 31st, 2012 1:49 AM

    Ahh these are all perfect!
    “My single ‘My single is dropping’ is dropping.”

    Don’t know if it would fit on the list, but maybe ‘Days of our Lives’ from Friends? I know its already a tv-show on its own, but they went to extra mile to film fake scenes and such.

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

  • Dayzee October 31st, 2012 4:27 AM

    and you mustn’t forget pegga pig with the mr. potato show. all time fave.

  • soretudaaa October 31st, 2012 8:54 AM

    ALSO “Jerry” from Seinfeld! We don’t get to see it, but we know what it’s about (spoiler alert: nothing).

  • raftingstarlit October 31st, 2012 10:30 AM

    Community, 30 Rock and Daria are the best shows.. sadly community won’t be airing until february )):

  • wallflower152 October 31st, 2012 11:42 AM

    Yes! Sick Sad World and Inspector Spacetime. (Did you hear? They CHANGed the Community S4 premier to Feb 7, infuriaDEAN!) Also, in the comments above Moody’s Point from The Amanda Show hahaha! : )

    • Anna F. October 31st, 2012 7:12 PM

      hahahahaha A+

    • Kathryn November 2nd, 2012 6:06 PM

      YES MOODY’S POINT!!! Every time I see Taran Killam on SNL I’m like “THAT’S THE BOY FROM MOODY’S POINT! THE ONE THAT’S NOT NAMED STERNUM!” I can’t remember what his character’s name was…

  • Mary the freak October 31st, 2012 12:47 PM

    I am very afraid of itchy and scratchy. They are creeping me out.

    Awesome article! :DD

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Felicia Ubbesen October 31st, 2012 5:55 PM

    I love this but wheeere are Torchwood/Doctor Who?

  • Annie92 November 1st, 2012 6:42 PM

    ARE FISH USING OUR OCEANS AS THEIR OWN PRIVATE TOILET?!

  • Ben November 2nd, 2012 8:36 PM

    this is awesome!

  • mayafairy November 3rd, 2012 5:08 PM

    A little disappointed to see that “Cops” and “Inside Probe” from My Name is Earl weren’t on here. Those episodes were like the most hilarious ones!

  • ellebelle November 6th, 2012 4:12 AM

    Actually, I think Cougarton Abbey only lasting six episodes was a reference to Fawlty Towers.
    But yes to Community! #sixseasonsandamovie

  • oh...hi cindy November 7th, 2012 7:41 PM

    “invitation to love” from twin peaks is one of my favorites, also super happy about itchy & scratchy being on here

  • Betsy January 5th, 2013 5:41 PM

    I love all these shows! especially sick sad world, the oc and the itchy and scratchy show. pity my dad locked the tv, so i can only watch it if i go and get the key from him, which i cant really be bothered. he drilled a hole in the metal bit of the plug then put a padlock through it so it wont fit in the wall to turn the TV on. :(

  • Ania January 18th, 2013 3:00 PM

    put the mimosas down, bi*ch! great show while it lasted…