When TV Appropriates Cult and Indie Culture: A Retrospective


When word spread that Gossip Girl was going to set an episode at New York’s cultish “immersive theatre” production Sleep No More , fans of the show — who have been known to develop wallet-crippling addictions to it — were not happy. Would their favorite secret spot soon be overrun by teenyboppers keen on re-enacting Serena and Blair’s melodramatic intrigue? Would Gossip Girl give away any of the Macbeth-inspired experience’s secrets? Well, the episode aired last night, and we learned far more about Chuck Bass’s libido (or newfound lack thereof) and Ivy’s ex-boyfriend than Sleep No More. To commemorate this supremely odd moment of convergence, we’ve rounded up some of the best and strangest moments that have found TV shows appropriating cult, underground, and indie culture, from Saved by the Bell‘s rave to Roseanne‘s riot grrrls, after the jump.

Gossip Girl and Sleep No More

As anyone who knows even a little bit about Gossip Girl and Sleep No More could easily anticipate, the series basically used the production’s masks, darkness, and hidden rooms as an excuse to do the same kind of mistaken-identity-masquerade business it does at least once a season, with the added bonus of a few secret encounters. The moral of the story seems to be that Upper East Siders should never participate in any activity that requires a mask — even if it is a benefit — especially when Liz Hurley’s involved. Yes, we saw a bit of the Macbeths bathing in blood and glimpsed a few of Sleep No More‘s many secluded nooks, but fans can rest assured that Gossip Girl didn’t blow the lid off the experience.

The O.C. and Death Cab for Cutie

In the few years following the turn of the millennium, Death Cab for Cutie were a fairly popular, although by no means huge, indie band. It was either 2002 or 2003 when we saw them open for one of our favorite bands of that era, The Dismemberment Plan. But Death Cab soon eclipsed D-Plan in fame, largely due to Josh Schwartz’s pre-Gossip Girl teen drama, The O.C. and its main character, Seth Cohen’s obsession with their emo-indie music. Not only did the band play the show’s Bait Shop venue, but its music was all over the soundtrack, came up constantly in Seth’s conversations, and even appeared in a poster on his wall. Whether The O.C. made or ruined Death Cab has been a popular argument for critics and fans (as well as ex-fans) ever since.

Bored to Death and burlesque

Jonathan Ames was a fixture in downtown New York for years before HBO premiered his TV series, Bored to Death. So it’s only natural that he would invite some friends from the city’s art scene to appear on the show. An episode from the sitcom’s second season kicks off at Lower East Side burlesque haunt The Slipper Room, where Jenny Slate’s Stella is breaking up with Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan at a show that features striptease/dance experimentalist Julie Atlas Muz and drag king Murray Hill (aka “The Hardest-Working Middle-Aged Man in Show Business”). Watch Hill talk about how the cameo came about in the clip above.

Saved by the Bell: The College Years and raves

The year was 1994. NBC’s Saved by the Bell spin-off, Saved by the Bell: The College Years, was failing fast. And then, towards the end of its only season, the show aired what should have become a camp classic, but somehow never did: “The Rave.” The episode finds Zack scheming to raise money for a Cancun trip… by throwing a “rave” while football star/RA Mike is away. The collegiate scholars tap into early-’90s club culture by painting everything black, sticking up flowers everywhere, and even scattering some lava lamps. Gee, do you think there might have been some ’60s veterans in the show’s art department?

Parks and Recreation and Neutral Milk Hotel

Aubrey Plaza’s April has always been the coolest kid in Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department. But she really proved her cultural superiority towards the end of Season 3, when Tom’s Newlywed Game-style game show Know Ya Boo forced her to reveal that her favorite band is Neutral Milk Hotel and the rock star she’d most like to sleep with is its mastermind, Jeff Mangum — not her MouseRat-fronting husband, Andy. We’re hoping for a follow-up episode in which April attends one of Mangum’s comeback shows and, for the first time, expresses an emotion.

Glee and The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Last year, Glee devoted an entire episode to one of the most famous cult films of all time: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In yet another creepy effort to win over Rocky Horror superfan Emma, Will decides to put on a production of the musical, conservative parents and manipulative Sue Sylvester be damned. What ensues is Glee‘s typical low-substance homage, in which Mercedes takes center stage as an appropriately gender-bent Frank N. Furter, Will goes too far with Emma to the sounds of “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me,” and the New Directions gang decides they’ll do the show solely for themselves — because, you know, it’s for freaks like them. (Yeah, we had some problems with the episode.) Glee isn’t the only TV show that’s paid homage to Rocky HorrorDrew Carey pitted it against Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in a dance-off, and That ’70s Show dressed Fez up like Frank one Halloween.

Roseanne and riot grrrl

Roseanne Barr has always been an outspoken feminist, but we still never expected the early-’90s radical movement riot grrrl to make an appearance on her wildly popular sitcom. In 1995 (admittedly a few years after the scene had peaked), Jenna Elfman guested on Roseanne as a riot grrrl musician who hitches a ride with Roseanne and Jackie, shouting out names like L7, Red Aunts, and Babes in Toyland, and even playing a bit of Bikini Kill’s “Don’t Need You.” Although the older women don’t immediately appreciate the music, Roseanne makes fun of Jackie for calling it “noise” (“Who the hell are you, Tipper Gore?”) and even praises some of Bikini Kill’s lyrics, which she reads aloud. The encounter inspires the sisters to analyze the sexist music of their youth, play some Patti Smith, and throw down with a misogynist truck driver. In our humble opinion, the clip posted above contains some of the best TV of all time.

The Flaming Lips on Beverly Hills, 90210

If memory serves, most of the bands that graced the stage of 90210‘s After Dark were crooning pop bands — including David Silver and Ray Pruit’s versions of same. But the show changed it up when they invited The Flaming Lips to perform their one and only pop hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” as the club’s secret special guests. There have been plenty of other indie bands on mainstream TV shows (Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth on Gilmore Girls, Cibo Matto on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sonic Youth again on Gossip Girl), but it’s the dialogue that makes the Beverly Hills kids’ encounter with the underground so hilarious. “Hey, is that The Flaming Lips?” asks David. “Well, it’s not Michael Bolton,” Steve replies. Later, once the Lips are gone and the club is again filled with anonymous house music, Steve pronounces, “I’ve never been a fan of alternative music, but these guys rock the house.”

Portlandia and indie crafting

The entire point of Portlandia is to poke fun at the preciousness of hipsters and other snobby above-the-mainstream types — so just about every sketch is worthy of a spot on this list. But it’s the Etsy-centric indie crafting world that received the show’s funniest and most popular spot-on critique. Is your plain, old pillow or tote bag missing something? Just put a bird on it, and someone’s sure to buy it!