For those of us who watch our fair share of television, it’s a comfort to know our favorite characters have their own small-screen obsessions. In the recent Netflix series Dear White People, for instance, the black students at the fictional Winchester University gather every week to watch the latest installment of Defamation, a high-stakes political drama that looks suspiciously like Scandal. Most if not all TV writers know a little something about writing for subpar, laughable shows, and it’s easy to picture them channeling those experiences into these hilarious, fictional shows-within-a-show.
Los Viajes de Guillermo (Jane the Virgin)
A cross between a Spanish-language Gulliver’s Travels and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Los Viajes de Guillermo — the latest telenovela star vehicle for the camera-hungry Rogelia De La Vega (Jaime Camil) — follows the adventures of a miniature Rogelio (who usually appears on the show’s posters against the backdrop of a giant pair of breasts).
Seeing Red (The Comeback)
In the first season of this HBO showbiz comedy, ’90s sitcom star Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) is put through the ringer by a pair of asshole showrunners on a cheesy sitcom called Room and Bored. In the second season, released a decade later, the masochistic Valerie jumps at the chance to play herself in Seeing Red, a fictionalization of the on-set tension between her and writer/cocaine addict Paulie G (Lance Barber) — played by Seth Rogen.
Defamation (Dear White People)
One of the most delightful throughlines of the recent Netflix series Dear White People is the spot-on Scandal spoof Defamation. “I’ve got a job for you,” the show’s version of President Grant tells its version of Olivia Pope. “Right here, in the Oval Office, on that eagle!” “Olivia” drops to her knees. “Yes, Mr. President.”
When Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) move from London to Hollywood to adapt their British sitcom for American audiences, their sweet little show about a boarding-school headmaster and his young charges is quickly network-noted into Pucks!, a sitcom about a hockey coach played by Matt LeBlanc. Not quite what they had in mind.
Moody’s Point (The Amanda Show)
Amanda Bynes’s The Amanda Show was a rare kids’ sketch show that was actually hilarious no matter your age. Case in point: Moody’s Point, the show’s recurring Dawson’s Creek parody that stars Bynes as the morose Moody (well, you would be too if your mother had gone missing in a hot-air balloon) and former SNL cast member Taran Killam as the Dawson analogue Spalding.
Darkness at Noon (The Good Wife)
The only thing better than the fact that CBS’s The Good Wife created a fake “dark cable anti-hero drama” to poke fun at the sanctimony of badass-worshipping shows like Breaking Bad is the fact that the writers named it after the 1940 novel by Arthur Koestler — a literary bad boy who was also a serial rapist.
MILF Island (30 Rock)
So many hilarious TV spoofs popped up on 30 Rock — which itself took place against the backdrop of a fictional SNL-like sketch show — it’s hard to pick just one. Not to knock Queen of Jordan, but my money’s on MILF Island, if only for the sadly, extremely relevant way the women are voted off: “Heidi, we no longer want to hit that.”
Inspector Spacetime (Community)
Of course Community’s Abed and Troy (Danny Pudi and Donald Glover) are megafans of Inspector Spacetime, an homage to the long-running British sci-fi series Dr. Who. It’s also not surprising that the pop-culture-obsessed Community created a whole world of fandom surrounding the fake series; in one episode, Troy, Abed, and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) even go to the show’s annual convention.
Vidas de Fuego (Ugly Betty)
In a lot of ways, Ugly Betty was a precursor to Jane the Virgin — both were based on Spanish-language telenovelas, and both feature characters who dutifully watch the soaps themselves. Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) and her family are obsessed with Vidas de Fuego (every episode included a clip from the show-within-a-show), which features a steamy affair between a priest and a maid.
Invitation to Love (Twin Peaks)
It may have been created by a big, important Film Director, but Twin Peaks was pretty soapy in its depiction of a small town teeming with secret affairs and murderous intrigue. It’s appropriate that many of the town’s residents watched the soap opera Invitation to Love, which provided a slight bit of running commentary on the more outlandish aspects of Twin Peaks’ narrative.
Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. (Friends)
I never could quite figure out how Joey (Matt LeBlanc) managed to pay rent in that West Village apartment when he rarely seemed to actually book an acting job. One exception is the wonderfully titled Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E, which stars Joey as a detective named Mac who solves crimes along with his robot sidekick, C.H.E.E.S.E. — and acronym that stands for Computerized Humanoid Electronically Enhanced Secret Enforcer.
Mock Trial with J. Reinhold (Arrested Development)
In Arrested Development’s third season, the Bluth family takes advantage of Judge Reinhold’s new courtroom show — originally titled Judge Reinhold — to stage a mock trial to prepare for their upcoming battle against the SEC. AD even scored a sweet circa-2006 cameo from William Hung, who lead the Mock Trial house band, Hung Jury. Simpler times.
When the Whistle Blows (Extras)
British TV-watchers (or American watchers of British TV) will recognize the corny stylings of When the Whistle Blows, the factory-set workplace sitcom that Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) creates. In Extras’ second season, the show lands on BBC2, and Andy, its star, is forced to reckon with its popularity even though it’s turned out to be the total opposite of the show he’d envisioned.
Sick, Sad World (Daria)
The deliciously misanthropic Daria and her best friend, Jane, loved to bitch about the world while watching their favorite show, a tabloid “news” program called Sick, Sad World. Typical headlines include, “Can renegade surgeons transplant your brain while you sleep?” and, “They bake cookies by day, but they really heat up at night. G-string grandmas, today on Sick, Sad World.”
All My Circuits (Futurama)
Robots: They’re just like us! An homage to All My Children, this futuristic soap opera has all the human emotion with none of the humans (well, except for the token sidekick, simply named “human friend”). All My Circuits bears the hallmarks of the humanoid soap opera, including amnesia, backstabbing, weddings, funerals, half-brothers, and bathing in pink champagne.