TV Satirizing TV

As TV starts to trickle back, tonight we get such longed-for works of genius as the Paula Abdul CBS show and the return of V (or is it the return of the return of V?). There’s also InSecurity, a new show premiering tonight at 8:30 after the Rick Mercer Report. It’s hard to know, as yet, what to make of the show: what I’ve seen of it feels too uncertain in tone to be really funny — like a lot of shows, it doesn’t quite know if it wants to go for a big broad cartoonish style, complete with a lead who is intended to seem a bit like Liz Lemon, or something more deadpan, with lots of Office-style awkwardness. (From what I see, the cartoony stuff works better than the more low-key material.)

And there’s the additional problem of timing, that it’s satirizing spy/counterterrorism shows at a time when most spy/counterterrorism shows are off the air: 24 is gone, The Border is gone, Undercovers came and went. Satirical shows do tend to have this problem, but at least James Bond movies were still big when Get Smart came on the air. InSecurity may be a bit more like Captain Nice, parodying the superhero craze just after it had burned out (it came back, but a lot of good that did Captain Nice).


That said, the idea still has a certain amount of promise; there is potential in taking the things that are usually taken seriously in television — terrorism, elite teams of crime-fighters — and playing it for laughs. This interview with star Natalie Lisiska implies that they’re trying to create more of a comparison to procedural shows like CSI. They do have their share of references that apply to that type of show, like the computers that do everything and the captions that identify where and when something is happening, but it still doesn’t feel rooted in a current, identifiable style, which makes a lot of the jokes seem non-specific.

Still, some moments do provide a reminder of why a high-concept sitcom premise (the kind that dominated TV in the ’60s) can work. The second episode of InSecurity is a mashup of a spy story with a sitcom “awkward, uncomfortable dinner with another couple” story, and the spy content adds a bit of interest to what would otherwise be a generic TV plot, the way Smart or Hogan’s Heroes could make typical sitcom plots seem fresher just by putting them into weird contexts. If future episodes can create a definite satirical connection to shows that are still on the air (not in the sense of directly parodying specific shows, just generally twisting around things we recognize from normal TV viewing) it could work. And even if it can’t, the ability to have characters threaten each other with guns will at least make the stories seem a bit more entertaining.

Right now, though, it doesn’t seem to have that sense of being about clichés that are current; according to that interview, the idea for the show was originally pitched three years ago, and that may put it at a disadvantage compared to something like Get Smart that really was a take-off on a currently-popular genre. (I wonder if that might also explain why Chuck hangs on but never really caught on: it’s supposed to be a comic take on spy stories, except serious spy stories have recently become less popular both on TV and in movies.) So the “why” of the show isn’t as clear as it might have been — it’s a parody, but it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what it’s trying to parody.

The sense that a show is letting the air out of a genre that’s gotten too popular for its own good may, in a weird way, explain the success of The Mentalist. No, really. I’ve seen it suggested that The Mentalist is really a satire or a subversion of the typical procedural, that creator Bruno Heller (who returned to the genre only after creating Rome for HBO) is really parodying the “elite law enforcement team” concept that CSI and all its imitators push. On those shows, the law enforcement officials are cool, brilliant and efficient; on The Mentalist, there’s a team, but they’re all basically useless, and the hero knows it. I think calling it an intentional subversion is a bit of a stretch, but the subversion of the CSI genre might account for some of its popularity, just as the USA procedurals mock or subvert their own genres to varying degrees. If it works for a drama, it could work for a comedy too.

One intentional example of a drama incorporating parody of other dramas: when Stephen J. Cannell died I didn’t mention that he rarely directed episodes of his own shows (being too busy writing dozens of scripts), but did a really good job on one of his rare directing efforts, the classic Rockford File “White On White and Nearly Perfect.” The whole episode is a spoof of the type of detective show that Rockford is not, with Tom Selleck as a detective who always gets the girl, always finds clues without effort, and doesn’t have to follow the rules of real-world logic. Just to cover all the bases, when White talks to the police, Cannell changes the shooting style and does it in extreme, tight close-ups, an anachronistic shooting style associated with more old-school cop dramas like Dragnet (and the dialogue and delivery is a little Dragnet-y). It would be interesting to see someone try an episode, or even a series, like that — directly subverting or spoofing the style of show that it’s trying to replace.

The sound is out of sync in this clip, but you can at least see the visual style that they’re making fun of.


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