The show within a show

In a week of TV viewing, we’re presented with everything from vampire slaying to backyard makeovers; everything that is except watching TV itself. Outside of Gogglebox, that’s an activity largely restricted to cartoon shows.

In the animated world, “the show within the show” reflects the way audiences engage with the media while satirising it for laughs.

On 70s program Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the superhero show The Brown Hornet was used to distil the moral message of each episode into easily digestible nuggets for both the kids on the show (Fat Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth et al) and the viewing audience.

But writers of contemporary programs know their audiences are too savvy and cynical to buy into such warm and fuzzy messages.

Their characters are more likely to watch programs that reflect the kind of society television has forged and manipulated.

South Parks’s talk show Jesus and Pals, for instance, is forced at one stage to compete in a ratings war with wildlife program Huntin’and Killin’. When Jesus’s message looks threatened by Huntin’ and Killin’s growing popularity, His show fights back with a trashy, Jerry Springer-style makeover, complete with an all-in-brawl that ends when Jesus calls for everyone to shut the f… up.

The show that does the best job of featuring television as a powerful force in the lives of its characters is The Simpsons.

Indeed, watching TV is a defining activity for Bart, Lisa, Marge and, especially, Homer.

In the opening sequence, the family races home from various activities to spend quality time in front of the box. It sets the tone for what is to come.

Now the longest-running American sitcom, The Simpsons is frequently scathing about its own medium, often depicting television as a negative influence, or simply a waste of time.

In one episode, Marge, the moral centre of the family, campaigns to water down the extreme violence of The Itchy and Scratchy Show (the bellicose cat and mouse duo who appear on Krusty the Clown’s program – which makes it a show within a show within a show).

When Marge succeeds, the children of Springfield, now freed from their TV trammels, actually leave their lounge rooms to go outside and play.

TV in the world of The Simpsons is a strictly lowbrow affair. In one episode we see bartender Moe competing on a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-like quiz show called Me Wantee!, where literal wheelbarrows full of cash are up for grabs.

The local reality TV show, Bad Cops, highlights the incompetence of Springfield’s finest.

“Subject is hatless, I repeat, hatless,” advises Police Chief Wiggum in an APB as an offender speeds away.

In sending up their characters, the writers of The Simpsons also send up their audience.

In one episode, Homer is given 24 hours to live after swallowing a piece of poisonous Japanese fish. He decides to pack as much life as possible into what he thinks is his last day alive.

Later given a reprieve, he vows never to waste another moment. Yet in the final image, there he is, lounging in an armchair, munching a packet of pork rinds as he stares, fascinated, at his flickering TV. Just like us.


This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Good Weekend. I wrote it with input from Derek Agnew.