“UnREAL” – Pilot
The entirety of Lifetime’s hit original series starring Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby satirizes competition dating and is set against the backlot of a hit “Bachelor”-type show called “Everlasting.” From co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, Appleby stars as Rachel Goldberg, a jaded, but extremely talented reality television producer who finds herself stooping lower and lower to maximize the show’s drama.
The pilot episode introduces us to Rachel, who — under the unscrupulous demands of lead producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) — helps manipulate “Everlasting” contestants into acting in ways that would increase the salaciousness and, consequently, the entertainment value of the episodes. We’re also introduced to what “UnREAL” is all about in a scene where Rachel exploits a contestant’s past as a battered wife to coax her into approaching the season’s “suitor.” It gets darker from there.
“Archer” – Live and Let Dine
In this episode of the animated double-oh-seven satire, Archer and his ISIS crew go “undercover” on a celebrity cooking show called “Bastard Chef.” Their mission: to provide security for the “bunch of diplomats from the State Department in Albania.” Apparently, an anonymous threat was made against the Albanian ambassador, but yogurt and sheep’s head are on the menu and the spy agency’s first priority is preparing a fine gastronomical experience for the restaurant’s distinguished guests.
With Master Chef Casteau voiced by Anthony Bourdain himself, the episode parodies cooking shows like “Chopped,” whose knife imagery is adopted here in “Bastard Chef’s” opening credits, and “Hell’s Kitchen,” in which host Gordon Ramsay strictly abides by the “ABBAB” principle (or, as Archer could tell you, “Always Be Berating and Belittling”). Casteau, too, lives by this motto, as we find out approximately 12 seconds in when he addresses his camera crew as “cockwits.” Sous chef Archer (going by the name of Randy) finds he has much in common with Casteau as he practices “ABBAB” on Cyril, chugs fruit brandy and prepares a delicious entrée of the Albanian national dish, tavë kosi. Meanwhile, Cyril (or Chet), Lana (or Mitzi) and Ray (or child-murderer Gilles de Rais), hate every second of their time on-screen, doing the bare minimum (if that) to maintain their disguise. Ray and Cyril both cry in front of the camera while Lana is stuck with irrelevant phone duties after being called a “giraffe lady.” They are only there because they have to be (or do they?) and it makes us question why, in reality, anyone would go through that kind of treatment by choice. Unless they’re Archer.
“Burning Love” – Finale
Created by Erica Oyama and produced by Ben Stiller, each of “Burning Love’s” three seasons has featured some of the best ensemble casts of any show out there. Part of the allure has to be the tight group of famous friends attached to director Ken Marino (Oyama’s husband), but the this lampooning of reality show romance is ruthless enough to earn attention on its own. In its first season, Marino starred as firefighter Mark Orlando, a bachelor looking for love on reality TV. With Jennifer Aniston, Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman, Abigail Spencer and more making up his options for a soul mate, there were no shortage of comedians on set at all times, and each and every one of them made the most of their appearances. “Burning Love” has kept up its satirical tone for three seasons, and — with the shows it’s mocking (“The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette”) showing no signs of slowing down — there’s been plenty to tear apart each year.
“The Comeback” – Valerie Does Another Classic Leno
Both seasons of “The Comeback” are deliberately meant to be seen as “unedited” footage from the reality show being made about sitcom star Valerie Cherish’s (Lisa Kudrow) life. But the first time we really get to see what producer Jane (Laura Silverman) has been making is in the Season 1 finale, where, during a party in front of all her friends and family, Valerie sees the way her life has been manipulated by interviews and editing into something cheap and embarrassing. The contrast between Jane’s version of events and what we’ve been seeing all season long is maybe the most painful part of what was already a pretty harsh season of comedy; while Valerie does get a moment of triumph by the end, “The Comeback” pulled no punches (literally or figuratively) about the reality of reality TV.
“The Comedians” – Celebrity Guest
In what’s now a sadly ironic twist, the fourth episode of “The Comedians” features not just a monologue explaining how desperate it can look to add a celebrity guest given by a celebrity guest (Emmy-nominated legend Mel Brooks), but also Billy Crystal describing how network executives go about canceling a show. “That’s not how they kill you. They tell you everything is great. Keep doing what you’re doing! Then one night you’re at a diner, like Tony Soprano, eating a big bowl of gabbagoole, and boom! Cut to black. You’re dead.” While it’s the titular bit that earns “The Comedians” a spot on this list — mocking both reality TV conventions as well as scripted programs — it’s the harsh reality of the real world that hurts the most.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – America’s Next Top Paddy’s Billboard Model Contest
In this episode, whose title riffs on Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model,” Frank comes up with an advertising strategy to save Paddy’s and its dwindling funds: He buys a billboard. Intent on attracting customers with a picture of himself surrounded by a pair of large-breasted ladies, Frank (Danny DeVito) weathers some particularly brutal verbal assault from Dennis concerning his physical appearance before agreeing with the guys that a modeling competition is the right approach for choosing the lucky representatives of their establishment. As Mac passes judgement on the female competitors, Frank deals with the male models and Dee goes off with Charlie to create some viral video gold.
The result is a spoof-medley directed towards reality TV. Aside from the titular modeling show, “The Bachelor” is referenced, with Mac handing out “Shamrock Awards” in the place of roses. Dennis — looking like Zoolander if he’d just eaten some bad oysters — decides to use the male competition as an opportunity to launch his modeling career. He eventually loses interest as Frank turns it into more of a “Fear Factor” kind of affair, with cockroaches and manure-pits posing as obstacles for those who truly want the prize. Dee’s “Saturday Night Live” ambitions are redirected by Charlie, whose vision is closer to the lovechild of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Punk’d”. The usual “IASIP” humiliation, misogyny and physical pain ensue, with each of the gang doing their damnedest to prove themselves worthy before an imaginary audience.
“Louie” – Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 1
Louie C.K.’s portrayal of awkward scenarios makes for a one-of-a-kind comedic event. Each episode of the comedian’s hit FX series features hilarious vignettes from Louis’ life in NYC as well as segments from his stand up routines at the Comedy Cellar. In this episode, “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part 1,” he finds himself in a no-strings-attached sexual relationship that he is simply not cut out for. After picking up Maria Bamford at the comedy club, the episode takes on a satirical tone. Lying in bed, post sex, Bamford is dissatisfied with Louis’ performance and she goes through the trouble of making it known. It’s so awkward, it’s painful to watch, as Louis juxtaposes the scenario with a reality show that is currently on his TV.
The show features a house full of people screaming and shouting. One of the upset men pulls out a knife and stabs the girl he is arguing with in the chest. Cutting to the look on Louis’ face, it highlights the ridiculousness of the television genre. Parodying the portrayal of relationships on reality TV, Louis gives us the truth. Social and sexual interactions are not like the melodramatic spectacles of the “Jersey Shore.” On the contrary, they reflect Louis’ moments of awkward, shameful, and quiet mental reflection. “Louis” is an authentic look at relationships, emphasizing emotional vulnerability through the moments where nothing goes as planned.
“People Like Us” – The Actor
A documentary parody built on the premise of documenting people working in various professions, hosted by an inept interviewer and filled with subtle yet silly gags and lines, “People Like Us” is an unappreciated gem. Only one season of this British series from 1999 is available on Hulu, but on YouTube you can find the second season episode “The Actor,” which just so happens to star a very, very young and unknown David Tennant as… a struggling actor. Once you get over the novelty of Tennant playing a part that probably hewed pretty closely to his own experiences as a struggling actor at that time, it’s a slightly sad but thoroughly enjoyable example of strong character-based parody.
“The Simpsons” – Helter Shelter
In this episode of “The Simpsons,” the family ends up on a reality TV show that challenges them to live as they would at the turn of the century. Pointing out the utter ridiculousness of reality TV by exaggerating the viewers’ love of watching the family struggle — and the reality show’s ratings plummet when the Simpsons don’t — this episode highlights our absurd fascination with watching others’ crazy experiences unfold. Hilariously tackling the wild lengths reality television will go to in order to maintain popularity, the show-within-the-show in this episode eventually finds the Simpsons family’s turn-of-the-century home crashing down a literal river.
“South Park” – Cancelled
The Season 7 episode, “Cancelled,” features meta-storytelling that is out of this world. Experiencing déjà vu of the pilot, the four boys fear that they may be in the midst of a “repeat” episode. The return of Cartman’s anal probe, which is actually a satellite, leads to an alien abduction. On the space ship, the boys discover that their whole life has been captured on hidden camera and that “Earth” is actually an intergalactic reality TV show made for alien entertainment. Taking species from their respective home planets and combining them on earth, the aliens “find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real.”
As word spreads about the reality show, the reaction is priceless: “My God…we’re famous!” Cheers erupt through the crowd as the residents of South Park, CO brag about being on TV. The boys end up saving “Earth” from being cancelled by blackmailing the producer. Using actual news footage for the trailer of the reality show and mocking the narration of MTV’s “The Real World” commercials, the creators of “South Park” reiterate why they are the masters of satire. The most ridiculous part of the absurd episode is that it reveals some truth behind “South Park’s” depiction of “Earth” as a reality show.
“30 Rock” – Queen of Jordan
With Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) on leave “in Africa,” NBC Universal turned to his wife, Angie (Sherri Shepherd) to help make up the ratings dip experienced during his absence. Her reality series “Queen of Jordan” was a hit, which meant bad news for the crew at 30 Rock when the cameras came to visit the home of Tracy’s former show. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is still trying to get her show’s star to return, even attempting to manipulate Angie into asking her husband to come home (which does not end well), while Jenna (Jane Krakowski) tries to steal every extra moment of camera time she can (which also does not end well).
Shot as an episode of Bravo-style reality TV, “Queen of Jordan” mocks “Real Housewives” shows more than anything else, without being afraid to embrace the tricks employed by the medium to make people look bad — namely, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who trips, farts and comes out of the closet, all in one episode (all thanks to dishonest representations of what really happened) — and amp up the drama — such as Jenna’s contrived “intervention.” Always on point, “30 Rock” eviscerated its higher-rated TV cousin in just 22 minutes, all while staying true to the series’ emotional core and characters’ complexity.
“The X-Files” – X-Cops
During the later years of its run, “The X-Files” took more than a few opportunities to experiment with format and genre; making “X-Cops,” in retrospect, relatively groundbreaking. While this crossover with the iconic “Cops” didn’t completely stick with the format of the long-running Fox “documentary series” about cops working their beats (the full “X-Files” title sequence does in fact run after the opening scene), the rest of the action is a familiar recreation of how each episode of “Cops” would begin, down to the opening voice-over. The actual mystery that the documentary crew stumbles across Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating is lackluster (spoiler alert: werewolves), but seeing how Mulder and Scully react to cameras exposing their investigative style is a treat. “The FBI has nothing to hide,” Scully says into the lens, smiling bravely through the lie.