The story within the story, or mise en abyme as the French would say, is a trope at least as old as the Mahabharata, which harkens back to 400 BCE. That trope has continued through today, taking many forms including the TV show within the TV show, and there’s nothing we FANGRRLS love more than a meta-gag about science fiction and fantasy TV.
We may be living in the golden age of television, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fictional genre TV shows that we wish were real, too. So, here’s 10 shows we’d love to binge, but we’ll just have to settle for binge-watching our favorite character binge watch these shows. (Told you it was gonna get meta.)
The Scary Door (Futurama)
The Scary Door is all about the thing you see out of the corner of your eye, giving viewers a “vacation from normalcy.” Of course, that vacation comes with all of the absurdity, and none of the nuance, of the show that inspired it: The Twilight Zone. Where The Twilight Zone will make viewers question the nature of perception, The Scary Door will make viewers question their sanity, which is precisely why the Planet Express crew from Futurama enjoys this weird science fiction show so much.
If The Scary Door were real, it would give Black Mirror a run for its money, bringing all the eerie goodness with a healthy dose of hilarity.
Zombie High (iZombie)
The world has been taken over by zombies and only a few high school students remain, having retaken their high school as a safe haven away from the brain-hungry monsters. No, that’s not the plot of iZombie, it’s the plot of Zombie High, the favorite TV show of Liv Moore, resident zombie slash medical examiner for the Seattle Police Department. Liv’s world, filled with real zombies like herself and real people whose brains she eats (only after they’re dead), is much harsher and scarier than the melodrama that fills the halls of Zombie High. In a particularly meta moment, Liv mentions that she would like to see a show with a zombie as the lead character, but her partner Clive thinks that would be dumb.
While most of the characters in iZombie try to hate Zombie High, they all become reluctant (and often quite passionate) fans, enjoying a few binge sessions together.
Crying Breakfast Friends (Steven Universe)
If you love, breakfast, friendship, and expressing your feelings, then Crying Breakfast Friends is a show you should know about. A parody of a children’s show about feelings, which is most certainly a good description of Steven Universe, this meta commentary is all about misunderstandings and resolutions between characters with names like Sad Waffle, Crying Egg, Glum Glass, Sniffling Croissant, and Spilled Milk.
Steven loves this animated show, almost as much as he loves his feelings, but most of the adults, alien and human alike, do not understand or care for Crying Breakfast Friends. They just can’t seem to understand that sometimes crying is a part of friendship. At one point Steven convinces Amethyst to take a “Which Crying Breakfast Friend Are You?” personality quiz and it reveals more about her than she’d like to think.
If you desperately need to see an episode of Crying Breakfast Friends (I know you do), then you need to watch “Steven Reacts,” a short that shows Steven watching the sad friends as they meet a new group of foods, Angry Lunch Enemies.
Inspector SpaceTime (Community)
On Community, TV-obsessed Abed is introduced to the Doctor Who-inspired Inspector SpaceTime, a British science fiction show that has been on the air since 1962, as a replacement for his favorite TV show, Cougar Town. He immediately falls in love with the show and thus begins his and Troy’s new obsession. They become consumed with the campy series, even attending the Inspector SpaceTime Convention, where the whole study group learns more about the history and lore of the show than they ever wanted to know.
Though Community is not technically a genre show, the narrative does touch on many science fiction and fantasy elements, including when a zombie outbreak happens, and Inspector SpaceTime becomes a reflection of the study group’s own complicated weaving through… well, space and time.
All My Circuits (Futurama)
Since Futurama’s pilot episode, All My Circuits has been a mainstay for the Planet Express crew. The series is a hyper-melodramatic, soap opera pastiche for the 31st century, filled with robots who love, fight, die, experience a lot of amnesia, and hang out with their token Human Friend. Bender and Fry love All My Circuits, and so do two crew member’s children, Cubert and Dwight.
Calculon, a self-obsessed robot actor, stars in All My Circuits as a sexy, powerful leading man. For a short period of time, Bender also appears as Calculon’s son, adlibbing all of his own lines and being completely outrageous, yet a ratings monster. Instead of acting, Bender simply behaves like himself, which is a hilarious commentary on how Futurama viewers are literally tuning in to watch Bender be himself on a fictional TV show where he's being himself. Talk about meta.
Wormhole X-Treme! (Stargate SG-1)
Martin Lloyd, a humanoid alien, leaks the secrets of Stargate Command as a consultant for a TV show he pitched called Wormhole X-Treme! A poorly-shot, badly-lit parody of Star Trek: The Original Series, the show is briefly considered a breach of security before it’s decided that it might actually dissuade the general public from taking any future information leaks seriously. As the real people of Stargate Command watch Wormhole X-Treme! they each appear chagrined by Lloyd’s interpretation of them before Colonel Jack O’Neill is assigned to be the Air Force technical advisor.
Wormhole X-Treme! is a hilarious commentary on how TV shows are made, what monsters creators can be, and how you can hide the truth in plain sight.
The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (SpongeBob SquarePants)
A Bikini Bottom Public Access show, The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy follows the exploits of two superheroes in a spoof of the campy '60s live-action Batman featuring Adam West. SpongeBob and Patrick are mega-fans of Mermaid Man, Barnacle Boy, and their rogues’ gallery of villains. In addition to starring in their own TV show, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy once actually protected Bikini Bottom before they retired. SpongeBob loves Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy so much that he convinces them to star in another show, The New Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy.
We’d love to see even more of this often-hysterical commentary on the lore, gadgets, and personas of superheroes.
Interdimensional Cable (Rick and Morty)
OK, so interdimensional cable is more of an experience than a single TV show, but in Rick and Morty, when Rick upgrades his family’s cable package “with programming from every conceivable reality,” they are in for more than they bargained for. Not only is there a crime show featuring Corn People, but there’s also an episode of a late night show with David Letterman where Jerry is a famous actor. As they watch interdimensional cable, filled with over-the-top movie trailers, hysterical commercials, and offbeat TV shows, Rick and Morty remark that TV elsewhere seems to have a looser feel, as if it’s almost improvisational, a nod to how “Rixty Minutes” itself was created.
While my favorite bit is probably The REAL Fake Doors commercial, the best TV shows have to be Gazorpazorpfield and How They Do It. In Gazorpazorpfield, an extremely angry alien version of Garfield chews out and insults an extremely surprised Jon. Gazorpazorpfield calls Jon a “white guilt, milquetoast piece of human garbage” which has to be one of the funniest insults ever muttered. In How They Do It, viewers learn how the plumbus, an alien object that is found in every household, is made. Hint: you need a bunch of schleem.
The Itchy & Scratchy Show (The Simpsons)
The oldest to appear on this list, The Itchy & Scratchy Show first aired before The Simpsons was even around, back in 1988 when it appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show—and there’s a reason it has stuck around for so long. A gore-filled, violent take on animated children’s shows that feature cat and mouse antics, literally speaking, the series is a favorite of Lisa and Bart Simpson. Itchy, the mouse, is almost exclusively the aggressor towards Scratchy, the cat. Itchy murders Scratchy numerous times in more and more inventive ways, with Scratchy often conscious for his excruciating torture. It may not sound funny, but Lisa and Bart regularly end up in hysterics after an episode. And, I don’t know about you, but none of the mice I’ve seen have the ability to invent Rube Goldberg machines capable of decapitating a cat, so I think I get the humor.
Everybody Loves Hypnotoad (Futurama)
Everybody Loves Hypnotoad is a galaxy-wide sensation, not because people like it, but because they are literally hypnotized by a toad named Hypnotoad. The giant creature, that may be alien, mutant, or something else entirely, simply looks at the camera, projecting hypnotic control from its eyes. And, though Fry thinks the show has gone downhill since Season 3, the whole Planet Express crew still watches Everybody Loves Hypnotoad alongside everyone in the Futurama universe—whether they like it or not.