On last night’s episode of Trophy Wife, a fantastic comedy with an unfortunate name, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) fell in love with the show Scandal. She begins watching the gifted DVDs almost by accident but slowly finds herself sucked in, first because of the similarities between her and the show’s protagonist — both Diane and Scandal’s Olivia Pope are clad in all white and drinking red wine — but then because it’s one of those shows that she just can’t stop watching. As the episode progresses, Diane goes from spiteful reluctance to full-on obsession: sitting literally on the edge of the couch, hushing people around her, staring agape at the television, and only moving to absently pop another cheese puff into her mouth.
It’s a funny sequence, and most of the humor derives from the familiarity of the situation. How many viewers’ love affair with Scandal began in the same way? Try out one episode and then suddenly, after countless zombie-like hours, you’re surprised to find that you’ve finished the entire season. It’s a stealth reflection of ourselves, but it’s also a comforting one. Diane’s character is a strong-willed, elegant, and stubborn doctor who refuses to even say thanks to Kate (Malin Akerman) for saving her life because, as she explains, she could have just done it herself if necessary. Diane isn’t the person you’d expect to obsess over a tawdry drama (though even without having seen much of Scandal, I can see why Diane gravitates toward Olivia’s character) but that’s the beauty of it: no one is immune to the charms of television.
Diane isn’t the only television character who is a fan of Scandal. On Parks and Recreation, Donna and Craig both mention their love for the show, while in an episode of Happy Endings, Penny wonders, “What would Kerry Washington do in Scandal?” — making Scandal a real drama that exists in made-up worlds.
Television appearing on television isn’t exactly a new concept. Often, TV writers make up fictional programs that exist within a show’s universe. Some shows, turned this into a running joke: 30 Rock poked fun at NBC by creating an impressive roster of terrible fake programs. Others have created meta-versions of the show itself, like The Valley, a carbon copy of The O.C. that was Summer’s favorite show. Less rare is when a real show incorporates multiple extended references to another real show — like the rapt attention Diane gave Scandal.
Lately, this has become a full-blown trend. New sitcoms About a Boy and Friends With Better Lives both coincidentally had episodes featuring a bait-and-switch joke where a couple was ecstatic to get some alone time together but opted for catching up on Homeland rather than having sex. On Broad City, Abbi can’t hang out because she’s close to finishing the first season of Damages on Netflix; on Bob’s Burgers, Tina Belcher writes erotic fan fiction about a multitude of existing shows, including The Good Wife, Bones, and 60 Minutes.
The obsession with Game of Thrones is just as inescapable on television as it is in real life. It’s become a staple interest of “nerd” characters like Dwight Schrute on The Office and Leonard and Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory but has also been referenced everywhere from 2 Broke Girls to Bunheads to New Girl. Parks and Recreation especially loves its Game of Thrones references. Ultimate cool-nerd Ben Wyatt is a huge fan of the show, quickly defending its appeal and completely freaking out when Leslie gives him a replica of the Iron Throne as a gift.
These TV references are a fast way to insert a relevant pop culture joke into a script, but they also point at something larger. Television becomes an increasingly important part of the culture sphere with every passing year — how many different “Golden Ages of TV” have been declared within just the last two decades? — and it’s finally creeping up to the level of appreciation and respect that people generally reserve for other art forms, like film or books.
TV is a large and significant part of our lives, so it’s only natural that the fictional characters that exist on television reflect this. It’s hard not to get excited when you learn that a fictional character you love or relate to shares similar interests and enthusiasm. Like Abbi, we’ve bailed on plans because we’re in the middle of a Netflix binge, and like Donna, we’ve bonded with a coworker over shared love of a twisty thriller. (And maybe, like Tina, we’ve filled our LiveJournals with embarrassing fan fiction, but no one has to know that.) Watching Diane’s quick spiral into Olivia Pope’s world makes us feel better about our own television spirals. Some of the best sitcoms work simultaneously as an escape from reality and a mirror of ourselves. Celebrating real-world TV culture on the TV shows we’re watching is just another great way to do this.