In life (and in TV) there is both a time to laugh and a time to cry, but there is also a time to spoof.
For as long as there have been things in pop culture worth referencing, there have been spoofs and parodies, from the early sketch comedy shows of Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett that poked fun at pop culture classics, to special one-off episodes of more dramatic fare, like Felicity and The X-Files, that chose to offer a more lovingly-done homage.
It’s not easy to properly spoof though. Too much obvious referencing can make a spoof appear heavy-handed; not enough can make a spoof almost disappear. Only some shows can find the proper mix and create a moment, a scene or in some cases an entire episode or series that truly works. The following episodes and series found that perfect mixture and made spoofs worth remembering for years to come.
1. Mr. Robot, “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes”
Mr. Robot is arguably one of the most creative and inventive shows currently on television and the polarizing episode 6 of its most recent season is a prime example of that creativity and inventiveness at work. The first 15 or so minutes of the episode feature Elliot, the series’ main character, seemingly trapped in a ’90s-esque sitcom of his own making, or perhaps the making of his alter ego/spirit guide/all-around scamp, the titular Mr. Robot.
The series so far had thrived on warping reality and showing that all is not as it seems, but this episode in particular really stole the show on that front. From the look (bright and overly-saturated) to the sound (silence, except for an occasional laugh track) to a spot-on revamped theme song and an appearance from a certain alien puppet that ruled the ’90s sitcom scene, this episode proved that a spoof, when done correctly, can be equal parts silly and unnerving.
Mr. Robot Recap: Elliot Slips into Delusion and … Hey, Is That ALF?>>>
2. Atlanta, “B.A.N”
If Mr. Robot‘s genre-subversion makes it one of the cleverest dramas currently on TV, it seems safe to argue that the genre-bending Atlanta would be its newest comedy counterpart. “B.A.N,” set entirely within a Charlie Rose-meets-local cable access issues show called Montague, was a complete departure from what Atlanta had appeared to be so far. It only featured one familiar face, Alfred a.k.a. Paper Boi, who was a guest on Montague to discuss his views on trans issues within the hip hop community.
In addition to their round-table discussion, which had its fair share of leading questions and grand exaggerations that can be frequently found on Montague‘s real-life counterparts, the episode also featured a field piece on a young “trans-racial” man (think Rachel Dolezal) and a collection of fake commercials, including an animated kids cereal ad that took a dark, police brutality-tinged turn.
The episode sent a multitude of messages, one of which is that Atlanta is a series hoping to regularly defy and defeat expectations, especially when it comes to spoofing.
3. 30 Rock, “Queen of Jordan”
30 Rock‘s show-within-a-show premise got even more meta with this episode, which was actually an episode of Tracy’s wife Angie’s Bravo network reality series, Queen of Jordan. The episode featured everything that makes a Bravo show tick, from cuts to confessional-style interviews to an opening titles sequence rife with catch phrases that felt right at home with the Housewives of just about any given city.
The episode also featured one of the earliest appearances of Tituss Burgess (a.k.a. Titus on the excellent Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) in a Tina Fey production. There was no Pinot Noir to be found, but there was plenty of “throwing wine” and tables to be flipped, further showcasing the often-blurred lines between the comedy of 30 Rock and the “faux reality” that it was parodying.
4. Community, “Basic Lupine Urology”
There could be an entirely separate list just made up of spoofs and parodies from Community‘s six-season (and a movie?) run, but their Law and Order parody was particularly special, purely because of how seriously it took something so silly and how accurate it was to what it was poking fun at.
Keeping in theme with the typical Law and Order procedural set up, the beginning of the episode (in addition to yet another spot-on recreation of the Law and Order opening titles sequence) reveals that someone has committed a heinous crime on the campus of Greendale Community College. No, not murder; rather, someone has destroyed the study group’s biology project and Troy and Abed decide to track down the culprit.
The episode progresses from their investigation to the eventual “court” (a.k.a. Dean Pelton’s office) case. The true culprit is determined and all seems to be well until, in typical Law and Order fashion, a sudden death rocks the study group and the show at large. (R.I.P. Starburns, at least until we find out he isn’t actually dead several episodes later.) The thing that makes this and many of Community‘s other spoofs so great is the laser accuracy with which they work. No stone is left unturned, no detail left ignored. It was what made Community so beloved, despite its constant on-the-bubble state.
5. American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare
This pick isn’t a specific episode per say, but rather an entire season that seems to be taking on an ambitious spoof of its own. Following a seemingly never-ending and mysterious ad campaign, season 6 of American Horror Story finally premiered and revealed that it would be quite different from any of the seasons that preceded it.
Instead of following a story in real-time (or at least, a real-time of sorts), the first five episodes of AHS season 6 have ventured into the territory of ghost story shows that feature interviews with “real” people (in this case, Shelby and Matt, played by Lily Rabe and Andre Holland) translated into “dramatic re-enactments” (featuring a Shelby and Matt played by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr).
The season and its style are not exactly poking fun at the genre but rather thoughtfully recreating it, although I doubt any of the networks that regularly show these ghost story series would air something so horrifyingly gory. With episode 6’s big reveal of yet another show-within-a-show, the season continues to spoof the “real life” ghost story genre. Knowing AHS though, this spoof is bound to take a dark, scary and likely very bloody turn.
American Horror Story: Roanoke Recap: The Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction>>>
6. Scream Queens, “Haunted House”
There have been many seasons of the Taylor Swift oeuvre at this point, but in between the “boy crazy” Swift and the “squad queen” Swift, there was a Swift that just loved her fans so gosh darn much. How much, you ask? Enough to purchase, package and hand-deliver gifts to specific fans that Swift had selected who, in her all-knowing eyes, were deserving of her benevolent love and appreciation. Something so cloyingly sweet was just asking to be spoofed, and Scream Queens delivered in spades with “Chanel-‘o-Ween,” a brilliant shot-for-shot remake of the video that Swift posted on YouTube detailing her good Samaritan efforts.
Much like Swift’s gift-giving bonanza, Scream Queen‘s Chanel Oberlin decided to surprise some of her 752 Instagram followers with special gifts. But these gifts weren’t of the charming and cute variety. No, they were horrific and unsettling, all too appropriate for the Scream Queens star. A dismembered foot, a rotting jack-o-lantern, a “box just filled with blood” — these were a few of the favorite things that Chanel gifted to her all-too-deserving fans, who couldn’t have been happier.
The episode, which aired right around Halloween 2015, was a perfect takedown of the too-good-to-be-true Swift video and further cemented the fact that Scream Queens isn’t one to hold back when it comes to spoofing.
7. NCIS, “Being Bad”
It’s not exactly a new endeavor to reference or spoof The Breakfast Club, but it’s not everyday that said spoof involves apparent murder, a bomb plot and some serious theft. This is what NCIS brought to the table with their take on The Breakfast Club, wherein the brain (who just happens to be a former Special Forces agent) gets into a fight with the criminal at their 15-year high school reunion that turns deadly quick.
During the investigation the team tracks down the princess, the basket case, and the jock that round out the fateful five who make up a case that gets more and more complicated as the team goes along. Turns out all five had hatched their thieving plan back in high school at a Saturday detention (sound familiar?) but things got out of hand and the criminal actually wanted to call things off. He was poisoned before he got the chance though, by none other than one of their former teachers!
What makes this spoof work isn’t the references it makes, but the way that it flips them on their heads. This isn’t your parents’ Breakfast Club. Unless, of course, The Breakfast Club takes a very dark turn after the credits roll. It’s a shame John Hughes is no longer around to ask.
NCIS Recap: A Criminal Breakfast Club>>>
8. Supernatural, “Ghostfacers”
Long before Supernatural became self-aware and almost every episode featured a meta-commentary on the show itself, the series merely dabbled in spoofing with its own take on SyFy’s Ghost Hunters. In the episode, the boys encounter the crew of a new ghost-hunting series, Ghostfacers, who are conveniently also trying to “hunt” the ghost that haunts the Morton House every four years on February 29.
Supernatural leans in on this spoof with the framing of the episode (eerily similar to that of Ghost Hunters), the Ghostfacers crew’s use of various tools and instruments to track and find said ghost and the implementation of shaky cam to capture all of the excitement. By the time the crew tracks down the ghost (not before losing a crewmember in the process) it’s clear that the Ghostfacers are in way over their heads, not unlike the real-life Ghost Hunters they are parodying.
The spoof works in its accuracy and the way that it calls out the silliness of what it’s spoofing. It’s not hard to believe that the goofy “hunters” of Ghostfacers could make it as a real show in the Ghost Hunters vein. They certainly had the same skill level.
What do you think of these great pop culture spoofs? Have any others worth adding? Share your thoughts and contributions in the comments.
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(Images courtesy of USA, FX, NBC, Fox, CBS and The CW)