Entertainment Talk

How should TV shows reference their pop-culture peers?

Always Sunny, Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons and how to copy pop-culture peers
(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

To its credit, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has not exactly tried to reinvent that which cannot be reinvented. Still, for all it has done fine with of late, there are areas where it could have hit higher marks.

While its two latest episodes took up trite concepts, the execution was fresh in some spots. More crucially, it was honest about its limitations. It offers another form of the refreshing humility Monty Python used to display when breaking the fourth wall.

Two Wednesdays ago, the series offered a characteristically forthright episode title: “The Gang Does a Clip Show.” In the subsequent presentation, retakes on preceding episodes accentuate the characters’ less-than-perfect memory.

That, or their desire to conveniently spin their own history. One sequence openly takes the longstanding “Seinfeld on crack” tagline and milks it dry.

Though not a purely original tactic, the episode reeks of less laziness or fatigue than your typical clip show. It is no cause for consternation over the show’s status.

Then there was last Wednesday’s “Charlie’s Home Alone,” which packed scarce surprises from the promos onward. Although, unlike most TV-episode movie parodies, this storyline acknowledges its inspiration’s existence. (The same thing happens with the clip show’s Seinfeld nod.) In so doing, it admits to being a cheap replica that cannot grow 5K-caliber legs.

In a way, Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) emulates the exploits of Kevin McCallister more expressly than the Always Sunny writers. He confirms his situation’s reminiscence of the 1990 movie by reenacting the aftershave scream, then questioning how that causes pain.

Building on that, after verbatim movie quoting and booby-trap duplication, he executes his plot with expectedly less shrewdness than Kevin. When his own setup strikes him, he comes to question the ethics of the nail gun.

But on the whole, with or without these inside concessions, the episode sags with predictability. It continues to do so even after the homage with a string of who-didn’t-see-that-coming stunts. Charlie’s repulsive choice of a substitute yellow beverage for good luck is not the least of those.

Whether the episode quits the Home Alone act while it is ahead, behind or neck-and-neck is up for debate. The AV Club’s Dennis Perkins, for one, writes that the movie “is aped far too faithfully” before the parody grows “exaggerated with less imagination.”

But with this week’s second half of this two-parter implicitly focusing on the rest of the gang’s Super Bowl journey, maybe that is the end of that. That is unless they return to Paddy’s for the ending and scream, “Charlie! What did you do…?”

For now, Charlie Bremesco of Vulture speculates that the balance of Part 1, with Charlie caught in his own bear trap, is “a 127 Hours parody.” You might also look at Charlie’s crawl across a broken glass-laden bar floor as a loose homage to Die Hard.

Chris Farley would have liked that for sure, and it is better than finishing the all-out Home Alone spoof. At least it has more subtlety to it.

Not everything can be purely original, but there are ways of putting fresher twists on a callback to a classic. If brevity is not an option, the show in question is still free to recycle a full concept. But the trick to making a top-notch impression is infusing as much of its own flavor as it can.

The polar opposite of that is putting characters from ostensibly separate universes in the same setting. A week-and-a-half before FXX premiered “Charlie’s Home Alone,” its parent network witnessed that in its Sunday primetime block. The Simpsons made a minute-long crossover with Bob’s Burgers out of its theme sequence and couch gag.

Fortunately for those still vexed by 2014’s SimpsonsFamily Guy intersection, this collision ends with the cold open. Again, it is the brevity that strikes the balance between daring and playing it safe.

Although, given the state of each show, one has to wonder if the 30-year-old series did this out of desperation. Putting Homer in the Belcher’s restaurant may have signaled the former’s intent to filch some freshness from the latter.

The Simpsons was indubitably the definitive adult animated sitcom of the 1990s. It would have been regardless of its volume of competitors. Today, among Fox’s lineup plus other TV and web-only networks, Bob’s Burgers has long secured the crown of the 2010s. As this author has opined before, some of its stark differences could lend it a longer peak than The Simpsons.

Yet its longevity also lends it every right to utilize some of the tactics that boosted The Simpsons’ heyday. In particular, when was the last time anybody did an episode along the lines of “22 Short Films About Springfield”?

Like Always Sunny, The Simpsons dished up a clip show (more than one, in fact) while it was still high-quality. It was straightforward with the episode titles, signaling that it was only human and catching its creative breath.

Yet late in its seventh season, it found an even fresher avenue to keep running while refueling its continuing-plot tank.

“22 Short Films” is itself an admitted nod to Pulp Fiction. As Alan Siegel reported last August in The Ringer, showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein “wanted to try non-linear storytelling.”

The result was a slew of remarkably dense development minutes for series-long supporting or prop characters. Eccentric figures like Dr. Nick Riviera, Bumblebee Man and Cletus each get a rare, if not their first, appearance beyond the bada-bing, bada-boom one-shot laugh.

Prior to “22 Short Films,” Herman was a rare background character beyond “Bart the General,” an episode from before the show hit its stride, and Season 6’s ‘The Springfield Connection.” He then reappears for intersecting mini-plots.

In addition, the tour of the town culminates in an overdue comeuppance for Nelson. Up to that point, outside of “Bart the General,” Nelson is little more than “that boy who laughs at everyone.” Although, right before “22 Short Films,” he had joined Bart, Milhouse and Martin on their sping-break road trip.

By the next season, he returns to the center of a storyline as Lisa’s love interest. Two years later, he catalyzes the first one-third of “Bart the Mother.” And he has been tapped for a primary role in a slew of other plots long after the program’s peak.

The Simpsons’ entertainment value climaxed the season after “22 Short Films.” That nonstop stream of gems circa 1996-97 gave way to less frequent A-grade episodes before everything sputtered in the next decade.

Bob’s Burgers has the potential to sustain its top-tier quality longer than a decade for several reasons. One of those is that not all of its nine seasons have been full-length. (Incidentally, the same holds true for the 13 seasons of Always Sunny.)

Loren Bouchard’s brainchild has long earned the right to emulate “22 Short Films” with a comprehensive tour of his “semi-Springfield.” Although the saga can still savor its peak, it likely has more good years behind than ahead. It cannot hurt to draft a long-term plan for a Bob’s Burgers bucket list.

At some point, delving a little deeper into the roller skating Speedo Guy, Yuli the security guard and Mike the mailman should join that list. In that effort, that balance between daring and caution would entail one-to-two minutes of focus on each.

As long as Bouchard and company were to take care to keep being their own show, it would be good. That means ensuring short films about the anonymous semi-Springfield and their wraparound distinguish themselves from the short films about Springfield.

You do not want to settle for what the AV Club’s Perkins dubbed “Home Alone story beats without…much of a Sunny spin on them.”

Always Sunny can still return to the top of its game. If and when it does, maybe it can take a do-over on the reference- and mimicry-centered teleplays.

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Al Daniel

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