Tuned In

The Good Wife, Up All Night and the Spinoff-Within-a-Show

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The other night while I was watching The Good Wife, a follower on Twitter asked me how I was liking the new season so far. It occurred to me that, while I’m still a big fan of the show, I wasn’t loving the season yet—the main storylines involving Alicia, Will and the firm feel a little slow and still-forming. But I am loving the almost entirely separate show-within-a-show about Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) and his in-house crisis-p.r. firm.

When I say “show within a show” here, of course, I don’t mean a fictional TV show, like TGS or Itchy and Scratchy. I mean the particular phenomenon of a subplot or story thread that, for whatever reason, is significant and yet separate enough from the main story—either in tone or plot—that you feel like you’re watching a tiny TV show that someone decided to hide in a larger TV show.

And I don’t mean this as an insult. A show-within-a-show—maybe “spinoff-within-a-show” is a better term—can be one of the nicest little bonuses on TV.

In the case of The Good Wife, there was clearly something of an Eli dilemma once Peter had won his race and Alicia became re-estranged from him. It wouldn’t naturally make sense for Eli to immediately jump in and start running Peter’s next campaign (even if the show has laid the groundwork for a future run for higher office). You can’t keep contriving reasons for Eli to demand that Alicia appear with Peter for some political reasons to create conflict. And yet the character, played by the deliciously arch Cumming, is so good that you are damn well going to find him things to do every episode.

So this season Eli is running a crisis p.r. operation from within the law firm. Yes, his stories are connected to the rest of the series—there’s the matter of personnel sharing (especially Kalinda, who also needs more to do) and office politics. And I assume that he will only become more closely involved in the show’s A plots down the road.

But honestly, for much of the short season so far, it’s seemed mainly like a reason to keep Eli doing brilliantly cynical things—with the cheese lobby case, with the Israel-Palestinian controversy—somewhere that’s he’s close enough that we can see him. And thus far, as long as I can see Eli Gold berating clueless cheese executives, I’m just fine with that.

One of the advantages of the show-within-a-show is that it enables you to treat subjects that, in themselves, would probably not survive a network pitch meeting. Though big-network audiences will follow dramas about, say, sharky defense firms, building a primetime show about crisis communications management is probably a stretch too far, and maybe better suited to cable. (Showtime will try just that with House of Lies next year; Free Agents, set in a p.r. firm, is no longer for this world. Update: A follower reminds me that ABC will test the subject with Scandal in midseason too; good luck to them.) But The Good Wife, in its moral and narrative sophistication, is about the closest thing a broadcast network has to a cable drama—just enough to sublease some of its dramatic office space to the spinoff-within-a-show that I like to think of as “Eli Gold: PR!.”

The longer a series has been around, or the more expansive its plots, the more room it potentially has to become a kind of portmanteau series containing shows-within-shows. Season 2 of Treme, for instance, devoted part of its time to a storyline involving Janette (Kim Dickens), a New Orleans chef expatriated to New York City.

Not only was her character separated from much of the rest of the action for a good portion of the series, the subplot had a different subject—cooking, not music, being her chosen art—and even its own creative team, of a sort: David Simon brought in chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain to write for that storyline in particular. The subplot dealt with Janette’s feelings of mixed loyalty away from home—hence the famed Sazerac-throwing incident—but it was also very much just a story of the New York City restaurant scene and the personalities, chefs and critics in it.

It was a little esoteric, a little removed from the action, and also kind of beautiful. Very likely no TV network, even HBO, would sign up Anthony Bourdain to create a highly naturalistic drama about life in the kitchens of Manhattan restaurants. (Especially after a sitcom based on kitchen Confidential fizzled out years ago.) But making room for it as an almost interstitial show within Treme was a fine, rare extra—in New Orleans restaurant terms, a lagniappe.

There’s a danger, though, that arises when the spinoff-within-a-show threatens the balance of the show itself. NBC’s Up All Night is another prime example of one, which coincidentally happens to involve a TV show. I’ve been quite enjoying the Will Arnett and Christina Applegate sitcom, about the stresses, insecurities and exhaustion of new parenting. And I enjoy Maya Rudolph playing an outsized parody of a needy, demanding talk show host.

But that latter part of Up All Night is often so different from the former—more satirical, more fantastical, existing on a different level of reality—that it can feel like my TV is randomly switching between Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. (Not to say that Up All Night is at the level of either yet.) Last week’s episode was the best yet at integrating the two worlds, with its subplot about Rudolph’s Ava feeling left out of her best friend’s new parenting life. But I wonder if it can maintain that balance going forward, or if I’m better off watching the show twice, fast-forwarding through a different half of it each time.

The dividing line between subplot and spinoff-within-a-show is fuzzy, of course, but I suspect there are a lot of other examples out there, especially on longer-running dramas and procedurals that I don’t follow as regularly. (And I haven’t even mention kids’ shows, which are much friendlier to the concept—see the mostly-separate Perry storylines in Phineas and Ferb.) Any spinoffs-within-a-show that you’re especially fond of? And should CBS go ahead and spin off Eli Gold: PR already?