Once upon a time, when TV shows parodied other TV shows, they usually did it in small doses. Saturday Night Light or Sesame Street would devote a single sketch to a riff on Homeland or Mad Men, while a satire machine like The Simpsons might take the concept further and model an entire episode after, say, VH-1’s Behind the Music. But with some notable exceptions, like the short-lived Police Squad!, Reno 911!, or some of the shorter-run oddities on Adult Swim, when TV shows went meta about their own medium, they generally didn’t stretch the concept into entire stand-alone series.
Given how savvy the public has become about its television, perhaps it’s not surprising that this unofficial TV spoof rule is being broken with increasing frequency. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen: Angie Tribeca, the cop show send-up that counts the aforementioned Police Squad! as one of its chief influences; a fifth season of Archer that renamed itself Archer Vice and immersed itself in the drug-running, sock-free territory of Miami Vice; Another Period, a smuttier, infinitely more ridiculous Downton Abbey; UnREAL, the Lifetime series that marinades in and critiques the world of Bachelor–style reality TV; and the sadly canceled The Grinder, the Rob Lowe–Fred Savage comedy that took giddy pleasure in picking apart the tropes of the stereotypical legal drama.
But the new TBS series Wrecked — a spoof of Lost that debuts Tuesday night — might be a tipping point or, at the very least, an illustration of what can go right and wrong when attempting to dabble in this very specific subgenre. (Or is it a sub-subgenre?)
Unlike, say, Another Period, which clearly wouldn’t exist without Downton Abbey but primarily uses the period piece as a jumping-off point for supreme silliness, Wrecked is very specifically tied to Lost, a blockbuster work of television that debuted on ABC more than a decade ago. Like Lost, Wrecked is about a bunch of survivors of a plane crash trying to subsist on a remote tropical island. Like Lost, its opening titles consist entirely of the word “Wrecked” in an all-caps, Impact font. Wrecked does not create a corollary for every single character in the Lost ensemble, but it does have, among other things, a loner whose legs are severely injured (Rhys Darby of Flight of the Conchords) à la John Locke, and an extremely handsome Matthew Fox look-alike who, at least initially, is the leader of the island. Other references to the original series abound, from frequent hikes into the jungle to ghost dads to locales (Thailand, Tallahassee) that hold prominent places in Lost lore. Even certain plot points in the initial episodes mirror moments from the original series.
That’s a potentially limiting framework for a show, not to mention one that feels like it’s arriving on the air at least seven years too late. And yet, in the first two or three episodes, there are moments when the conceit works because co-creators and brothers Justin and Jordan Shipley have figured out how to use the elements of Lost as an opportunity to comment on something broader, which is what the best TV comedies about other TV shows do. Take, for example:
When one of the survivors, a sports agent named Pack (Asif Ali), finds a satellite phone that’s actually receiving a signal, he asks a few of his fellow island dwellers who they should call for help.
“Do any of you guys know anyone’s phone number?” he asks, frustrated.
“Like, from memory?” one of them replies. Later, when the group conducts a census to determine whose job skills might be useful now that they’re all in survival mode, a flight attendant named Owen (Zach Cregger, giving off major Ryan Reynolds vibes), concludes that the career choices of practically everyone on the plane — two of whom define themselves as lifestyle bloggers — have made them utterly useless in a Lord of the Flies–type of environment. Lost isn’t that old, but it did arrive in the last days before the iPhone. It’s funny and insightful of Wrecked to point out how much softer we’ve gotten as a culture in just these few, post-Oceanic 815 years.
There are other moments in the first batch of episodes that amuse even though they have nothing to do with Lost. There’s a comical debate about which of the two sole DVDs found amidst the wreckage — Dumb and Dumber, To and Selma — should be viewed before the DVD player runs out of battery, and a ridiculous misunderstanding about a golf club between Darby’s character and the island’s resident douchebag, Todd (Will Greenberg, serving up a combo platter of Josh Holloway’s Sawyer and Bradley Cooper’s preppy jerk from Wedding Crashers).
But in the fourth and fifth episodes — the last of the initial pack made available to critics — the show’s comedy dives into overly lowbrow places, relying on plotlines about where to void one’s bowels on the island and a moronic drink-off between Todd and the show’s pseudo-protagonist Danny (Brian Sacca). Basically, Wrecked gets a bit too Dumb and Dumber, To for its own good, suggesting that when it strays, even a little, from Lost riffing, it may run out of steam.
There are a couple of things a TV spoof needs to accomplish if it expects to last. First, it needs to subvert its source material in smart, unexpected ways. And second, it must create characters and situations that are hilarious and engaging in their own right even when they don’t involve parody. Wrecked does both, but not always effectively enough.
It’s difficult for any show with very specific satirical elements to prove it can sustain itself, as we learned earlier this year when Fox canceled The Grinder, a show I loved, but whose premise always suggested it might have a limited shelf life. If Wrecked wants to stick around, it will have to both keep poking carefully chosen holes in the Lost universe while defining itself as a comedy with its own, separate identity. Otherwise, unlike Lost’s Jack Shephard, when audiences leave this particular island after each episode, they may not be inclined to shout, “We have to go back!”