You’re sitting down, watching an episode of your favorite television series. And then the characters on your favorite show start watching their favorite show, cracking up at that crazy scene or gossiping with their friend about a ridiculous storyline. And then you text your friend about how crazy that episode was, and then you realize the irony of the moment, and it’s all very meta.
Shows within shows that often satarize other TV shows are not a new idea, of course. 30 Rock fans might recall reality TV spoofs MILF Island and Queen of Jordan; The Good Wife gave Breaking Bad a nod in good fun with Darkness At Noon, and who can forget Miranda’s obsession with the fictional British soap opera Jules & Mimi on Sex and the City?
But this popular plot device has seemed to make a big return in the past year. On This Is Us, one of The Big Three, Kevin, is the star of a fake network sitcom called The Manny, which he quit dramatically last season then returned to for a reunion on a recent episode. Insecure made waves with Due North, a parody slave drama starring Regina Hall and Scott Foley as the characters that keep Issa, Molly, and co. entertained; on Dear White People, the Black college students love to gather weekly in their dorm commons to watch a Scandal-like drama called Defamation (featuring a memorable act in the Oval Office that was not very, um, political). Cardi B made a guest appearance on Being Mary Jane as the star of a baby mamas-based reality show called Family Brawlers, and since 2014 Jane the Virgin’s entire premise has been poking fun at telenovelas, with Jane’s dad, Rogelio, as the over-the-top star of various Spanish soap operas like The Passions of Santos that viewers get to watch him film.
But when some of these shows-within-shows feature major Hollywood names and entire sets of their own, viewers (like myself) might fall into this black hole of meta worlds and ask: How do these shows actually get made?
Well, first, there’s the origin of the idea in the first place. On Insecure, writer Natasha Rothwell — who also plays Issa's hilarious friend Kelly — says Due North began as a writer's room joke.
"We were all joking about two of the writers on staff having this like, illicit pre-Civil War affair, and then the jokes got lengthier and more intricate and just really funny," Rothwell says. "And at one point, someone said, what if this was a show? What would happen if Underground and Empire had a baby?"
In the first season of Insecure, we'd sometimes get a peek of Conjugal Visits, a spoof of late-night prison shows, on Issa's TV. But for Season 2, they decided to take things one step further by actually filming the intricate idea they'd come to call Due North. So, creator and star Issa Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny pulled aside Rothwell and writer Ben Cory Jones to ask them to write out an entire plot and script for Due North.
"One of the best parts about Insecure is that it mirrors what's going on in real life, and just like at any job, on our set we'd all often get to work and be dying to talk about the latest TV shows like Big Little Lies or Stranger Things," Rothwell says. "If we're presenting Insecure like the real world, the characters would be doing the same thing, too."
For Netflix's Dear White People, creator and writer Justin Simien was brainstorming what difficult situation to place his main character, Samantha, in when she introduced her white boyfriend to her Black friends.
"I couldn't think of anything Blacker than a bunch of Black millennials sitting around watching something like Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder," Simien says with a laugh. "Watching shows like that with Black folks is a whole different experience — we sometimes even define our Blackness based on the shows we watch and don't watch. I wanted to jab at my people a little bit and make fun of how extra we can be when we're watching TV. So we thought it would be fun to invent an over-the-top version of those kind of network dramas that keep everyone on the edge of their seat."
Once the idea comes to life, the next step in the process is getting talent to sign on. On This Is Us, Kevin is the Manny, so that's easy. Dear White People casted up-and-comers Mike Powers (as a presidential play on Scandal's Fitz) and Presilah Nunez as Olive Bishop (a clever rendition of Olivia Pope). But on Being Mary Jane, for instance, when Mary Jane Paul, played by Gabrielle Union, wanted to interview the brash star of the fictional reality series Family Brawlers, showrunner Erica Shelton could think of no one better than former Love and Hip-Hop star and rising rapper Cardi B.
"We wanted to satirize the way morning shows have started to traffic in promoting reality shows, and I knew we needed someone who could depict one of these bold, unapologetic African-American women," says Shelton, who was also one of the writers that worked on The Good Wife's Darkness At Noon. "Cardi B was everyone's first pick because she became so memorable on Love and Hip Hop. We set aside a half a day of shooting and just filmed scenes with her, and she was hilarious. I've worked in TV for many years, and creating these mini-shows is always so much fun for the writer's room because you're pushing your imagination even further."
The Insecure writer's room envisioned Regina Hall and Scott Foley for the main role of Due North but never thought they'd actually get them. But both are big fans of the show, and, by some miracle, Rothwell says, they were both available on the series' only shoot date — and completely game to do whatever they were asked.
"We were over the moon because they're both very serious, amazing, accomplished actors," says Rothwell, "so it was so cool to see them dig in to these characters for a short amount of time. I never thought I'd see Regina Hall playing a role poking fun at slavery, but she came to play!"
Perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of this bit of TV magic, though, is the sets. Due North was a parody of a period piece, one of the most complicated genres because of how much attention to detail is required. An 1800s plantation house was quite the departure from the modern day Los Angeles scenes in Insecure, and Rothwell says that those short scenes we saw on Issa's TV required an entire day of shooting and a whole separate set, director, and crew. All of which had to come together in just a few days.
"It was a huge undertaking — they built an entire period-specific set on the sound stage at the Sony lot, and our production designer was searching high and low to find all the pieces needed for the set to look as authentic as possible," she says. "When I first walked around the stage, I was in awe at how incredible it was, because we had Master's dining room, a kitchen, and a barn. And the costumes were incredible! I couldn't believe our team was able to put this thing together in just a couple of days, but we did it and it was so worth it."
There might not be any show-within-a-show more complex, though, than the hilarious fictional telenovelas that star Jane the Virgin's Rogelio. When the series began, Rogelio was the main character in a romance called The Passions of Santos, which showrunner Jenny Urman says they used as a really exaggerated but straightforward story to teach audiences who might not be familiar with telenovelas some of the genre's tropes. Next, Rogelio was cast as a time-traveling playboy in Tiago a Través del Tiempo, before, most recently, starring in Los Viajes de Guillermo as a hero who's been shrunken and is trying to return to his normal size. (If you haven't seen Jane The Virgin, it's worth it just to see the always-dramatic Rogelio as a tiny sailor searching for his way out of a giant shipwreck.)
"Luckily we shoot these telenovelas as part of Rogelio's scenes, so we're able to use a standing set-within-a-set and adapt it depending on the telenovela," says Urman. "What's fun about him is he always has real-life drama that plays out on set. And having the option to have a novela within a novela gives us so much to play with, because telenovelas can be romances, dramas, horror, sci-fi. So in our case they're comedy, but also tools to address things happening in the real world or to move forward Rogelio's storyline."
While none of these television movers and shakers would confirm anything definite about the future of their shows-within-shows for upcoming seasons, they did drop a few hints. Rothwell says that "if Due North doesn't come back, I hope that it will live on in perpetuity on the internet!" For his part, Simien said there's a chance Defamation will return with Dear White People, but that we should keep in mind that there might be a few new shows that the kids are into these days. One can only hope for yet another Cardi B cameo on Being Mary Jane, but as for Jane the Virgin, which returns this week, Urman revealed that this is the season Rogelio will audition for an English-language soap opera — and that it's possible we'll finally see Rogelio enter his long-lusted-after world of American TV.
And any other series considering following suit with their own TV show send-ups should 100 percent do it, says Simien. “It was probably the most fun I had shooting anything — ever!"