Hopeless Pictures, the new animated series on IFC that spoofs the hollow, narcissistic existence of a neurotic studio head named Mel Wax, is irreproachably well done. The voice characterizations, by veteran talent like Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Lisa Kudrow, and the series' creator, Bob Balaban, are perfect. The script is funny and quick, full of overlapping dialogue that sounds like it was improvised on the spot by the crack comic ensemble (which, over the initial nine-episode run, will also include guests like Martin Mull, Paul Reubens, Isaac Mizrahi, and Nora Ephron.) The animation (the original drawings are by Brian Smith) is fresh and pleasing-looking, with painterly colors and simple, elongated figures that recall the children's book illustrations of Maira Kalman or Giselle Potter. So, why is it that, watching the first episode of Hopeless Pictures (which has been available for viewing all week on the IFC Web site and premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET), I began to feel, unaccountably, depressed?
The only explanation I can offer: It's the subject matter. Quite simply, there's something sad about the fact that television has nothing left to laugh at but itself. Between Entourage, Fat Actress, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Comeback, and Unscripted, it seems like every new high-end cable show that comes out—and these are prestige projects jammed with smart writing and top-drawer talent—aspires to be little more than a self-reflexive parody of the very Hollywood matrix that gave rise to said show. As we enter our second century of mass-produced entertainment, the film and television industry has become our Olympus, our Valhalla, the source of all our foundational myths.
Not that the obsessive self-regard of the dream factory is only a 21st-century concern. The bitter Tinseltown parody can be traced back at least as far back as Sunset Boulevard (1950). But more recent movies, including Network, The Player, and This Is Spinal Tap (all of which are cited indirectly in Hopeless Pictures), exert an obvious influence on the current crop of satires. In the entertainment-satire genre, there are certain Hollywood-emes that must be visited as ritually as stations of the cross: the pitch meetings ("It's a love story about the Captain and Tenille!" brays one character in Hopeless Pictures), the ill-advised shopping sprees, the vacant name-dropping and jockeying for status.
American audiences are now so fluent in Hollywood satire-ese that these archetypal situations can be conveyed in every gradation on the scale from affectionate irony to stark pathos. Unscripted, for example, is so fond of its young leads, three actors struggling to make it in the business, that it barely qualifies as satire. Entourage also tends toward the gentler end of the spectrum, treating its central foursome as well-meaning boys who, understandably enough, just want to have fun in their newfound pleasure dome. I'm still struggling to understand the success of Entourage, which seems like a bafflingly conflict-free half-hour of post-adolescent wish-fulfillment (though, like many of the haters out there, I still watch it now and again for Jeremy Piven's brilliance).
The Comeback, on the other hand, is almost unbearably hard on its clueless heroine, Valerie Cherish (played with exquisite masochism by Lisa Kudrow). Seeing Valerie abase herself in one showbiz crucible after another, all the while sucking up to the reality-show crew that dogs her every move, is less funny than it is painful. Watching The Comeback (and, to a lesser extent, Fat Actress), you admire the show's finely honed ability to make you cringe, even as you ask yourself, "But why?" What, finally, is the point of showing us yet again, with whatever degree of artistry, irony, or wit, that Los Angeles is a shiny, desolate void bereft of all humanity? What else is new?
Hopeless Pictures falls somewhere in the middle of the cruelty scale. Its portrait of Mel Wax and his greedy, self-absorbed cohorts is pretty unforgiving—in the first episode, Mel's shrink (Jonathan Katz) yammers obliviously on the phone with Mel as one of his patients leaps to his death out his office window. But in the end, the show's characters come off as lovable bumblers, and the cute drawings help to soften the blow (as well as allowing for the raunchiest animated sex scene since Team America's puppet porn).
So why are the creators of new television shows as rigidly locked into the Hollywood-satire format as medieval painters returning to the Virgin-and-child motif? Is it simply laziness, the same dearth of ideas that leads movie producers to base movies on 30-year-old sitcoms that no one really liked in the first place? The power of plain old sloth should never be underestimated, but one other explanation may be a variant on the fiction-workshop cliché "Write what you know." Perhaps industry types can only satirize what they know and loathe—themselves. And maybe the current craze for Hollywood self-flagellation says less about our appetite for celebrity than it does about the entertainment industry's guilty conscience. A less-critical show like Entourage plays to the audience's desire to be like Vince and his buddies; at the harsher end of the scale, The Comeback plays to the creators' desire to be like anyone but themselves. Read as bulletins from within the Hollywood bubble, the new satires seem almost like dire prophecies, cautionary tales: Don't let this happen to you.