Photograph courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO
In an old Saturday Night Live sketch, a group of doddering actors, anchored by Mike Myers, traded hilariously tedious yarns about life in the theater—the core joke being that the business of acting is disproportionately interesting to actors themselves. Someone might want to share this information with HBO. The cable network’s love affair with behind-the-scenes programming dates back to The Larry Sanders Show, a smart look at talk-show politics, and continued with Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which cranky sitcom mogul Larry David plays cranky sitcom mogul Larry David. Next came Entourage, a comedy about a fictional movie star’s entourage, and Unscripted, an improvised show about aspiring actors. Starting this June, HBO will air The Comeback, in which Lisa Kudrow, late of Friends, plays a onetime sitcom star struggling to relaunch her career. And HBO just made a deal to co-produce Extras, from Office genius Ricky Gervais, in which he’ll play, yes, a wannabe actor. All these programs rely on sly parallels to real life: On Entourage, Kevin Dillon, the less-famous brother of Matt, plays Johnny Drama, the less-famous half-brother of the show’s star; and The Comeback is one big meta-joke. And, yes, sometimes that joke can be quite funny—there’s always absurd humor to be mined by lampooning showbiz vanity. But as artistic ventures, these insider shows are inherently hollow: They offer the tease of revelation with none of the risk, making them about as meaningful as Pravda’s coverage of the Kremlin. Hollywood’s stars are welcome to wink at their own reality. But by turning the camera into a mirror, they only wind up winking at themselves.