As in many things, I think Joss Whedon was the first to employ pop culture references in any significant way. The people in most TV shows and movies inhabit little hermetic worlds where they never watch TV or movies— or read, or listen to music (much in the same way that characters in older horror flicks had never ever seen one). Or if they do, they never mention it. And people do talk about stuff like that.
An example: in Buffy, when Dawn is taken to Giles’s magic shop to buy books for school, she protests: “I’m not going to Hogwarts!” And met by blank looks, she adds, “Crack a book sometime!”
One of the reasons I love the comedy The Big Bang Theory is that it is so firmly rooted in pop culture. The guys love the same shows and movies that I do. But this is vanishingly rare, and I don’t know why that should be.
(Sidebar: one of the few recent instances I can think of is from the last character in the world who would watch TV, Brennan in Bones, who “saw a documentary” which was actually the reality show Jersey Shore.)
Now I come to think about it, however, it’s not just pop culture that isn’t referenced, it’s any kind of culture. These people have no inner lives. I have to go back to Buffy again: in The Gift, the season 5 finale in which Buffy sacrifices herself to save the world (and many fans think the show should have ended there), comes the classic bit of dialogue between Giles and Spike, showing that watcher and vamp share an English education, albeit 150 years apart.
Giles: (ironically) “We few, we happy few…”
Spike: We band of buggered.
I just love it when Joss does this sort of thing. It’s brilliant, and it compliments the audience. A similar thing happens in Serenity when Mal says to the Operative (who has just described River Tam as an albatross), “Way I remember it, albatross was a ship’s good luck— till some idiot killed it.” He shoots a look at Inara. “Yes, I’ve read a poem. Try not to faint.”
The guys in Big Bang Theory love, and constantly reference Star Trek, Star Wars, comic-book heroes, Dr Who, gaming, cult TV and movies. And the real world they live in: They meet Summer Glau on a train, Sheldon meets Stephen Hawking and makes a math error, Leonard Nimoy gives a voice to Sheldon’s Spock action figure, and Stan Lee puts in an appearance.
Period dramas are praised for their attention to detail— the things that place them firmly in their eras; but most contemporary series are adrift in time, because they don’t reference the biggest social influences in our culture. It doesn’t date them, or if it does, it shouldn’t matter. I still enjoy watching Buffy because it’s still funny. But nowadays, outside TBBT, what TV character even uses social media?
In the real world, at least some of the characters in the various incarnations of CSI would watch Bones, and Tony DiNozzo in NCIS, who has a classic movie reference for every eventuality, would watch a lot more than that… To give the writers credit, he did once pull Palmer’s leg by claiming that the latter’s girlfriend “turned out to be a Cylon”. (And I remember one of the Charmed Ones, in an eerie crypt, saying “Where’s Buffy when you need her?”) But that sort of thing only happens very occasionally. Which is a pity, because a good moment like that shares the joke with the audience.
And, like most people, I enjoy sharing a good joke.