As long as people have been telling stories, people have also been telling stories about stories, a Storyception if you will. And television is not immune to that phenomena, using itself to tell tales about the medium, specific genres and even individual shows themselves. The results have been sometimes serious but more often hilarious takedowns of their own source material, as shows pay homage to what makes them unique.
If last week was an examination of what happens when films break through the fourth wall, this week, it’s time take it a step further and look at what happens when TV shows go fully meta.
5. “Duck Amuck” (February 28, 1953)
Although technically part of a short film series that ran from 1931 until 1969, the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons are far more familiar to most audiences via their television repackaging, airing on endless repeats on both network TV and cable. Framed as a case of an animator failing to provide suitable backgrounds for a swashbuckling Daffy Duck, “Duck Amuck” explores what the actual animation process, from background to character design to sound effects, looks like without ever actually explicitly stating it’s doing so.
As Daffy grows ever more infuriated with the off-screen animator (in the short, a manipulative Bugs Bunny, but in real life, the legendary and prolific Chuck Jones), the increasingly chaotic artwork and sound manipulation allows the audience to ponder just what makes a cartoon a cartoon and what makes each animated character themselves. It’s also incredibly funny, with some of the cleverest animation ever put out by Warner Bros.
While the studio has produced hundreds of animated shorts and features over the last ninety years, “Duck Amuck” is one of only three of the series to get inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and considering its pedigree, it’s not hard to see why.
4. “Hollywood A.D.” (April 30, 2000)
By The X-Files’ seventh season, the show had long before branched out into more humorous and satirical territory, rather than the dry sarcasm that had originally been a hallmark of the series. But it’s “Hollywood A.D.,” David Duchovny’s second go at the writer and director’s chair, where the humor is the most directly self-referential. With an A-plot ostensibly focused on forged religious artifacts, it’s really the B-plot – where Mulder and Scully end up consulting on a film about their work – that’s the most memorable.
Taking potshots at some typical Hollywood clichés – the unnecessary romance shoehorned into the plot, the director taking massive liberties with the “true story” – the episode is also happy to reflect on the series’ more obvious absurdities, such as Scully’s shoes (believe me, it was A Thing in geek circles in the nineties) and the inability of the show to logically resolve some of its weirder cases. And the cast seems to be having a blast, with even straight man Mitch Pileggi getting some great one-liners in.
Though the episode never fully gels, with the two plots ending up a touch too divorced from each other, the story is hard not to enjoy for the parts that do.
3. “Tabula Rasa” (November 13, 2001)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Though Buffy’s previous episode, “Once More, with Feeling,” could probably also make this list with its fourth wall-breaking musical numbers, it’s really “Tabula Rasa” that goes full meta. After a spell gone awry robs the main characters of all their memories, Buffy and Co. abruptly find themselves having to piece together their own identities, reaching conclusions both correct and absurdly wrong. Giles and Spike conclude as the only two Englishmen in the cast they must be related, Buffy decides that a vampire with a soul is totally lame, and nobody realizes that Alexander Harris prefers “Xander” to “Alex.”
The episode works with the collective history the characters have developed with both each other and the audience, providing winks and nods to the rest of the series. It’s also a rare moment of humor in a remarkably grim season, serving as a bit of an anecdote to the overwhelming depression that suffused the show at that point, reminding fans exactly why these characters – and the actors who played them – were so beloved in the first place. Though the framing device necessitated a return to the then-current status quo, the meta comedy and game performances make this one of the standout episodes of the entire series.
2. “The French Mistake” (February 25, 2011)
Honestly, this entire list could consist of Supernatural episodes without much difficulty, with “The French Mistake” serving as the ultimate commentary on the show itself. To protect them from a celestial hitman, main leads Sam and Dean get shoved through a portal that ends up with them inhabiting the lives of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, actors who play the characters of Sam and Dean on the show Supernatural. What follows is a masterclass in life imitating art imitating life imitating art, as Padalecki and Ackles have to play their characters trying to play themselves (poorly), all while causing massive headaches for the crew of the in-universe show.
Like “Hollywood A.D.,” “The French Mistake” uses its conceit to reflect both on the strangeness of television as a business – with the crew continually sighing to themselves, “Season Six,” during every bizarre Sam and Dean antic – and on the nature of 21st century celebrity, with Misha Collins the character tweeting during the show, and Misha Collins the actor’s Twitter feed displaying the in-show tweets in real time.
Unfortunately, also like The X-Files, the framing device doesn’t quite work with the main meat of the episode, but that’s okay. The rest works so well and provides so many laughs, it’s easy to ignore the excuse for this breaking-and-setting-on-fire of the fourth wall and enjoy the ride as is.
1. The Whole Darn Series (2016-2019)
Like Ferris Bueller before her, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unnamed narrator spends much of Fleabag’s screen time talking directly to the audience, reflecting on her history, love interests and family with snarky asides and the odd, askance glance. But it’s in the show’s brilliant second season where that premise starts to unravel, as Waller-Bridge continues to break the fourth wall, only for Adam Scott’s priest character to start noticing she is doing it.
It’s a relatively common conceit for a main character to break the fourth wall (as you may have noticed in last week’s column), but it’s a real rarity for a secondary character to become aware that someone else is doing it. The result for the show is funny, tragic and trippy, as Waller-Bridge and Scott become two counterpoints to the phenomena, with the former using the fourth wall to distance herself from her own life and the latter calling her out on it. And as funny as Fleabag is, unlike other shows on this list, the result is not strictly comedic. The main character is an obvious mess and her asides can just as much take on the form of confessions or self-justifications as commentary, which makes the choice of a priest noticing it all the more deliberate.
Seriously, if you want something meatier to go along with your meta, the show is only twelve episodes long and absolutely worth a weekend binge.
And that’s the list for the week! What other shows started commenting on themselves over the course of their run? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!