The idea of the ‘meta’ isn’t just a new idea, along with the fourth wall break. Characters have been addressing the audience forever. Shakespeare was even fond of this. Fourth wall shattering is a popular comedy trope, used in shows such as The Office and Malcolm in the Middle. It can be funny, or when placed in a more serious genre, a little unnerving. We can feel like a character ourselves, or even feel like we’re intruding in on the scene. It heightens our experience of a show when done correctly. As viewers, we’re always looking for more; something we don’t expect. Here’s just two examples that I can’t get out of my head.
You can’t talk the fourth wall without talking about Fleabag (2016-19). I’m never going to shut up about this show. Minor spoiler warning ahead! Phoebe Waller-Bridge has taken the fourth wall trope and ran with it for both seasons of her show. It is done so brilliantly; it’s no wonder we get so attached to the character of Fleabag. She frequently talks at the camera and spares glances, smirks and winks in our direction. An interpretation is that we, the audience, become the role of her best friend Boo, whom she lost. Season two digs a little deeper. When we meet the priest, the object of Fleabag’s affections, her connection to us falters. There are instances where she will talk to us and the priest notices. He questions it and asks her where she keeps disappearing to. It was a moment I didn’t expect and it floors me every time I re-watch it. We see this thing we’ve gotten used to break down slowly as Fleabag learns to no longer need us.
Bill Hader uses this trope in a uniquely unsettling way
HBO’s Barry (2018-present) incorporates the meta in a similar but less frequent way. The show, directed, co-written, and starring Bill Hader, follows his character who yearns to leave his job as a hitman behind and become an actor in LA. The show sets itself apart by criticising Hollywood and frequently using meta humour. Our title character breaks the fourth wall only a couple of times. It hits in a different way than Fleabag. It feels like we’re watching Barry act; perhaps watching him act like he’s not a murderer? In an attempt to avoid spoilers, I won’t provide too much context but Barry speaks the words “starting… now” to the camera in season one. It has likeness to the cue to start an acting scene, which is effectively what he’s doing. It gets a little confusing when you dig deep but that’s the appeal of it. Bill Hader uses this trope in a uniquely unsettling way and it’s pretty genius. These shows demonstrate how, when used in a clever way, the fourth wall break can change the whole viewing experience. We’re now looking ahead into a new age of TV; one where boundaries can be crossed. Creatively, nothing is off limits.