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When Did TV Get So Meta?

Nikki and Paulo on Lost’s season-three episode “Expose.” Photo: MARIO PEREZ/ABC

Television has been getting meta practically since it began. Self-conscious, fourth-wall-shattering humor was a trademark of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show in the 1950s. Fast-forward a few decades to the 1980s and one could find the same approach on shows like Moonlighting, which regularly burst through the fourth wall (also, sometimes, additional walls), and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, in which Shandling basically starred as himself, on a comedy whose theme song announced, “This is the theme to Garry’s show/The opening theme to Garry’s show/This is the music that you hear/As you watch the credits.”

As creators and viewers have become more savvy and conscious of technique, meta storytelling — in which a TV show acknowledges its own status as an artistic creation, thereby bridging the divide between fiction and reality — has become even more prevalent. During the past decade or so, the self-referential has played a major role on comedies like Community, Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and even to some extent Girls, which repeatedly and slyly acknowledges the blurred dividing line between star Lena Dunham and Hannah Horvath, the self-involved millennial she portrays. (“The other thing about me is I give zero fucks about anything, yet I have a strong opinion about everything, even topics I have no knowledge about,” says Hannah in this Sunday’s season-six premiere, echoing the kind of criticism often lobbed at Dunham and her entire generation.)

Shows on the more dramatic side of the spectrum fit in the category as well, including: House of Cards and Fleabag, in which protagonists speak directly to the audience about what’s transpiring; Westworld and The OA, hour-long narratives that explore the manipulative nature of narrative; and Stranger Things, a sci-fi–horror ’80s period piece that revels in emulating sci-fi and horror from the ’80s. The meta approach can be challenging, though. Try too hard to be self-aware and viewers will immediately sense that, well, you’re trying too hard. In dramas, especially, the tacit acknowledgment of form can also come across as pretentious, a word that detractors of Westworld and The OA have certainly used to describe both programs. At this point, given the preponderance of TV shows that hit meta notes, it’s fair to ask: What’s the difference between meta that’s done well and meta that doesn’t work?

I should say, upfront, that some of my all-time favorite shows (The Simpsons, Seinfeld, the aforementioned Moonlighting) were modern pioneers in this area, and I adored them because of it. I appreciate most attempts at self-awareness and wink-wink humor, even when a series can’t always pull it off. But pulling it off, in my mind comes down to two things.

The first one is knowing how to keep the meta-ness under control, without relying on it as a crutch. Riverdale, for example, is a teen soap that, via its casting of actors who first became famous by playing teenagers (hi, Luke Perry) and its references to other works of teen fiction, qualifies as meta. But its hat tips and acknowledgements of its own place in the canon — practically inevitable for a show based on a comic about high schoolers — so far have enhanced its appeal without distracting from the main plot: the mystery behind the murder of Jason Blossom.

The same is mostly true of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Netflix adaptation of the Daniel Handler books whose narrator constantly reminds us that we are consuming a truly depressing work of fiction. While the Netflix version proceeds mostly charmingly in the same vein, when it attempts to acknowledge its existence within the streaming-TV universe (a sort of wink-wink, we’re on Netflix!), it pushes the meta joke too far. One arch comment that wryly mentions streaming TV is fine. By the second or third one, it feels like the show is being a show-off. I often have the same reaction to Frank Underwood’s straight-to-camera confessionals on House of Cards. More often than not, they come across as contrived, and force Kevin Spacey, as Frank, to do more explaining than needed.

The second thing that any meta series must do, especially if its meta-ness is closely intertwined with its plot or overall concept, is make sure that attempts at self-awareness feel aligned with the show’s mission or sensibility, and not acts of television desperation. One of the best examples of this is the “pitching and making of a show about nothing” on Seinfeld, which was the key arc of its exceptional fourth season. That level of meta marked a change-up for the sitcom, but one that felt in sync with its brand of comedy and that also resulted in an evolutionary jump in its creativity.

Whether or not you appreciate their storytelling choices, the meta approach inherent to the premises of Westworld, The OA, or Stranger Things also strike me as features rather than bugs. (My problems with Westworld stem more from issues related to character development and tone than anything else.) I’ll be interested to see whether I still feel that way when all three embark on their second seasons.

Now consider a show like The Muppets, the failed attempt to bring Kermit the Frog back to prime-time television. The talk show within a TV show, which, like the original Muppet Show, featured frequent cameos from actual stars, had an even more adult and meta attitude. But because the updated ABC series, which was canceled last year, veered so sharply toward the sophisticated and knowing, it felt out of step with the Muppets brand.

Yet, when The Muppets, the 2011 movie, took a less edgy meta approach, it worked beautifully. That’s partly, again, a matter of striking a tone that feels playful and right. But it’s also because a film or series constructed as something fully meta, from the ground up, often works more effectively as a contained piece than as an ongoing, episodic one that has to sustain that self-aware premise for season after season.

This has proven to be especially true when it comes to reboots or sequels, which on television, have been notoriously disappointing, even when they come with a license to go meta (see: Arrested Development). Film reboots, on the other hand, have been a bit more successful. For example, Jump Streets both 21 and 22, which sounded like potential disasters on paper, turned out to be surprisingly hilarious because they overtly acknowledged the absurdity of rebooting, and then having the audacity to do it a second time.

Going meta is often the smartest thing that a rehash can do because it beats the members of the audience to the punch line of any joke they might make at its expense. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who wrote and directed both Jump Streets, as well as The Lego Movie, have proven themselves particularly adept at this sort of trick. They also produced The Lego Batman Movie, which opens today, and is so delightfully meta that it can’t even run through its opening titles without Will Arnett’s Dark Knight offering snarky commentary on them. But try to make The Lego Batman Movie into a TV series, and I’m not sure it would work. That style of humor would probably start to feel like overreaching if it went beyond a couple of hours.

Still, there are the rare series that come close to making their way through the meta obstacle course unscathed. One of the best examples that’s currently on TV is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW romantic-comedy about a woman who chases her childhood sweetheart across the United States while actively puncturing the tropes of the romantic-comedy genre.

As a rom-com about a woman — Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) —brainwashed by unrealistic relationship expectations reinforced by rom-coms, the whole show is, at its core, pretty meta. But especially in its second season, which just ended last week, it takes that meta-ness to a whole other level, both in its dialogue — “I can’t just pick up and move across the country,” Rebecca’s former lover, Greg, says in one episode, “I’m not crazy.” — and its signature musical numbers. In one especially self-referential number, Rebecca’s work colleagues sing a song about a newly introduced romantic interest, asking: “Do we really need a new guy/This far into the season?”

All of that stuff works marvelously because it’s braided completely into the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend identity. The hat tips to rom-coms and the show itself are controlled, clever, and organic. But in the season finale — major spoilers ahead, in case you haven’t seen it — the show attempts to pull off a meta twist by revealing that Rebecca, who has known psychological issues, had an affair with a former married professor, tried to burn down his apartment, and spent some court-ordered time in a mental institution as a result. After all of this is explained for the first time, Rebecca then gets left at the altar by her fiancé and former summer-camp fling, Josh Chan, who suddenly decides to become a priest. The season closes with the implication that she will plan to seek revenge against him, implying that she has now fully become a crazy ex-girlfriend, in more ways than we could have anticipated.

In a lot of ways, this is a clever, provocative reveal, especially if, in season three, it grants the writers permission to delve even more deeply into the careless, demeaning ways that society often deems female behavior “crazy.” But like many of the plot developments in the second season, it also feels a bit forced and rushed to a degree that the show, at its best, does not. It’s the “trying too hard” problem that is an inevitable pitfall of the meta TV show.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna says that she and Bloom have known for a while that Rebecca had this affair and arson attempt in her past, and that ending the season this way was part of the plan. Which makes it sound like they may have put the meta cart before the meta horse. We won’t really know for sure until we see how season three shakes out.

Then again, sometimes taking a specific plan and subverting it can lead to great meta television. Take the Simpsons episode “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie,” which, coincidentally, celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.

As noted in this Uproxx piece, that episode came about because Fox executives wanted The Simpsons to add a new character. In response, the writers crafted a half-hour that functioned as a commentary on how ridiculous it is when sitcoms randomly insert new characters, creating Roy, a random dude who suddenly starts living with the Simpson family, and Poochie, a “to the extreme” canine, voiced by Homer, who keeps poking his “youthful” catchphrases (“Not!”) into the Itchy and Scratchy universe. By the end of the episode, Roy is gone and Poochie has been unceremoniously written off Itchy & Scratchy because no one likes him. Basically, this was The Simpsons taking a network note and using it in a meta context, while also telling Fox to shove it.

A decade later, Lost had its own Poochie moment when, in season three, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse decided to add a pair of previously unnoticed Oceanic 815 survivors to the drama’s mix: Nikki and Paulo. Unfortunately, the pair made about as much sense as seeing Roy on the Simpsons’ sofa, and fans let their frustration be known, loudly and clearly, online. As a result, Cuse and Lindelof — who stood at the forefront of meta-TV fan service — gave the people what they want. In season three’s “Exposé,” Nikki and Paulo were killed off the show in an obvious, direct response to all the Comic Book Guy–esque complaints.

That episode, with its flashbacks to the cliché TV thriller on which Nikki (Kiele Sanchez), an actress, once appeared, received a mixed response at the time. Like other moments in season three, it’s tangential to the show’s narrative. But as a stand-alone piece of metafiction, it’s actually quite smart, and seems smarter now in retrospect.

As Lindelof said about Nikki and Paulo in an interview with Esquire: “Sometimes the mistake, the thing that wasn’t good, is the thing that’s really part of the legacy of a show like ours.” That’s what’s so fascinating about TV shows like Lost, and all of the ones mentioned here that attempt to either meet or stay a step ahead of audience expectations and genre conventions: Even when there’s a meta misstep, the effort can still seem admirable and, sometimes, even unforgettable.

When Did TV Get So Meta?