In theatre, we have a term called ‘breaking the fourth wall’ – That is when a character directly addresses the audience, or otherwise makes it known that they are aware of their fictional nature. Breaking the fourth wall can have the effect of sucking us into a story by shattering the illusion that we are a ‘fly on the wall’, or an innocent bystander witnessing a drama unfold. It can be a powerful technique when successful, but otherwise, can have a detrimental effect on the overall experience – especially for those of us who turn to films, TV shows and plays to escape reality and find ourselves thrown back into it.
There are countless numbers of shows and films which break the fourth wall and clearly, it can be humorous, attention-grabbing and even magical, but it’s risky – it can make or break an experience.
Two TV shows that have been cleverly playing with the fourth wall are Supernatural and Community. In Supernatural, the characters find that there are books about them and an insane fandom that insists there is homoerotic undertones between the male characters. There is also an episode (The French Mistake), where they enter an alternate reality where they are actors on a TV show called Supernatural. It’s one of my favourite episodes because it’s hilarious to see the characters’ reactions to their real life selves, even if it screams ‘fan service’.
In Community, the pop culture addict Abed is often referring to the study group as though they are in a sitcom or movie, which usually frustrates them. He tells them how they should react in situations, according to how he envisions their characters. Community is probably the most ‘meta’ (or ‘self-referencing’) show out there. Somehow, it works.
Comedy films such as Wayne’s World break the fourth wall successfully, because comedy films are expected to be absurd. We are not sucked into the fantasy world – we’re expecting the ridiculous. It also works well in shows such as Parks and Recreation, as the show is set up in an almost documentary style.
In the beginning of drama and theatre, there was no fourth wall illusion to begin with. The audience was directly spoken to through choruses or characters openly vocalising their streams of consciousness. Even the great playwrights such as Chekhov and Shakespeare used it as a device. But nowadays, it can seem tacky and hinder our enjoyment. In fact, I was greatly disappointed with Deadpool for instantly breaking down that barrier.
If you ask a Sex And The City fan about their favourite season, it will never be season one. Season one was ruined by Carrie talking to the camera. We didn’t want reality – the average person isn’t going to become a glamorous New York socialite/journalist – we just wanted to spy on her love life. This was later altered to her expressing her thoughts through writing her newspaper column – much more subtle and realistic. It is my opinion that without this change, the show never would have taken off.
Do shows and films still rely too much on breaking the fourth wall? Personally, I’d love to see some new techniques for involving an audience rather than constantly having a big ‘THIS ISN’T REAL!’ sign slap me in the face. For me, it’s a cheap and out-dated tactic, which will never be as impressive as the ability to naturally enchant and immerse an audience into a fantasy realm.
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