Take That, Laugh Track!

I’ve been wondering lately about when it’s OK for a show to break the fourth wall, and when it isn’t. Most shows don’t break the fourth wall directly, instead resorting to arch meta-references a la Futurama or South Park (which has openly broken the fourth wall maybe two times in 13 years). Other shows, like Boston Legal, were able to get away with having the characters directly reference their status as TV characters. The usual explanation is that shows can get away with breaking the fourth wall if we’re not really supposed to care about the characters or their situations; that’s why the Family Guy/Cleveland characters can do it and the more “real” Simpsons characters can’t. But I don’t know that that applies across the board; some of the silliest shows stop short of letting the characters acknowledge the audience, whereas a show like Moonlighting actually wanted us to care about the characters even though the characters knew they were fictional.

One thing that is clear is that, with the passing of Boston Legal, the amount of fourth wall breakage on TV has been severely reduced. In keeping with its status as the weirdest era of television programming, I think it was more common in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when even a TGIF sitcom like Just the Ten of Us would casually mention the use of canned laughter, then go right back to the plot as if nothing had happened.


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