I believe all types of storytelling are related. Writers like Stephen King might tell you that time spent in front of the TV is wasted. I call bullshit. Time spent watching movies and TV-shows teach you how to tell a story visually, audibly and through dialogue. In the same way playing a computer game can show you just how much you can glean from a well-placed street sign or a scrap of paper on the ground, a well-made season of a TV-show can show you how to frame your main plot through action, sub-plots and detours. I say: take knowledge where you can find it.
That’s why I’m going to use examples from the TV-show Supernatural to discuss breaking the fourth wall with you. That, and the fact that I just re-watched the first two seasons of it so it’s on my mind.
Supernatural is a show that’s been running for six seasons (and just got renewed for a seventh). It’s a simple premise: two boys in a car killing monsters. To quote one of the main characters in episode two: “Saving people, hunting things: the family business.” The trouble with running such a straightforward gig for six years is that you might run out of original ideas. Usually, I’d find that annoying, but in this case it gives me the perfect example. You see, the writers of this show ended up making the same episode twice.
In season two it was called Hollywood Babylon, while in season six it was The French Mistake. Both episodes are used as lighthearted breaks from an otherwise dark main plot, in both episodes the main characters find themselves on a movie set, and both episodes flirts with breaking the fourth wall. At the same time, they are vastly different. Let’s see why Hollywood Babylon works and The French Mistake doesn’t.
In Hollywood Babylon, the main characters, Dean and Sam Winchester, go to Hollywood to work a case of a mysterious murder on the set of an upcoming horror film called Hell Hazers 2. The guys take the tour bus of Universal Studios and it goes past the set of Gilmore Girls (the show Jared Padalecki was previously playing in). The guys complain about the weather, saying it’s so cold it could be Canada (which is where Supernatural is shot). On set, the parallels between the movie and the actual TV-show we’re watching become obvious, opening a can of jokes about the “science” of the Supernatural world. The show nudges the audience with in-jokes, playing with the fact that Supernatural is an action-specked horror. This proves that they don’t take themselves too seriously, while still remaining within the diegesis of the show.
In the episode The French Mistake on the other hand, the main characters are thrown into a parallel world, our world, where they play Sam and Dean Winchester, but are Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. They have to find their way back, but in the “real” world, there’s no magic, no demons, no angels. So they’re trapped. Sounds like a concept that could work? Well, it doesn’t. And this is why.
First off, it’s almost a direct copy of the Hollywood Babylon episode. Secondly, the show has pulled on the fourth wall so much throughout season four and five (discussing fanfiction, creating the Supernatural books inside the Supernatural universe, meeting fans in the episodes, even going to a Supernatural convention) that there’s little more than a thin layer of gladpack left holding the universe in. And when The French Mistake takes a battering ram to that thin layer of gladpack by tossing characters from the show into “our” world, it breaks that wall forever.
The main problem with The French Mistake, however, is that is proves something I’ve been suspecting for a while: that the creators of the show has lost confidence in the product. Though there’s a few jokes in The French Mistake about the set they’re on and the troubles of being a monster hunter stuck in the body of an actor, the brunt of the jokes are about how bad the show is, how trashy Supernatural’s become, and how all the fans want touchy-feely crap. The staple comment is just “It’ll do. Season six, right? *sigh*.”
And that’s why it doesn’t work. The reason why Hollywood Babylon is one of my favorite Supernatural episodes is because it makes fun of itself in an intelligent, subdued way while still maintaining the illusion that the show has a serious edge to it. It’s a lighthearted break from the horror of the second season, and fits well with the tragic and hardcore episodes that precede and follow it.
The French Mistake, however, makes fun of the fans for still watching. It’s like being in a room with someone with low self-esteem who keeps making jokes about how he sucks so much he can’t believe you’re hanging out with him. Very uncomfortable. I sit there, staring at this forty minute self-deprecating mess and wondering why I’m still following this show, if that’s how bad the writers think it is.
What’s my point? Well, the point is that making self-referential jokes, skirting the edges of breaking the fourth wall can be a great idea for your story, if it furthers your plot. It’s also something you should be very careful about doing. When it works it’s great, but when it doesn’t, it’s truly terrible. And you should definitely be certain that you’ve got your tongue firmly in cheek and that you’re sure you know what you’re doing.
Edit: It’s been brought to my attention that the episode is actually called The French Mistake, so in the proud tradition of revisionist writing, I’ve changed the post to fit this. Nothing to see here, moving right along…