Must-See TV, The Fourth Wall and Narcissism

From Mockingbird behind-the-scenes guru Jeff Dean: It’s official: the fourth wall no longer exists in […]

Mockingbird / 9.27.10

From Mockingbird behind-the-scenes guru Jeff Dean:

It’s official: the fourth wall no longer exists in NBC’s Thursday night’s “must-see” line-up. The returning shows are the most flagrant examples. On Community, Abed constantly references what it means to be a sitcom. Thursday he critiqued the episode as a season premiere. 30 Rock is already a TV show about a TV show, and Thursday’s episode started with Tina Fey welcoming us to the fifth season. The Officeis filmed like a documentary. The first episode this season takes this even further when the already-aware-of-the-camera team decides to make a Lip Dub video for YouTube.

But the new show Outsourced is perhaps most interesting example of this change–not because it is entertaining, but because it is attempting to utilize the dynamic of people coping with being watched in a novel way. In this instance, the viewer is not the television-watching public like on the other shows, but the gaze of the foreign other. Though the cheapest gags are essentially nothing more than exoticising India, the most numerous jabs are at the bizarre nature of American indulgences and accompanying ignorance of foreign cultures. “Americans eat Hamburgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” “What is a cheesehead?” “Why do Americans need [fake vomit, a humping stuffed deer, dancing breasts]?” Americans aren’t used to being questioned about the unique nature of the culture they try to make global. Thus, the central figure represents the American public being scrutinized by the outside world–a new and uncomfortable feeling for many.

On NBC, the thirty-minute sitcom has completely surrendered to a meta-analytical self-awareness. If we think of television as something that reflects the broader culture, remembering that in the past shows were built around first the nuclear family and then groups of friends, we see that sitcoms in the wake of YouTube and Reality TV are reflecting our general culture of narcissism. In a world in which everyone has a camera phone, all actions are also reactions to the presence of a viewer.

Television may not yet be a fully-interactive experience, but at this stage in its development, you can no longer find anything to watch that is unaware you’re watching it. Except, of course, the Chuck Lorre sitcoms on CBS (Big Bang Theory and Two And A Half Men), which are the highest-rated comedies on the air today…