Meta, by way of a quick and poorly constructed definition, is a thing (in this case TV show) that has some level of awareness of what it’s in or is somehow self-referential. This can have disastrous results. But it can also create some real magic on the small-screen. Take The Mind Robber serial from classic Doctor Who. The Doctor and his companions land outside of reality, in what they discover is the land of fiction, and the Doctor has to write fanfiction for them to escape. But he can never refer to himself because then he would become a fictional character. That whole serial is hyper-meta, but I’m not including that on the list. These shows have either used meta as a devise throughout their run or brought the very creation of the show to the forefront (in one case so sneakily you may not have noticed it).
This is the sneaky one. And I have to dip back into Doctor Who to explain it and then I won’t mention DW for the rest of the post. Promise.
Outlander is based on a series of novels (the Outlander series) by Diana Gabaldon. Before Gabaldon had decided on a setting for her novel, she happened to catch an episode of the Doctor Who serial The Highlanders. She thought it seemed like a good place to set the novel. As for the male lead, she chose the name Jamie. The Highlanders was the introduction to the character Jamie McCrimmon, longest running companion on the show. Gabaldon then gave her Jamie character the last name of Frazer. Now I read that the next bit was unintentional, but it seems to me she must have heard the actors name somewhere and subconsciously made the connection because the actor who played Jamie McCrimmon is named Frazer Hines.
The books have since been adapted into the series on Starz and, God love ’em, whoever’s in charge of that show let the snake eat it’s own tail and made sure Frazer Hines got a role on it. He played Sir Fletcher Gordon in the first season, who sympathetic to Claire’s plight, is accidentally responsible for Jamie’s rescue and eventual escape. He’s also set to return to the roll in the second season.
This almost feels like cheating somehow. But I often see animated shows when people talk about meta television and they usually aren’t shows that I’m a fan of, while Animaniacs, an excellent show that I love is chock full of self-reference, from including Steven Spielberg in a sketch (as the pope), Pinky and Brain’s discussion of the superiority of old school cartoons, to even the premise and character names themselves.
The Warner Brothers were real people (though there were four of them) and they were turned into these comical characters for the show. And the most mind-blowing one for me was one that I just discovered recently. The “Warner sister” is named Dot because there’s a period (or a dot) in the WB logo (Warner Bros.). Get it? Aside from those, there are a million one liners throughout. Here’s on of my favorites:
[Yakko, Wakko, and Dot have taken a turkey that a pilgrim was hunting.]
Pilgrim: Just give me the bird!
Yakko: We’d love to, really, but the Fox censors won’t allow it.
3. Arrested Development
Where to even begin. I mean the original three seasons of the show are being narrated by an uncredited Ron Howard for Chrissake! This narration also means that, by design, the show has to refer back to itself. A LOT. It will cut back to a character saying something they denied they said or else show a “footage not found” card when a character claims they did something we have no reason to believe they did. Other sound effects, music cues, and cue cards are used constantly throughout the entire series, and there are so many layers of jokes that you could watch the show 100 times through and still be discovering things you never noticed before.
The style the show is filmed in is the one probably most famously used in the Office. A camera crew is following these 9 people around and filming things as they happen, but the camera crew are never really remarked on (well, once, when the cameras get shoved out of a courtroom). Really the meta magic comes from the actors and creators they have on the show referencing other things they’ve done (not even necessarily through the dialogue), like Jason Bateman’s real life sister, Justine Bateman, playing who might in the shoe ne his long lost sister (but it turns out not) in an episode. Or Will Arnett’s character getting black out drunk and marrying the character played by his then-wife, Amy Poehler.
My favorite example is when the character played by Henry Winkler (the Fonz on Happy Days) is walking walking on a seaside dock and a stuffed shark is lying in his path. Without remarking on it, he jumps over it, and continues on his way.
When Netflix got their hands on it and made the 4th season, Ron Howard became an actual character on the show which emphasized the meta effect of the narration.
Never has a horror show, which is actually meant not as a comedy, but a a horror, poked so much fun at itself. You can basically expect a meta episode at least once per season and they’re almost always a joy: Hollywood Babylon, Ghostfacers, Monster at the End of this Book, The Real Ghostbusters, Changing Channels, The French Mistake, Meta Fiction, and Fan Fiction are all episodes that are entirely based on a self-referential premise. And the more you know about the show and the people who make it, the more layers of humor you discover.
Hollywood Babylon sends the brothers on a case on the set of a horror movie (where they’re advised to look out for stars of Gilmore Girls), Ghostfacers is a Ghost Hunters style episode, and Monster at the End of this book makes more nods to the writers than maybe any other TV episode has. The Real Ghostbusters sends the brothers to a Supernatural Convention, Changing Channels puts them in several different TV shows (including a Grey’s Anatomy spoof with a character that draws an exact parallel to the character played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played Sam and Dean’s dad in the early seasons of SPN) and shows their reactions to being in a TV show.
Speaking of being in a TV show: the French Mistake is heralded as being the most insane premise for a TV episode and is a favorite for most all fans and cast/crew of the show. The boys are catapulted into another universe in which they are believed to be Jared and Jensen (the names of the actors) who play the characters Sam and Dean in a show called Supernatural and they have to pretend that they are. At one point, they’re Jared and Jensen playing Sam and Dean playing Jared and Jensen playing Sam and Dean. But this entire episode is stellar.
But there have been several episodes since then. In the 200th episode Jensen finally broke the 4th wall when he looked right at the camera with an exasperated look (it wasn’t scripted, but they left it in). And this doesn’t even include all the little meta moments scattered throughout “regular” episodes.
Could it be anything else? I don’t think any other show in the history of TV has made more references to itself than this one. And it works because it simultaneously makes the cruelest jokes to itself all while loving what it is. I know it doesn’t sound like that makes any sense, but if you’ve ever seen the show, I think you get it.
Every episode is either a spoof or homage to at least one film/TV show or genre.
It’s impossible to even know where to start. You can pick out any episode, whether from the first 5 network seasons or the 6th season on Yahoo! (which fucking rocked. Go check it out if you haven’t yet. It’s freeeeeeeeee) and you could find multiple meta moments. It’s where most of the humor in the show comes from and it totally pulls it off. The cast has been transformed into clamation, animation, 8-bit, and muppets.
The film major in the show, Abed, is one of the main gateways for the meta as he can draw the parallels of what’s happening in the show with the real world and…well, I’m not even going to start with examples. There are too many. Just watch it!