Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Cheryl CS0
Is meta dead?
Thanks to Netflix and its ever-increasing ability to ruthlessly indulge in television shows (we all know the lure of the “20 seconds until the next episode” teaser), I recently decided to start watching the Supernatural series from the beginning. If you haven’t seen the show, you probably don’t have the best impression of it. Supernatural can be cheesy, sometimes the acting is horrific, and the storyline can be pretty predictable.
Aside from all of the negative qualities, though, the show is simply hilarious. It’s addictive. There are some real gems in the first 7 seasons, all of which are so delightfully amusing because of the show’s ability to poke fun at itself. If you’re friends with a lit major, you’ll have heard this statement before: it’s just so meta.
Metafiction is self-consciousness on a fictional scale. In literature, for example, authors emphasize the fact that the work is literary, or artificial, by introducing parodies or ironic statements about the work itself.
Metareference is a common metafiction technique, used in literature, film, and television as a self-referential device. Characters can be aware that they actually are the character they’re playing, or the work of fiction might poke fun by including itself as an actual artifact in the story. More often than not, it’s a comical trope and, especially in the case of Supernatural, offers humorous fan service to those longstanding, devoted viewers – they’re the ones who will get the inside jokes, after all.
Self-reference and self-consciousness are great qualities in any piece of art because they drive home the fact that these works are active reflections on humanity. You never forget that you’re on the outside looking in but, if done well, you can still enjoy the ride.
Mainstream metareference, though, is as prolific on television as Charlie Sheen. Just when you think it’s been played out, you see it in another show. Any preliminary research will unearth a number of buzzfeed-esque lists, profiling current metafictional television shows.
Even Wikipedia’s list of metafictional television shows is longer than you’d expect, although (I’m sure) not nearly comprehensive. As above, animated shows such as Family Guy, The Simpsons, and South Park have a place of prominence, simply because metareference can be easily achieved in animated form without looking like the show is trying too hard (see Family Guy’s inexhaustible cut-away scenes).
Is it the 21st century’s blatant narcissism, fostered by social media, selfies, and self-publishable blogs (all three of which I am guilty), that warrants an increasing number of self-referential fictional pieces? Do we need to match our obsession with ourselves to a TV land that, in many ways, mimics our self-devotion?
Metareference might just be television’s version of the selfie. Shows are constantly referring back to themselves or including clever cut-aways to, again, put themselves forward (as themselves). When you watch a Family Guy episode, how often do you find yourself thinking, “Ha! That’s funny because they used irony to make fun of themselves! Family Guy just referred to Family Guy!” The worst part, like all jokes, is when somebody tries to explain the metareference to you, as if you didn’t get it the first time.
At the end of the day, television-based metareferences are an amusing technique. Is meta dead, though? Has television killed it? Have our favourite shows used metareferences so often that a) they aren’t unusual anymore, and b) nobody wants (or needs) to understand the depth of metafiction on a literary level? Do these metafictional devices still make us take a step back and actively place the things we’re experiencing in their proper places, do they cause us to reflect deeply on fiction, humanity, and personality, or do they just invoke a hearty “HA” before we move on?
Start with something simple and well-known, such as The Princess Bride, a novel that begins with a man reading a story called The Princess Bride. It’s as easy as that. Metafictional references can, of course, be increasingly complex depending on how self-referential or convoluted the fictional piece wants to be.
Part of the reason I love Supernatural is that it isn’t afraid of metareferences: in one episode, Sam and Dean meet a man who has authored the Supernatural series of books, which is based on their lives. In another, they’re transported to a TV land in which they must play their part in a number of different (and generic) television shows (their CSI: Miami reference is classic). And, in another show, they’re transported to a different world (ours), where they discover they’re actually Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, actors in the show, Supernatural.
They’re amusing, yes – but do they even come close to the depth of Fight Club, a psychologically complex film/novel in which the narrator is acutely aware of his distance from the narrated events, even as he narrates his involvement with them? Does it cause us to muse on the nature of fiction itself, as Northanger Abbey’s debate about the value of novels (within a novel) is wont to do?
I suppose the important question is: do we care?
It might be that we’re happy to continue doing what we’re doing, with smart phones in hand, taking selfies of ourselves while watching a television show that ironically makes fun of itself for being a television show.
That’s so meta.
CC Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Television