Writing about House of Cards had me realize how much I hate all the fourth wall breaking that is the latest trend in television. I blame The Office for starting this vile fad and I can only hope it fades away soon.
The Office gets points for A) being first and B) making it a legitimate part of the show with the pretense of making a documentary. I guess Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries were first, but I guarantee that The Office is far more influential. Of course, The Office committed the far worse sin of staying on television far after it stopped being remotely funny or interesting.
Breaking the Fourth Wall is much more of a television trope than a movie one and it mostly infects comedies. How I Met Your Mother uses it occasionally for a quick joke and I recall it happening in Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well and 30 Rock used it too. It works better for comedies because it is usually allows a character to point out the absurdity of the situation. But that is also the problem with breaking the fourth wall. It feels like you are trying to explain the joke or clue me into the dramatic undercurrents (when used outside of comedy) which I find patronizing and belittling. As everyone knows if you have to explain your joke it isn’t funny and you probably didn’t do it right. This failing is most easily observed in House of Cards where all subtlety is drained from the show because Frank Underwood will always turn to you and reveal all.
Now I am writing about this topic because it seems far more prevalent than I recall ever before. Arrested Development uses it all the time and is almost never funny; just like that entire show. I wonder if that last sentence will draw clicks to my blog from rabid AD fans. Parks and Rec basically rips off The Office in every way from its mockumentary setup, awkward comedy and focus on workplace relationships. Sadly it seems to take its cues from later seasons of The Office when it comes to quality.
The worst offender must be Modern Family which again takes the mockumentary approach, but only when it wants the characters to talk directly to the audience. The rest of the show is filmed like your typical sitcom. They have essentially abused the mockumentary device simply for the ability to break the fourth wall. I liked the first two seasons of Modern Family, but it has always been clear that this show had not one iota of originality. And no, a gay couple that is stereotypically gay and also the worst parents in a sitcom ever is not original or edgy. Cam and Mitchell reek of tokenism and they have always been the least rewarding part of the show.
So are there any worthwhile examples of breaking the fourth wall consistently? I would say Better of Ted, but in this case Ted is fulfilling more of a narrator role. Admittedly, the line between narrator and breaking the fourth wall is narrow and I am not often a fan of narrators (show not tell as your elementary school teacher would say). However, this show was awesome and Ted as narrator was mostly to fast forward the story to get to the next joke.
A quick search on the internet reveals many other shows with fourth wall breaking and I appear to not be the only one noticing its rise in popularity. As long as it sticks to comedies I think we will be OK; we really don’t want another House of Cards.