True Detective was an amazing show. Brilliantly thematically driven, fabulously shot, and incredibly acted. It was filled with top-of-the-line craft across the board. There’s so much to learn from that show, but one of the things that most struck me – the controlled and in-character examination of the fourth wall. The show managed to deftly prod and point out the fourth wall as a thematic and tonal tool without actually breaking the intense and necessary “reality” of the show. It’s a jaw-dropping tightrope walk that instantly fascinated me and got me thinking about character based meta examination.
Which got me thinking about another TV show I love; Community. I’ve talked about the brilliance of Dan Harmon’s television series (Community and Rick and Morty) before. Both frequently dabble in incredibly funny meta examinations. But there’s a deft hand to it, the meta jokes never throw you from the show, or disconnect you from the proceedings. Compare it to the also hilarious Bojack Horseman, which uses meta-humour as a distancing technique, separating you from the show and making it easier to laugh at the characters’ horrible lives. Community, and, less so, Rick and Morty, both rely on the audience actually being invested in the characters. Rick and Morty is a bit meaner, and the characters are a little less likeable, but both want you to care and be interested in the characters’ lives.
Let’s get concrete with some examples. When Community slid into its first bottle episode (an episode with a limited cast set in one location), Abed realizes what’s happening and points it out: “I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.” As the events further unfold Abed continues to point it out and Jeff snaps: “Gwynnifer? Hi. Yeah, it’s me. I can’t make it. Well, tell your disappointment to suck it. I’m doing a bottle episode.” It’s hilarious, and sets up a great episode of the show. In Rick and Morty Rick will say things like “this is no time for arcs” when prompted to display character growth. All these jokes add to the texture of the show and the characters, without distancing the audience an undue amount. It’s brilliant and funny. True Detective, however, takes this a step further by maintaining an incredibly serious and dramatic tone.
In a lot of ways these meta-beats are basically impeccably precise and controlled tonal shifts. This may sound counter-intuitive or illogical but bear with me. Tone is a challenging thing to pinpoint the mechanics of at times. What exactly makes some scenes feel one way and some another is an exercise in analyzing minutiae. One of Merriam-Websters’ definitions for the word tone is “style or manner of expression in speaking or writing.” The other word they throw around a lot is “mood” something that is frequently used as a synonym for tone. In a lot of ways tone is basically the sum quality of a scene or movie. Is it serious and grim? Serious and hopeful? Funny and dark? Funny and lighthearted? Tense and slow? Tense and fast? Or any number of comparable or increasingly complex permutations. When a show points out the mechanics driving the medium they’re essentially violating the realism of the art. They’re pointing out the frame of the painting, which tends to have a distancing effect. This change in surface style, change in artistic quality, is a change in tone. Think of it like this – don’t movies that are incredibly meta, good or bad, have a common feel to them?
Which is where we start to talk about True Detective and Community.
First let’s look at another example, this time from True Detective. (My favourite example is actually when Rust and Marty talk about how boring the parts of their life that aren’t on TV are, but I can’t find that one transcribed anywhere):
Fuck, I don’t want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again and again and again forever.
The key line is “time is a flat circle.” The show features two overlapping timelines, and the distortion of time is frequently brought up. The main villain of the story is associated with “eating time” as a way of referencing the fact that the strange temporal structure is based around the events he sits at the centre of. This is all the show’s characters, dabbling in momentary meta-awareness of the show’s structure. Sensing and commenting on the show’s structure as a way of granting individual scenes a sense of portentousness and prepping the audience for more important fourth wall breaks later on (the brilliant conclusion).
Except the show can do this all seemingly without violently violating the pre-existing tone. A lot of this is the fact that the tonal shift is almost imperceptible, but that in and of itself is an accomplishment. Audiences are incredibly sensitive to tonal shifts, and generally respond to them negatively. Not always, but generally it throws off viewers in ways they don’t always recognize. So while it’s easy to point to the meta moments in True Detective and write off the lack of jarring effect as being a manifestation of the moments’ subtlety, if you’re not actively analyzing and examining the show you might not notice that anything is happening at all. But that aforementioned audience sensitivity rarely comes with awareness of the tonal shift, so that’s not actually the reason at all.
Perhaps nothing proves that these scenes are affecting audiences more than the fact that, generally, people love these moments. They are memorable and stand out positively in the eyes of viewers. Just like the moments in Community stand out as being especially memorable jokes, and Abed is a perpetual fan-favourite character.
When these meta breaks are used without this subtlety it transforms a piece of filmmaking entirely, becoming a presentational piece of art. I love presentational art (a lot of Park Chan-Wook movies fall into this category as does Chopper), but it relies on deliberate disconnect. You want the audience to remember they’re watching a movie. In the end Community and True Detective (more the former than the later) are representational, they’re looking to maintain audience involvement. Yet they include fourth wall examining moments, which are inherently presentational. They do this while successfully keeping a fairly representational style.
The explanation of this effect can be found in the tonal shift label. The same reasons certain tonally fluid films can connect with audiences while others can turn them off are at play in Community and True Detective. The secret is rooting the tonal shifts in something, so that they don’t feel like unexpected and unfounded changes. When the shifts are “unrooted” they feel break-neck and random, they set an audience on edge and tend to jar them, shaking audience involvement. “Rooting” them, in this context, simply means having some other aspect of the story drive the shifts.
So to talk about this we probably have to talk about Edgar Wright, the king of justified tonal shifts. Edgar Wright’s filmography, Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and The World’s End all frequently and dramatically shift tones. The key is how Edgar Wright ties these carefully constructed tonal shifts to his characters. His filmography is all incredibly character driven. These characters are the oh-so-important backbone of these films. He ties these tonal shifts to how the characters feel. If a character is feeling cool the language of the movie might suddenly look like an action movie. If a character is scared it might look like a horror movie. And so on and so forth. This hyperactive technique is all over his filmography, but by rooting it in characters it actually feels like an incredibly honest extension of the characters, when in lesser hands it could feel overwhelming, deadening, and cloying. Of course it’s worth briefly establishing that Edgar Wright is an utterly genius filmmaker whose entire discography is basically flawless.
In these films he’s basically using incredibly presentational (read “disconnecting”) effects to enhance audience involvement.
(These are old theatre terms, by the way, but they’re so suited to what I’m talking about that I’ve adopted them ever since I wrote some of my Park Chan-Wook articles. A representational piece of art attempts to recreate reality. Or more fittingly it attempts to maintain its own reality and foster audience involvement. Meaning you can have a representational film set entirely in a wildly fictitious world, so long as it commits fully to the reality of the film. Presentational art constantly reminds you of its unreality and attempts to foster disconnect. It wants you to be aware it’s a film/book/song etc. These terms can also be extended to individual techniques. An invisible or unnoticeable edit is representational whilst a dramatic match-cut or stylized transition is presentational.)
Now Community and True Detective essentially use the exact same technique as director Edgar Wright. The sum effect, the shift in the perceived quality or tone, is substantially less dramatic then any of Edgar Wright’s movies. The language of the medium doesn’t change, instead a character quietly hints at his awareness of his own fictitious existence. However both Community and True Detective manage to avoid throwing the audience from their world by tying the meta-examination to pre-established character traits.
Basically the characters in Community and True Detective, Abed and Rust respectively, drive these moments.
Abed is established from day one of Community as a character fascinated and obsessed with TV and film. It’s clearly his main frame of reference in all situations. It’s what he talks about, what he’s interested in, and what he compares the world to. Consequently he can completely sum up a situation in TV terms without coming across as a god looking down on the world, thereby invalidating the show’s reality. Instead he just comes across as always looking for reflections of TV tropes in his reality. What helps cement this effect are the reactions of those around him. “You know life’s not a TV show Abed, right?” Characters respond to Abed like he’s struck by a compulsion, reinforcing the show’s reality.
Rust is, in part, defined by his fascination with big questions throughout True Detective. He constantly weighs in on the nature of morality and reality, generally with a pessimistic and confidently black-and-white perspective. This perpetual pontification means that when his theories scrape up against the fourth wall it doesn’t seem out of character, but rather completely on point. And just like Abed in Community, Rust’s friend, Marty, responds like Rust just won’t shut up about the nature of reality, again reinforcing the show’s reality and the character driven nature of the breaks.
Detective Rustin Cohle: What do you think the average IQ of this group is, huh?
Detective Martin Hart: Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?
Detective Rustin Cohle: Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity. Poverty. A yen for fairy tales. Folks puttin’ what few bucks they do have into a little wicker basket being passed around. I think it’s safe to say nobody here’s gonna be splitting the atom, Marty.
Detective Martin Hart: You see that. Your fucking attitude. Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room beating off to murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community. A common good.
Detective Rustin Cohle: Yeah, well if the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales then it’s not good for anybody.
Using fourth wall breaks that don’t upset the audience’s relationship with reality is an incredible filmmaking tool, wracked with dangerous potential. Used wrongly it could overturn a film’s sought after tone. Community uses it for great character development and hilarious comedy, True Detective uses it to enhance the Lovecraftian tone and eventually point the show’s thematic concerns back at the real world and the audience. It’s an impressive and eye-opening technique to see used by these deft and talented writers.