Getting meta: why films and TV shows are cannibalising themselves

From The Matrix Resurrections to Scream and Euphoria, the fourth wall is being well and truly shattered.

Ah, meta. No, not Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Facebook rebrand, but a nifty narrative device that sees the fourth wall shattered in favour of self-referential moments.

Take last week’s seventh, penultimate episode of Euphoria, The Theater and It’s Double. Almost its entire runtime was dedicated to Lexi Howard’s epic school play, in which the budding playwright laid bare the most intimate details of her friends’ lives.

Allowing the previously sidelined Lexi to finally put herself front and centre, it pulled no punches in both eviscerating and celebrating the characters we’ve been watching along with her for the past six weeks.

There was a compassionate window into the difficulty of her friendship with Rue, which slowly slipped away in a tangle of grief and addiction. A softer, sadder side of Maddy, who once escaped violence at home to live with the Howards for a while. Not to mention Lexi’s brutal portrayal of her sister Cassie as desperate and vacuous, before the grand finale: outing Nate as gay by way of a hotpant-clad ensemble.

Fun to watch it may have been. But what was the purpose of all these meta-theatrics, other than to reinforce what we, as viewers, already knew?

Audiences are clever and like to feel so. So when meta is used, it holds up a mirror to a viewer’s knowledge of a genre, or stock types of characters,” says Beth Johnson, an associate professor in film and media at Leeds University. There’s real pleasure in that. It’s often used as a device for humour, too, and is a way for creators, writers and directors to let the audience in on the joke.”

And Euphoria, after all, is the most discourse-generating TV drama in recent memory. Week after week, fans flock to Twitter and TikTok sharing theories (is Ashtray Nate’s secret brother?), queries (why is Kat’s storyline so paltry?) and concerns (how much nudity is too much nudity?).

In The Theater and It’s Double, there’s a lingering sense that screenwriter and director Sam Levinson uses Lexi as a vessel through which to reassure the audience that, yeah, he gets it – some of these characters are unhinged and many of their narrative arcs, so far, have made little sense. He knows Nate’s a psychopath and that Cassie’s season-long manic episode has been a tough one to watch. Viewers, he’s in on it.

And so, unavoidably, a certain element of mutual back-patting enters the picture, placating the audience with a few inches of satisfaction that have perhaps been missing from the rest of the season. In Lexi’s episode” finally someone ended” Nate Jacobs, as many internet users had been begging to happen since the season premiere.

When it comes to getting meta in this context, there’s a fine line between cringe and clever. But all things considered, Euphoria pulled it off. In a climate in which social media has enhanced the ways in which we consume film and TV – and made criticism more inescapable than ever – The Theater and It’s Double allowed Levinson to conjure up a kind of shield, beating beady-eyed viewers to the punch.

Since the rise of the internet, viewer feedback and feed-in to storylines, particularly in television, are much more prevalent,” Johnson continues. As a result, meta-commentary is a way of engaging audiences beyond the narrative moment, enveloping them into the creative world – recognising that increasingly, they’re creators and creatives themselves rather than just receivers.”

Being meta isn’t a new thing by any means, with shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office and The Simpsons all deploying the device to comedic effect. But it is noticeable how much it has reared its head over the last year or so.

In 2021’s The Matrix Resurrections, director Lana Wachowski got wincingly meta in a perceived attempt to stick two fingers up at Warner Bros, who had apparently threatened to make a Matrix reboot with or without her.

“[Getting meta] is a way for the creative forces behind a text to give their loyal viewers a nod, a wink and a thank you

BETH JOHNSON, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN FILM AND MEDIA AT LEEDS UNIVERSITY

Wachowski mercilessly poked fun at the stupidity of sequels, cutting back to countless scenes from the previous movies and resurrecting beloved characters only to suggest they were better left for dead. It felt particularly tongue in cheek given how viewers often lament the quality of follow-up films. With a 2.5 per cent audience rating on Google, perhaps it was a little smart for its own good.

Last month, Scream got the reboot treatment to wild success with the franchise’s fifth outing. Wes Craven’s 1996 original is often credited with breathing new life into horror, with all its knowing, witty quips about the genre’s tropes. Getting meta quickly became the franchise’s bread and butter.

The new-new Scream (same name as the original, keep up) came populated with references to high-brow horrors such as 2018’s Hereditary and 2014’s The Babadook (which one character describes as an amazing meditation on motherhood and grief”). Another vocally reviles requels” (a reboot and prequel in the same film), while each of its characters toys with the possibility of what they’d do if they were in a horror film (before finding themselves smack bang in the middle of one).

It’s [a way] for the creative forces behind a text to give their loyal viewers a nod, a wink and a thank you,” Johnson notes.

Both Scream and The Matrix have fans at the centre of their meta-ness, playing on their knowledge of previous iterations – and desire for reboots – to critique Hollywood, genre conventions and sequels in the process. Euphorias use of it, though a little more self-serving, did a similar thing: lifting the lid on Levinson’s complicated relationship with his audience as a form of critique.

So – defence mechanism or affectionate dalliance with the audience? Annoying or illuminating effect? Hell, maybe it’s just a fun, inventive storytelling device that the rest of us are overthinking.

Until the next reboot – or season of Euphoria – you decide. (We’re breaking the fourth wall and looking directly at you, FYI.)

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