Viewing art in a vacuum can be a very satisfying and impressive experience (see Vir Heroicus Sublimus in person if you don’t know what I mean), but it’s very rare to find a recent television show or film that exists in a vacuum. The films and shows we watch today are made for audiences that consume an incredible amount of media – more than any audiences have ever consumed before – and the content of those productions reflects that fact. Everywhere you look, visual media is increasingly packed with meta-referential content because our society has seen every story, trope, and plotline played out hundreds of times already.
The first time I was aware of meta-reference in a film was when I was 11 years old and saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I pondered why characters from various scenes in the film were yelling at the characters onscreen to “get on with it!” and that was when I realized for the first time that it was okay for the characters onscreen to be in on the joke too.
I consider the men of Monty Python to be visionaries in the field of meta-referential media and it’s taken the rest of the world about 30 years to catch up to them. Now that we have caught up, it’s easy to see meta-reference creep into almost every new production that comes out of the film and television industries. Shows like Community and Arrested Development have done some really interesting things with meta-reference in recent years by pushing the boundaries of how much a television show can expect of its audience for the sake of a joke – and it turns out that the more they expect, the bigger the payoff for the audience.
I’m on the lookout for the next film or television show that will push that boundary even further and open up a whole new world of narrative possibilities for the writers and directors of the future. Show me content that challenges the way in which its audience interacts with the medium and I’m hooked.