I'll be the judge of that.

Are We Entering a Creepy New Age of Meta-television?

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The new David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour gives us a peek into the writer’s real-life relationship with television. Jason Segal’s performance depicts a man agonized by guilt over his own enjoyment. The film’s focus on shame sits well enough with Wallace’s legendary, notoriously difficult novel Infinite Jest, that large book that all your smart friends talk about but never read.

Infinite Jest was about a piece of Entertainment so entertaining that it destroys the viewer’s interest in life itself. Wallace’s suffering was such that he had to produce a thousand-page postmodern opus about addiction and modern media culture before he could feel OK about the fact that he likes watching television and eating candy.

I don’t want to comment Infinite Jest itself; at this point, I should confess that I too am included in that category of friends from the first paragraph (I only made it 100 pages in). But I would like to consider what it was about television in the 1990’s that drove Wallace to write such a book.

One thing that Wallace seems to have focused on in interviews was the influence that television has had on our aesthetic expectations.

“Commercial art, its efficiency, its sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment; it changes what an audience is looking for, [and] I would argue changes us in deeper ways than that.”

In addition to media and addiction, another big theme for Wallace was loneliness. (“The magic of fiction is that it addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people.”) In this connection, he attached a certain hopeful significance to his perception of a certain tongue-in-cheek social ambivalence we have about television and pop entertainment.

“We have as a culture not only an enormous daily watching rate, but we have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV . . . such that TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV.”

He sensed that this “meta” take on TV meant we all knew there was something wrong with the way we were consuming commercial art in the 1990’s, and that a significant portion of our society was uncomfortable with it. In other words, he saw meta-television as evidence that he was not alone.


But maybe something else is going on. If TV that criticizes TV was a thing to take notice of in 1996, the incredible proliferation of things like DVR, on-demand, and streaming services has amplified that phenomenon in the decade since. Access to television is easier than ever, and to an almost painful degree. Each day, we are harassed by the feeling that we are missing out on hundreds of hours of television.

The change has been so radical as to suggest that television has entered an exciting new era. Meanwhile, one is also tempted to say that Wallace’s nightmare is coming true.

Today, in addition to the way we see television affecting other forms of commercial art (see, e.g. the ongoing serialization of big-budget franchise cinema), we might also consider how television is affecting television itself.

This year, a number of interesting television shows have emerged that, in one way or another, interrogate and develop our understanding of serialized, televised entertainment. These newer shows are meta-fictional not only because they tell stories that simultaneously comment on the creation of their own story (see, e.g. season 4 of Seinfeld as a precursor to Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation), but are actually experimenting with form and content in a way that asks some good questions about what it means to watch television today.


To draw another distinction: of course, there’s nothing new about metafiction; filmmakers have been shooting films about filmmakers at least since Fellini, and novelists have been writing novels about novelists for much longer than that. But I think we might distinguish our subject by the fact that the focus has moved from the creator to the consumer; like Infinite Jest, these shows are asking questions less about how TV gets made and more about how it is being consumed.

This distinction between creation and consumption is a vital dialectic, particularly concerning Lifetime’s excellent new series, UnREAL. In one sense, this is a show about the making of a paradigmatically Bachelor­-type dating reality show. However, the show is about much more than juicy behind-the-scenes machinations of cynically amoral producers, but in fact provides a sophisticated take on the experience of consuming reality television itself.

The show’s title is a brilliant nod to Bram Stoker’s use of the term “undead” to indicate a physical state that is neither living nor dead, but something else entirely. Similarly, when dealing with reality television we are encountering something not fictional, not real, but rather we are confronting some kind of third-party ontology.

The show’s structure is tangled fractal of metaphysics. UnREAL is a fictional representation of what we suppose to be the reality hiding behind a piece of fiction masquerading as reality; a final reversal is achieved as the show slowly acknowledges that despite the producers’ skills at creating a cohesive artificial/secondary reality, that construct is consistently undermined by the intervention of primary reality.

As honest viewers, that is why it’s so hard for us to deny the shared sense of “reality” that emerges from superficial exercises like The Bachelor; all this despite our best efforts to insist that reality television is just another form of televised fiction.

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MTV offers a more straightforward experiment with the relationship between genre and serial structure with Scream: The TV Series. Like Wes Craven’s parent film franchise, MTV’s Scream is concerned with playing with genre conventions. The pilot episode opens with one character explaining the show’s experiment:

“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series. Think about it. Girl and her friends arrive at the dance, the camp, the deserted town, whatever. Killer takes them out one by one. 90 minutes later the sun comes up as Survivor Girl is sitting in the back of the ambulance watching her friends’ bodies being wheeled past. Slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.”

The point here is provocative, even if it feels so deliberate, in that one of the show’s main characters is arguing against the show’s very existence. But this is the interesting part about Scream as a television series. The meta-commentary is no longer restricted to slasher films, but now expands to consider how slasher tropes might interface with structural characteristics typical of televised narrative.

The pilot ends with the same character reciting a closing monologue meant to frame the show’s ongoing conceit. In short, he invites us to imagine watching Friday Night Lights, except that each week the same characters we’ve slowly grown to love and internalize are each slaughtered as reliably and unceremoniously as in any trashy slasher flick. What kind of viewer experience will that make for? Which will be revealed, our compassion or our sadism?

If this hits a bit too close to home for Game of Thrones fans, then Scream’s creators have already done their job.

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Lastly, I want to take a quick look at Bravo’s Odd Mom Out. On a channel notorious for its proficient reality programming, a scripted show about idle upper-class women cannot be read without reference to the Real Housewives universe.

Like UnREAL, a fiction show that is derivative of a reality show is a curious phenomenon indeed. But here, there’s another level to consider: Real Housewives of Orange County, the original franchise, was itself derivative of fiction television shows like Desperate Housewives and The OC. So, here we have Odd Mom Out, a fictional derivative of a reality derivative.

This might explain part of the show’s failing. Odd Mom Out is funny enough, but one commentator has appropriately pointed out its drawbacks, specifically in its context as part of Bravo’s programming.

“[T]he show ends up feeling like a slap in the face to the historically humanizing Housewives franchise Bravo has built, including the women who genuinely enjoy it.

“Sure, The Real Housewives of New York City is a show about wealthy white women who summer in the Hamptons, ship their teens to private schools where they’re hardly seen, and drink pinot grigio like water. But it’s also a show that’s covered all of these women’s wounds to a startlingly real extent.”

In other words, there’s something alienating about the double-derivative structure of Odd Mom Out. It’s as if in the process of fictionalizing the Real Housewives to create Odd Mom Out, something was lost in translation, some weird kernel of humanity.


So, is it just me, or is television getting really weird?

Or maybe it’s been weird for a long time now…

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