When you’re standing on a stage, facing the audience and putting on a show, there is an imaginary wall that separates you from them. There is the wall behind you, the two at your sides, and then the fourth wall for your viewers to watch you through. You go about your performance, spouting lines and transitioning scenes pretending to not notice the guy in the front row picking his nose or the teenage girl on her cell phone.
In some stories, there are magical moments where that fourth wall is broken and the audience receives something straight from the performer themselves. It can be as simple as a nod, or even an entire scene.
When the U.S. version of The Office premiered in March of 2005, a new breed of television program was born. The characters in the office speak directly to the camera on numerous occasions, either during an interview or as a side remark. The mockumentary style camera work has been used in films for years and other television programs had used this tactic before, but The Office gaining the following it did really introduced the breaking of the fourth wall to the modern small screen in a big way.
The Office is filled with viewer interactions. The charismatic prankster of the bunch, Jim, can be seen eyeing the camera with a smirk all the way back to season one. This look became such a staple to the character, that Dwight is sure to include this characteristic when impersonating Jim.
For a more direct breaking of the fourth wall, we learn at the end of the series that all along we have been watching documentary footage of these people and their lives. Expected? Well yes, seeing as we sit in on the employee’s interviews and hear them speak directly to the camera. But in the final season of the show things get real. The characters prepare for the release of the documentary and even visit social media sites to see what the public says about them. It’s a truly flawless strategy for winding down a show of this quality and type, which has inspired other award winnings shows like Parks and Recreation and can be found in House of Cards.
On a similar note, we have Arrested Development. Although not an obvious documentary to the characters on screen, this show is narrated and presented as a real life situation. As if these you could run into these people on the street with a camera crew following them and it wouldn’t be any different than other reality television.
Community and 30 Rock
These shows seemed to have followed the same rules when it comes to the fourth wall. Not every episode throws a nod to the audience, but specific characters tend to have more of a connection with the viewers in such a way. Like Abed looking straight into camera exclaiming ” THIS is the movie.” or when Liz Lemon from 30 Rock blatantly plugs Verizon Wireless.
Supernatural has also played around with the idea of a minimal difference between “them” and “us”. Within the show, there is a series of books chronicling the adventures of our heroes, Sam and Dean. Not unlike the documentary in The Office. But Supernatural takes it a step further with an episode dedicated to Sam and Dean becoming the actors, and playing the role of Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles in the real world. Our World.
Fresh Prince of Bel Air
The cast and crew of Fresh Prince are know for many things, but their work with the fourth wall is one of my favorite parts of the show. From the recasting of Aunt Vivian to the use of the theme song in a court room. The greatest example of all is Carlton fanatic sprint across stage, and into the audience.