J. Kenner Writes…About Fleabag, the Fourth Wall, and Fandom

J. Kenner Writes...About Fleabag, the Fourth Wall, and Fandom
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I saw an article recently that opined that, following the success of Fleabag, we’re going to start to see a slew of television shows and movies that break the fourth wall. As a fan of shows and books that break the fourth wall, I think that would be downright spiffy. But I’m dubious. Here’s the thing: as much as I love Fleabag (and I really, really do), there already exists a lot of shows that break the fourth wall. So are they really going to be kicking it up that much more?

But wait! First a quick PSA for those of you not familiar with the term. In theater, there are four “walls” in which the actors perform, the back of the stage, the sides, and the front (aka, the proscenium), which is the “fourth wall” through which the audience can see but the actors can’t. They’re like dolls in a dollhouse, going about their lives and not realizing that they’re being watched.

Unless that wall gets broken. (Could be the plot of a horror movie, eh? Or, you know, The Matrix. But I digress…)

If that wall gets broken, then the characters in the fiction acknowledge the existence of the audience, sometimes even talking to them.

Personally, I love it when that happens. And despite the wide-eyed, “wow, we’ll see more of this,” after the deserved success of Fleabag, the fact remains that drama that breaks the fourth wall has been a staple of entertainment for a long, long time. Like back to Shakespeare, and undoubtedly before that, too. (This isn’t that scholarly a piece. I’m sure you get the point.)

Woody Allen uses the convention a lot (Annie Hall, in particular springs to mind). And for those who would prefer a more recent example, hello Deadpool. Recognize this? Life moves pretty fast. That line, and so many others, were delivered straight to the camera—the audience—in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the best fourth wall breaking movies of all time, in my not so humble opinion.

Some shows do it, but you forget about it because it’s so meshed in. Maybe it’s just the fact that I only watched the first few seasons, but in discussing this article with friends, I was reminded that House of Cards broke the fourth wall, too.

Technically, anytime the actor acknowledges that they are existing in a “watched world” and looks at the audience or the camera, that is breaking the fourth wall. And that can be a fun convention. But the shows that tend to really suck me in and make me connect are the ones that involve communication that goes deeper than just an acknowledging look.

Interestingly, kids shows do it a lot. Blue’s Clues. Dora The Explorer. There, the audience really is a participant (as I can attest from remembering my girls’ very excited chatter back and forth with the television).

Even shows that don’t break the fourth wall as a rule can do it on occasion for effect. My absolute favorite show ever has broken the fourth wall once (and in my recollection, only once). The signing episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer called Once More With Feeling. In that episode, during a climactic song near the end, Buffy turns and looks at the camera and tells the audience that we can sing along, too.  Yeah, I loved that.

Why? Because I love getting immersed in the world of stories.

If you read my first column for Frolic, I talked about how I love to binge. I love it because I get so sucked in and don’t want to leave the world. Breaking the fourth wall takes it one step further because the creator is actually inviting me into that world. (Thank you, thank you, yes! I’m coming! I’ll bring chocolate and wine and join the party!)

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was research on fandom and the fourth wall, because to me, they seem to go hand in hand.

And it’s not just visual media that can break the fourth wall. Books can, too. I even use the device myself in my Demon Hunting Soccer Mom books, like this excerpt from Carpe Demon:

Nowadays my problems leaned more toward the domestic rather than the demonic. Grocery shopping, budgeting, carpooling, mending, cleaning, cooking, parenting, and a thousand other “-ings.” All the basic stuff that completely holds a family together and is taken entirely for granted by every person on the planet who doesn’t happen to be a wife and stay-at-home mom. (And two points to you if you caught that little bit of vitriol. I’ll admit to having a few issues about the whole topic, but, dammit, I work hard. And believe me, I’m no stranger to hard work. It was never easy, say, cleaning out an entire nest of evil, bloodthirsty preternatural creatures with only a few wooden stakes, some holy water, and a can of Diet Coke. But I always managed. And it was a hell of a lot easier than getting a teenager, a husband, and a toddler up and moving in the morning. Now, that’s a challenge.)

Why talk to the reader/you? Because not only does the device inform Kate’s character (she’s got a bit of snark, that one) but it’s also intended to bring the reader in closer, making the ride even that much more fun because they’re right there with Kate as she’s battling the forces of darkness.

Bottom line, breaking the fourth wall hasn’t exactly been gathering dust in a closet full of abandoned literary devices. But if Fleabag’s success sparks even a few more shows, then I say bring it on.

My favorite shows and books are my favorites because they’re places I keep coming back to. That feel like home—a place we’re a piece of me lives. And when a creator knocks down that fourth wall and invites me in … well, I just love it that much more.

How about you? Do you like it when a show or a book breaks the fourth wall, or would you rather keep your fiction separate from your reality?

If you do love it when that wall comes tumbling down, what are some of your favorite movies, shows or books? Do let me know in the comments! I need to grow my list!

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