Last year, Paramount returned to the small screen with a relaunch of its television division, which was not too exciting until recently, when some of the content coming to TV screens across America was announced. Most notably, they’re working on a made-for-television version of The Truman Show. You know The Truman Show, right? It’s when Jim Carrey was serious for a minute and played a man whose entire life is a reality TV show. Eventually (SPOILER!) he figures out his life is a lie and escapes the reality the corporation that owns him created.
Now it’s going to turn into a television show: a television show based on a movie that’s about a television show. Everything is starting to get a little meta. Meta television isn’t exactly new — The Mary Tyler Moore Show was talking about a TV show on TV way back in 1970 — but they’ve definitely gained in popularity and become even more self-referential in the last few years. Meta is the new black. And with the success, or obsessive fan bases, of TV shows like 30 Rock, Arrested Development and Community it’s easy to see why everyone’s trying to get in on the self-referential game, no matter the context or weirdness level.
While a lot of the time television shows try to maintain some semblance of reality, being self-referential can allow for the freedom of a nonsensical narrative. Community started as a show about a study group at a community college and has slowly turned into a meta dream/nightmare of absurdist humor. By constantly acknowledging the fact that everyone on the show knows in some way that their environment doesn’t depict reality, there’s no longer any pressure to be logical.
Meta television is giving you that little nudge and wink to let you know that you’re in on the joke too; that we’re all in on the joke. That’s why meta television shows have such obsessive fan bases: they’re aware of the audience and often speaking directly to them. “Being in on the joke,” is almost like being a character on the show.
Meta television gives writers, producers and showrunners something completely new to work with. You can hide jokes and entire plot lines in the swampy layers of self-referential meta-ness. Which can be fun, but also a bit alienating. Sometimes it’s like that kid in your philosophy class that seemed cool at first but he ended up being way too into existential nihilism and keeps muttering “nothing is real,” during lectures. At first he just seemed edgy, and now you’re starting to realize that neither of you understand anything he’s saying.
Sometimes these shows have the right degree of alienation, enough to be slightly confusing but still get a big laugh — like 30 Rock’s reveal of Kenneth being immortal. Other times the show spirals into madness with convoluted plot lines that stop making sense and just get a little tiring — sorry, Arrested Development. There’s a fine line between funny confusion and impenetrable confusion that meta television difficult to navigate.
Meta means everything is given new layers, new jokes, new things to poke fun at and mess around with, but negotiating all these layers is hard to do – especially with any consistency. In a lot of ways meta television is like a trip down the rabbit hole: it can be funny and zany and surreal if done right and a pretty horrible mess if done wrong. The plot of The Truman Show is already brilliantly meta, so making it into a self-referential show seems…well, unavoidable. And it could be great! Or a mess! But seriously Paramount, please don’t ruin The Truman Show.