Breaking the 4th wall, changing the rules of reality

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I’ve never watched “The Office” before. I thought it was pretty interesting in how it broke the fourth wall. That puts a new spin on what sounds like a boring show – the daily occurrences of an office and all its bureaucratic workings. Having worked as an office assistant, I’d hardly want to watch a show about them – though I must admit the employees at “The Office” are more entertaining than the people I worked with. But not in a good way. Who would really want someone like David Brent as their boss? Michael is even more insane. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal. People can watch the show and be glad their boss isn’t nearly as nuts as Michael Scott. I found I preferred the American version of “The Office” – it seemed more coherent to me. Michael was delusional, but had clear motivations. David seemed to be just trying to avoid the real world. Michael at least had an image of what it should be. I can respect that. Perhaps in the escapist pursuit of watching TV, I resent that the characters can’t even deal with their own world. Then it becomes too much like ours.

There’s a definite thrill in watching a show that breaks the fourth wall, pushed through the invisible barrier of the TV screen to say “hey, we see you there, watching us”. As Jeffrey Sconce wrote, shows must sometimes break their formula to keep the story going and keep people interested. They use people’s expectations of what the story should be, their knowledge of camera tricks and the like against us to grab our waning attention. There are only so many basic plots to be had (thus the ubiquity of devices such as the “meat locker”), it’s how they’re executed that determines whether they’re brilliant or just cliché.

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One Response to “Breaking the 4th wall, changing the rules of reality”

  1. dolexwatch Says:

    Its interesting to see why you prefer the American version of the office to the British one, and in a lot of ways your post answered many of the questions I had about why they would ever need to make a different version for the american audeince. I grew up in london and so watched the british version, and since coming here I have seen many episodes of Steve Carells America hybrid. I’ve found both of them funny, but for very different reasons. The american show seemed to lack the same level of incredibly awkward, almost physical tension between characters, which is heightened at times by the use of the 4th wall mechanic which you refer to. The UK’s comedy is built around Brents absolutely ceaseless awkwardness, and awkwardness is much more a part of UK comedy, which is dryer and relies much more on these moments, juxtaposing them with a “realistic” setting. The American office however is much more obviously a comedy and every character seems much more adept at throwing punchlines rather than being awkward, somehwat nullifying Carells more centralised awkwardness and making his antics something to laugh about in the way of an “inside joke”, instead of an ironic car crash like Ricky Gervais’ interpretation of the boss character.

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