Let’s say that the progress of television can very roughly be broken down into three stages: the depicted world, the constructed world and the meta-constructed world. These stages existed in a broadly chronological fashion.
The first phase, quite naturally, used the new visual medium to show stuff that existed and that happened. So we got the news and Attenborough – simple observation of things that are happening in the real world.
Next, again quite naturally, we decided to create fictional worlds for ourselves, and the constructed world arrived. It is televisual fiction, realities made from observation of the depicted world and constructed for a television format. Think Corrie, or TV drama like Play For Today. Instead of going outside, we watch TV – on average 5 hours per day. And so our experience of life during those hours becomes a strange blur between the world we see depicted on screen (the funny, exciting, hyper-real world we aspire to be a part of) and the world that we actually live in, sitting in our collective and proverbial pants on the collective and proverbial sofa with biscuits crumbs all down our collective and proverbial t-shirt.
The constructed world persisted for a long time (and still does since it essentially encompasses all fiction created for television) until some clever smart arse writers got bored and wanted to show how clever and smart arse they were. A generation of viewers started to exist for whom television has always been a part of their life (20.8% of their life if the 5 hours a day stat is true) and this generation was aware of televisual culture and history. So, capitalising on this generation’s knowledge of how television is made, television became an intra-allusive and self-referential medium, and the meta-constructed world was born, or rather created. It drew attention to the method of its own construction.
Take Community: a stanchion of classic sitcoms in the construction era, especially in the US, was the mockery of uncool, pre-hip, paternalistic figures by cool young people for being uncool – so, for example, America’s Family Ties, Married With Children, Nine To Five but also programmes in the UK like Fawlty Towers, with the old fashioned, uptight Basil as the object of ridicule, or Rising Damp, or Steptoe and Son. This is exactly the dynamic between Pierce and the others in Community.
Something that Community exemplifies is that there is no longer any need for a frame of reference that exists outside television. References to literature, history or any other media can all be mediated through their having existed in a televisual format at some point. So things that existed originally as literature, for example Batman who first appeared, of course, in comic books, are referenced via their screen incarnations (Abed as the Dark Knight).
Episode 3.8 of Community, ‘Documentary Filmmaking: Redux’, relies entirely on the audience’s knowledge of the process of creation of television, on references to TV programmes, to films. This episode simultaneously moves beyond and reinforces the introspectivity and ‘self-contained’ness of television: Dean Pelton’s attempts to make an advert for the school are documented by Abed’s cameras. At first Abed is unobtrusive, then when all the characters become fed up with the Dean’s methods and he fails to make an advert, Abed uses his own footage to construct the trailer. Abed’s cameras are used as an excuse for the fact that we, the external audience, are watching what is happening: if Abed’s cameras weren’t there, this ‘episode’ would not exist.
I came across this extract in an essay by David Foster Wallace recently, and it exemplifies the point I want to make about this episode of Community:
“Don DeLillo’s 1985 White Noise sounded to fledgling fictionists a kind of televisual clarion-call. Scenelets like the following seemed especially important:
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. . . . We walked along a cow-path to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
I quote this at such length not only because it’s too darn good to ablate, but to draw your attention to […] the message here about the metastasis of watching. For not only are people watching a barn whose only claim to fame is as an object of watching, but the pop-culture scholar Murray is watching people watch a barn, and his friend Jack is watching Murray watch the watching, and we readers are pretty obviously watching Jack the narrator watch Murray watching, etc.”
And, by quoting David Foster Wallace, you the readers are watching DFW watch Jack watching Murray watch the watching. There is a similar ‘metastasis’ of watching in Community.
The first layer is Dean Pelton’s shooting of the trailer (which consists of Dean Pelton watching his actors); second, Abed’s documenting of Dean Pelton’s shooting (Abed watching Dean Pelton watching actors); third, Abed’s documentary footage used as Dean Pelton’s trailer (Abed’s watching of Dean Pelton watching actors becoming the watching of actors); fourth, and the final twist in the tale, Abed’s look directly at the camera as the episode ends reminds us that for all the layers of watching within the episode, ultimately this is still all a scripted episode of a sitcom watched by an anonymous audience – us. None of it is real.
It plays with all three eras of television: depiction (Abed’s documentary); construction (as Dean Pelton uses his knowledge of televisual tropes to create his advert); and meta-construction (as we see the process of construction and are made fully aware that it is happening). Our attention is drawn to the fact that the Dean is using his knowledge of television to make television. So, at another remove (meta-meta-construction I suppose) Community draws attention to the very existence of the different eras of television programming (not to mention the fact that by identifying the three eras and then identifying that Community identifies them I am raising them to another power – meta-meta-meta-construction?)
Simultaneous to all this in episode 3.8 is the fact that, as always, the episode is suffused with references to films and TV programmes, in particular Hearts of Darkness and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. In this film Philip Seymour Hoffman attempts to build New York within New York, with actors playing everyone including himself, and then an actor playing the actor playing himself until no one is quite sure what is happening or who anyone is anymore. This episode, and every other episode of Community (unless you want to moan about the intentional fallacy) relies on the audience’s knowledge of references that the episode makes, in this case Synecdoche, New York.
If the audience has seen the film then it is aware that the episode is pastiching it, so the successive layers of watching revealed above in fact only exist as mimickry of the film. But our identification of this mimickry, of the references to Synecdoche, New York, still rely on the audience’s knowledge of the film, still rely on the fact that the audience exists in a world in which the writer’s expectation of the audience’s awareness of films and TV programmes is a reasonable expectation to have. The reason Community references Batman and Star Wars and Kaufman and even itself is because it expects the audience to recognise those references. That is because the audience now exists in the era of meta-construction. We’ve seen enough TV to know how it works. We’ve watched 5 hours of the stuff everyday since birth, from Teletubbies to Time Team. We understand what’s going on. We’re in the know.
With this knowledge and recognition of a reference comes the feeling of authority and satisfaction. Audience member, feeling pleased and smug to have understood that Community episode 3.8 was all about Synecdoche, New York decides that this Community is quite a good show and watches more of it. This is what the era of meta-construction is about: know your audience, and be aware of what they know. Then use your shared frame of reference to write a massively successful, consistently funny (I’ve only seen up to Season 3 and people have said that Season 4 is a bit pants) primetime show. Easy.