In the very last episode of the very first Real World, the cast essentially took over the production, operating cameras and exploring the control room where producers monitored their lives. The fourth wall, however, came down earlier than that, when a cast member, Becky, and a show director, Bill, acknowledged their romantic escapade in Jamaica on screen.
Producers Bunim-Murray entertained and engaged MTV’s audiences with their unscripted soap opera, but didn’t shrink from the fact that they were producing a TV show, and that a significant part of the real lives they were documenting included what was happening beyond the (theoretical) proscenium.
That was 17 years ago, yet the fourth wall remains somewhat sacred in unscripted programming. Why have so few unscripted series opted to acknowledge to viewers that they are, in fact, TV shows?
Sometimes doing that makes sense. Sometimes it’s ridiculous. But one thing’s certain: Breaking the fourth wall can potentially enhance a series.
The best current example may be Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, which aired its 200th episode in late February. The series follows host Mike Rowe’s attempts to perform, well, dirty jobs, which he does while interacting with people who, as he says in the show’s introduction, do ‘the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.’
The show succeeds on the strength of Rowe’s personality and his interplay with the workers, and would work perfectly well without the fourth wall violations. But there they are: shots of the camera crew, references to the actual production, and frequent interplay with field producer Dave Barsky.
Barsky, who Rowe has called ‘my creative partner in the field,’ has a working relationship with Rowe that, like all producer-talent relationships, sometimes involves conflict. Dirty Jobs embraces that and puts it on camera, just as it acknowledges that the literal point of the show is for a camera crew to document workers and their jobs.
Contrast Dirty Jobs with MTV’s semi-scripted The Hills, which tries so hard to avoid breaking the fourth wall that it distorts the quasi-reality of the cast members’ lives even more. All of the show’s stars are now celebrities on some level, and yet the series ignores how fame has actually affected their lives.
That a series would distort its reality to avoid acknowledging the production, the audience, or the effect those actually have on the show’s subjects is ridiculous, especially since the most engaged viewers are acutely aware of that.
Sometimes, the fourth wall remains up just to produce a stronger, cleaner final product. CBS’ Survivor and The Amazing Race, network TV’s two most ambitious reality shows, involve the work of hundreds of talented crew, in the field and in post.
Yet rarely will you catch a shot of an Amazing Race camera op – amazing considering they’re following teams as they race around the world.
Some viewers clearly have an appetite for that kind of information, which explains Survivor host Jeff Probst’s behind-the-scenes videos, filmed during recent seasons, that CBS put online. Obsessive fans could mull over what lied beyond the fourth wall, while everyone else could still appreciate the cinematic narrative unfolding on their TV screens.
That’s a good compromise, acknowledging that sometimes, it’s okay to reveal more to viewers, and it may even help.