This week marks the 25th anniversary of the first episode of Clarissa Explains It All, and the start of Season Four of House of Cards.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the two shows don’t have much in common, and yet they do share one thing: both feature characters fond of breaking the fourth wall or acknowledging the presence of the audience.
It’s a familiar enough trope in movies and commonplace in theater, from Shakespeare’s soliloquies to James Corden in knockabout farce One Man, Two Guvnors.
TV, however, usually sticks much more closely to that golden rule: do not look at the camera. We’ve put together a list of the characters who ignore it.
1. Saved by the Bell (NBC, 1989 – 1993)
High school student Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) didn’t just talk to camera. He paused the on-screen action going on behind with his familiar shout of “Time out!”
2. Fresh Prince of Bel Air (NBC, 1990 – 1996)
Will Smith‘s breakthrough role also involved breaking through TV conventions, with his character Will offering wry observations about his Bel Air family and life to camera.
And then there’s Carlton.
3. Northern Exposure (CBS, 1990 – 1995)
Hardcore fans of this show, or Mooseheads as they’re more commonly known, cite many surreal things that make it their favorite TV program, from its philosophical quotes to the way it wove in scientific theories and discoveries into its plot.
“War and Peace,” the sixth episode of Season Two however, goes even further; in the run-up to a duel between Russian pop singer Nikolai Appolanov and U.S. astronaut Maurice Minnifield, Dr. Joel Fleischman (played by Rob Morrow) turns to camera to protest the inauthenticity of the scene, saying they “play to a very sophisticated audience” who wouldn’t buy it.
4. Clarissa Explains It All (Nickelodeon, 1991 – 1994)
Believe it or not, but it’s been 25 years since Melissa Joan Hart burst onto our screens as Clarissa Darling in Clarissa Explains It All, one of Nickelodeon’s most popular kids shows of the 1990s.
And burst she did, because one of Clarissa’s defining characteristics was her habit of turning to the audience and telling them about her teenage tribulations, from dating and homework to pimples and horrid little brothers.
5. Malcolm in the Middle (FOX, 2000 – 2006)
This show’s entire premise requires Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) to talk to us, with him addressing the audience as if we’re a page in his journal. He usually sets up the episode at the beginning and turns to us during a scene to comment on it, like this scene from season three.
6. The Bernie Mac Show (FOX, 2001-2006)
Bernie Mac‘s eponymous sitcom saw him introduce each episode from his “sanctuary” and talk to “America”—us—directly. This technique meant he could punctuate the action with material similar to his stand-up act, kind of like in Seinfeld, but to us instead.
7. The Office (BBC, 2001 – 2003) (US version: NBC, 2005 – 2013)
Filmed as a mockumentary, the cast members acknowledge the cameras throughout each episode as if their every move is being documented for posterity.
Characters like David Brent (Ricky Gervais) give interviews to the crew, but also direct the action, speaking to other characters with one eye on the crew and what they’re capturing. The difference here is that, rather then being in control of the action, the joke is almost always on Brent or Michael Scott (Steve Carell) in the U.S. version of the show.
The film crew is seen for the first time in season nine of the U.S. version, when Pam breaks down and is consoled by one of the crew on set.
In this way The Office, as well as shows like the BBC’s Stella Street (1997) and People Like Us (1999), led the way for hit mockumentary shows like Parks and Recreation, Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys and Summer Heights High, an Australian show starring comedian Chris Lilley that aired in the U.S. on HBO.
8. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003 – 2015)
Characters in Peep Show are constantly staring straight at the camera, but this is the fourth wall with a twist: rather than breaking it down, the audience has actually gone inside the head of a character to such an extent, it’s as if we’re part of the action and can hear that character’s thoughts.
That’s right, you’re not imagining things; someone on the TV really did just talk to you.
9. How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005 – 2014)
Many people cite Woody Allen as the quintessential wall-breaker, including Ted (Josh Radnor) in How I Met Your Mother.
The episode “History vs. Mystery” sees him talking to Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) about how people have been ripping off Allen’s fourth wall technique for decades, when Robin (Cobie Smulders) looks at “us” and says, “Can you believe this guy?”
Just. Like. Woody.
10. 30 Rock (NBC, 2006 – 2013)
SNL alumnus Tina Fey‘s sitcom about the making of a Saturday night TV show is already self-referential enough, but her character Liz Lemon and Liz’s boss Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) blur the line between truth and fiction even further when it comes to their use of product placement.
11. Secret Diary of a Call Girl (ITV/Showtime, 2007 – 2014)
At first Belle (Billie Piper) seems to be a straightforward narrator, explaining in a voiceover how she works as a prostitute. That all changes, however, when she speaks directly to us on camera:
As well as demonstrating how in control Belle is, the device also highlights her relative isolation due to her lifestyle. The audience, in the end, became her confidant: the only ones who knew about both sides of her existence.
12. Community (NBC, 2009 – 2015)
TV nerd Abed (Danny Pudi) often suggests he knows something the rest of the cast don’t, with frequent mentions of TV tropes and this aside to camera about the likelihood of asteroids destroying all human civilization.
13. Modern Family (ABC, 2009 -)
Shot in a loose, documentary style, characters in Modern Family give frequent asides and reality show-style confessional interviews. The difference being that they’re not talking to anyone except us, the viewers.
14. Miranda (BBC, 2009 – 2015)
Miranda Hart plays a 30-something socially inept woman who finds herself in awkward situations with only the TV audience for comfort. Apart from beginning each episode with a direct address to the audience from the sofa of her living room (“Onwards with the show, my chums!”), she regularly catches the eye of the camera during the scene, the only character permitted to do so:
…until her mother and best friend and eventually just about everyone get in on the wall-breaking action, that is.
15. House of Cards (Netflix, 2013 – )
And how about this for a creepy video: Every time Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) looks to camera in season one of political thriller House of Cards.
At the start of the very first episode, Frank welcomes us to Washington, with every monologue to camera making us more complicit in his elaborate plan. Sometimes he’ll tell the audience what he thinks a character is going to do or say, and then when he’s right, he’ll look right at us and smirk—just as his British counterpart Francis Urquhart (played with exquisite ruthlessness by Ian Richardson) does in the original BBC series.
…proof, if proof were needed, that breaking the fourth wall is not just played for laughs.Read More