Metafiction (metəˌfikSHən)–Noun: Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (especially naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.
-From the Oxford English Dictionary
Meta Fiction (“meta” meaning “beyond”) is when a story (or movie or television show) comments upon another piece of fiction or upon its own fictionalism.
-From TV Tropes
The basic idea of metafiction is the acknowledgment by what you are viewing that you are viewing it, and it is fictional. In nerd culture, especially with TV shows, it’s often an acknowledgment of its own fan-base. Metahumor would be making jokes about the show, its fans, or the genre in general. Often, we are most satisfied with metafiction when we “get it”; it makes us feel that we are in on the joke. We are rewarded for our loyalty as fans.
There’s plenty of metafiction out there in TV land, but he’s a round-up of my five favorite metafictional episodes from nerdy TV:
5. Castle: The Final Frontier
Castle: I’m a fan of good sci-fi. Star Trek. Battlestar. That Joss Whedon show.
The producers of Castle have not been stupid–they knew the show’s success would hinge on Nathan Fillion’s popularity, so plenty of fan service has been provided over the years. The first episode I ever watched was “Vampire Weekend”, the Halloween episode which opened with Castle dressed as a “Space Cowboy”, prompting his daughter to beg him to “move on”.
An even better example of fan-service and meta-humor is the episode “The Final Frontier”, where Castle and Beckett investigate a murder at a sci-fi convention, where metafiction abounds: Beckett is a secret fan of a prematurely cancelled cult-favorite TV show, Castle says, “Shiny”, his daughter cosplays, etc. Plus, “Final Frontier” is directed by none other than Johnathan Frakes, AKA Commander William Ryker, who makes a cameo as an obsessed fan, and makes even the title of the episode metafictional.
4. Buffy: Normal Again
Xander: Oh, come on, that’s ridiculous! What? You think this isn’t real just because of all the vampires and demons and ex-vengeance demons and the sister that used to be a big ball of universe-destroying energy?
I almost went with “The Zeppo”, a much earlier episode which has Xander running around “behind the scenes”, dealing with a minor zombie issue while the rest of the cast handles the usual melodramatic situation. But “Normal Again” is a more metafictional piece, and I needed to include it instead.
Season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more postmodern than any other, and nothing is more meta-heavy than “Normal Again”. Joss Whedon called it “the ultimate postmodern look at the concept of a writer writing a show.”
When Buffy is stabbed by a strange demon, she starts imagining that her whole world is a figment of her deranged mind. The episode deals with the inconsistencies of the show and, like “Once More With Feeling”, the struggles with the show moving on after Buffy battled a god, died, and was resurrected. As the doctor treating her says,”Buffy, you used to create these grand villains to battle against, and now what is it? Just ordinary students you went to high school with. No gods or monsters… just three pathetic little men… who like playing with toys.”
The show ends on a creepy note as well; we are left to our own devices on which of Buffy’s worlds is the true one.
3. Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: Loser Generated Content
Unlike the other episodes in this list, “Loser Generated Content” doesn’t comment on the show or characters. Instead, it breaks the fourth wall with brilliant use of editing. When the AV Club at Crowley high gets The Book, the gloriously slaughter people with ingenious screen-wipes, split-screens, scene-cutting, etc.
For an obscure television show from a Canadian network, I don’t imagine they had much of a budget to work with. Whatever they had they probably spent on this episode and the musical.
2. Avatar: The Ember Island Players
“The Ember Island Players” is a perfect penultimate episode, recapping the entire series in an entertaining way, and setting the stage for the finale to come. The characters watch themselves being portrayed (often inaccurately) by actors in a play, running through all of their previous adventures.
It’s meta for two reasons: One is just the evaluation of the characters’ depictions. Aang is upset that he is being played by a perky young actress, while Toph is overjoyed by the massive man playing her. Secondly, the episode comments on fan’s evaluation of the show: it skips “The Great Divide” entirely, the show’s lowest rated (and worst) episode. The audience falls asleep during “The Drill”, which was considered by most fans to be a boring sequence. Katara and Zuko are heavily implied to have a relationship, etc…
1. Supernatural: The French Mistake
Sam: For whatever reason, our life is a TV show.
Sam: I don’t know.
Dean: No, seriously. Why? Why would anybody want to watch our lives?
Sam: Well, according to the interviewer, not very many people do. Look, I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m just saying we – we’ve landed in some dimension where you’re Jensen Ackles, and I’m something called a “Jared Padalecki.”
Dean: So what, now you’re Polish? Does any of this make any sense to you?
The one and only. For a show that’s provided us with more meta-humor than any other (“Oh come on, don’t they know we’re brothers? That’s just sick!”), nothing tops “The French Mistake” for pure ludicrous metafiction. Having your protagonists come into “the real world” is a concept so stupid and absurd it could only have worked on Supernatural, because no other show is as defined by its fan-base, besides maybe My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic. It’s one thing to have commentary on the show and the characters. It’s another thing altogether to make fun of the actors, audience, and entire production.
The only thing more outrageous than the fact that they tried this at all is that it actually works. From the moment they jump through the glass and land on a pad in a TV studio, to Misha Collins live-tweeting the entire time, to Dean watching himself act in a soap-opera, to Sam and Dean trying to act as Sam and Dean, every moment is perfect.