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Television and I have a sordid history. Mostly I don’t like it. I’ve got nothing against the devices themselves—they’re pretty cool, especially for, you know, watching movies and Bones on DVD. But I don’t have cable, and the only things I ever watch live are sports.
Of course, sports broadcasts are great times for commercials for televisions and cable companies; because everyone knows that all sports fans HAVE to giant televisions and 24-hour access to every sports channel ever. I’ve noticed a lot more lately than I have in the past, and at least two that I’ve seen utilize meta structural elements to try and sell equipment or services.
First are the television commercials for televisions. The most recent one I’ve seen was for Best Buy. I couldn’t find it uploaded anywhere (and I don’t know why anyone would want to upload it anyway), but it features a family watching a movie in a Best Buy store, and the employee or narrator saying that with this particular ginormous 1,000 inch high definition super TV you weren’t just watching the movie, you were a part of it!
With a commercial like this, you can’t help but think about the fact that you’re watching TV. The makers of said commercial are also probably hoping you look at the TV in the commercial, and at the awe on the viewers’ faces, and then look at your own TV, and then feel like your TV is woefully inadequate, and then rush to Best Buy to buy a new television.
During the Olympics, which I had to watch online because the only thing I really cared about was hockey and that was the only thing NBC didn’t broadcast (why the hell would you pick speed skating over a Team USA versus Team Canada hockey game?!). About every five minutes they would play the same three Direct TV commercials, which went something like this:
“Don’t panic! This is your TV. I unplugged your cable to show you something better. Blah blah blah blah blah. Plug me into the good stuff.” And then it would show the Direct TV logo and another similar commercial that said pretty much the same thing would start.
Those commercials aren’t quite as meta as the commercials for televisions, but they still make you think about the fact that you’re watching TV because suddenly your television is talking to you. Again the point is to make you think about your experience and hopefully make a new decision (in this case purchase Direct TV rather than regular cable).
Why, TV, Why?
I’ll be honest, I think these commercials are pretty stupid, no matter how meta they are or how much they make me think about my television experience. I rather suspect that the metafictional elements in these commercials don’t do much to sell televisions or cable plans—the most relevant and interesting information in the Direct TV commercials is all the nifty things you can do with the company, not your TV “talking” to you. These meta structural elements are nothing more than gimmicks.
In fiction and writing in general, if a section or even a sentence isn’t absolutely necessary, if it doesn’t move the plot or story along, it shouldn’t be there. Maybe commercials should follow the same formula. They’d probably be more effective and less annoying.
In this guest post, D.J. Swank examines why the directors of Lost opted for a ridiculously meta-episode.
ZUKERMAN. You know, you don’t need to die. We can bring you back next season.
NIKKI. Look, I’m just a guest star, and we all know what happens to guest stars.
The above dialogue is taken from a scene in the episode titled “Exposé” from Season Three of Lost. Even though there are less-formulaic episodes elsewhere in the series, “Exposé” is perhaps the most unconventional. “Exposé” features Nikki and Paulo (Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro), two characters only introduced in Season Three even though they are survivors of the crash who have been there all along; the plot of the episode contributes little to nothing to the season’s arc; the flashbacks feature some significant scenes from previous seasons with the new characters inserted somewhat obtrusively; and it is the one episode of the series in which the writers go out of their way to be meta.
Honestly, one must almost always go out of one’s way to be meta—it’s not often something that happens accidentally nor organically. What I mean is that this episode is simply the most meta. Other episodes feature characters (usually Hurley) taking on a sort of Greek chorus role and commenting on the action of the series itself and voicing or addressing questions the audience is no doubt wondering, but “Exposé” takes the meta-ness to another level.
The dialogue quoted earlier says a lot about both this episode in particular and the series as a whole. When Nikki says “we all know what happens to guest stars,” she is of course referring to her character’s demise on the fictional television series Exposé, but the audience knows this is indeed also a reference to Sanchez’s character’s demise on Lost. The writers use the device of the television series within the television series to comment on the very television series they are writing, and, more broadly, on television series in general—that’s meta.
Zukerman’s words—“we can bring you back next season”—ring especially true for Lost. In numerous Lost DVD episode commentaries you will hear the producers talk about how some characters appear far more after they’ve died than when they were alive, and “Exposé” is nothing less than a veritable cavalcade of dead characters. Guest star credits in this episode include Ian Somerhalder (Boone), Maggie Grace (Shannon), William Mapother (Ethan), and Daniel Roebuck (Arzt), all of whom play characters that died in previous seasons. Even though using dead characters in flashbacks and dream sequences is a staple of Lost and by no means unusual, the appearance of these four characters in “Exposé” is made significant by Zukerman’s words. Their presence contributes nothing to the plot or the arc or the story, but serves primarily to illustrate what Zukerman said at the beginning of the episode, to remind the audience that he wasn’t just talking about Exposé, he was talking about Lost, too.
There is one other aspect of this episode worth mentioning, and though it is a bit of a stretch, I think it just may be meta enough to warrant discussion. I can claim no ownership of this idea because it was posited by a good friend of mine with whom I watch Lost, though I will leave it to him to post a comment if he wishes to take credit. Yet another guest star of “Exposé” is none other than Billy Dee Williams, the only actor in the series ever to play himself, which in this meta-heavy episode is certainly a calculated move to use a recognizable figure to draw even more attention to the fact that this is an actor playing a role on a television show. Now here comes the stretch: Billy Dee Williams is best known for his role in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the latter of which has been modified so that Hayden Christensen appears as Anakin Skywalker at the end of the film, much to the chagrin of Star Wars fans everywhere. It is no mean coincidence, then, that the makers of “Exposé” chose to pull a George Lucas and superimpose Nikki and Paulo into scenes from previous seasons in the same episode that features the man forever to be remembered as Lando Calrissian. The nod is subtle, but it is a nod nonetheless, and it serves to reinforce the fictionality of the story by revealing how the story changes as it progresses, and how the story is not only written but subject to being rewritten should the writers or producers see fit.
In the DVD commentary for “Exposé,” one of the writers states that Nikki and Paulo were partly an effort by the Lost creative team to address fans’ curiosity regarding the rest of the forty-two survivors who aren’t featured as regular characters (and after Nikki and Paulo were introduced, fans immediately cried “Who cares about them? We want more Jack and Kate!”). Therefore, “Exposé” may be considered as a sort of treat for the fans—a little break from the action to show how the producers are listening to what the fans want, or just something fun to provide a little levity from all the kidnappings, torturings, and deep moral/ethical/philosophical issues that are addressed in the series. It’s an unconventional episode, and it’s not necessarily among the best of the season, even, but it’s an admirable effort by a smart group of writers who respect what they do and for whom they do it.