All artists are a little conceited. It’s this ability that allows for genres like Movies About Making Movies or Books About Getting an MFA. But if you want to know the status of a certain medium, the people working in the thick of it are the best source. And if artists in that medium are especially eager to reflect on it, then something must be on everyone’s minds. Which is why it’s so remarkable that 2022 became the year of TV Talking About TV.
Television commenting on and critiquing the medium is nothing new. 30 Rock aired 15 years ago and is one of the best sitcoms ever made, on top of being an absurdist critique of the media industry. Before that there was the meta-heavy It’s Garry Shandling’s Show from 1986 and the foundational Dick Van Dyke Show from 1961. Plus, any wacky show can’t help but throw in a meta episode or two (Supernatural had dozens of fourth-wall breaking episodes, including one where the actors play themselves on the set of the show). But this year saw a multitude of shows not just about TV but about this specific, post-Netflix, content-crazy moment. From Barry to She-Hulk, the current state of TV is being heavily critiqued by the people making it.
One of the immediate themes in this current roster of meta-TV is a desire to reject form. Kevin Can F-k Himself Season 2 doubled down on the show’s criticism of the misogynistic and deceptive tropes propagated by the sitcom. Its finale was a literal destruction of the multicam form itself, relishing in the darker, uncertain future of a show without a fixed audience. And given recent statistics on the state of the TV sitcom, this rejection is in line with TV’s abandonment of the medium that episodic comedy was based on.
She-Hulk also leaned into its desire to literally break the expectations of its genre, specifically what people expect from a Disney+ MCU show. The character’s fourth-wall breaks were a constant reminder of the writers’ awareness of their own form, with references to tropes or the hype around cameo appearances. But the show’s biggest critique of its own medium came in the final episode, when She-Hulk confronted K.E.V.I.N., the all-knowing robot that controls the future of the MCU. It’s a playful reference to Marvel’s creative czar Kevin Feige, but also an acknowledgement of the algorithmic hold that plans out the future of the MCU for decades to come.
By leaning into one form (the problem-of-the-week comedy series), She-Hulk also brought its complaints against the dominating creative force in superhero media. The big CGI battle in the finale, the twist villain—it’s all a little played out. She-Hulk’s finale dares to ask: Isn’t TV possible of achieving more than what a corporation knows will work?
While Kevin Can F-k Himself and She-Hulk took more playful approaches to their meta-ness, this year also brought some of the most scathing critiques of Peak TV ever put to screen. King of these was Season 3 of Barry, which saw Sally Reed’s personal passion project—the TV show Joplin on the for-women streaming service Banshee—fall prey to the brutal knife of the all-knowing Algorithm. Barry has always made fun of the narcissism and absurdity in the entertainment industry, but the destruction of Sally, and Banshee’s corporate callousness to such a personal project, is the apex to its criticism. The Banshee storyline also made Barry one of the first shows in the streaming era to call out the streaming model by name. The fate of a series has always been at the whim of data, but modern day algorithms add a quick cruelty to the process. There was never a time in TV when a show could be canceled within 24hrs of airing because it wasn’t hitting the right “taste clusters.”
Hulu’s Reboot takes the perspective of a seasoned TV veteran with its criticisms of the current state of TV. The series about an early 2000s sitcom that gets a more serious revival at Hulu is filled with jokes and commentary that could only come from someone who’s spent decades in entertainment. Creator Steven Levithan (of Modern Family fame) makes frequent jabs at the bureaucratic nonsense of entertainment that has only become exacerbated by the streaming landscape. Many of these are best represented in the character of Elaine, a Silicon Valley data analyst who becomes a comedy executive despite not having familiarity with humor. Reboot’s main targets are the corporate mechanisms that lead to the rises and falls of successful shows, expressed with the playful bitterness of someone who’s seen dozens of entertainment juggernauts burn themselves into the ground, and yet is still standing.
But among the complaints against the current status quo of TV, many writers still found the bittersweet in the industry. In one of the best scenes from Barry Season 3, Sally breaks into sobs at the premiere of her TV show after learning her show has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just a number, but that praise represents finally being appreciated and seen by critics for something she put her heart and soul into. Of course, the high doesn’t last long, but those euphoric moments are rare.
Reboot also offers a joyful take on TV production and the magic of making art for the screen. Childish Zack takes Elaine on a joyride through the backlots, trying on costumes and enjoying the absurd wonder that fuels their business. Yes, entertainment is often subject to brutal cuts and broken dreams, but Reboot argues that there still is magic in the process. It’s a business made out of turning one person’s dream into an elaborate reality for everyone to share. Once you forget that, you lose the whole reason for getting into that mess of an industry.
So, why now? Why in 2022 are so many shows about television coming out? On one level, it’s a statistics game. Peak TV has created an overabundance of programming, so of course there are more shows of every type coming out. And for every show that does make it to air, there are several shows that never worked out, leading to a massive amount of writers who’ve seen the problems in our current TV moment.
But the meta TV of 2022 isn’t the same as it once was. It’s incredibly specific with targeted attacks against algorithms, tired tropes, and an unsustainable streaming landscape. These shows are desperately calling out to insiders and general audience members alike that there is something wrong and we need to be looking at the cracks.
This increase in critiques about TV on TV may signal a break is coming, that creatives have had enough with the way things are. But this break is more a desired outcome than a probable result. Every show that criticizes the current state of TV is still made in it and beholden to its problems, especially since TV is a serialized medium—if someone wants to keep telling their story they need to work within the system they know has faults.
And not all critiques have equal purpose. She-Hulk isn’t trying to change the formula for the MCU, it’s just arguing that more is possible when you have such a hold over pop culture. Kevin Can F-k Himself wants the audience to rethink the tropes they’ve accepted, not destroy the sitcom entirely. Reboot and Barry are more active in their desire for people to understand the absurdity of the situation, but the problems in streaming also add texture to the stories they’re telling. If everything was transparent and made sense, we couldn’t have Vanessa Bayer make incomprehensible noises!
2022’s meta TV shows are crying out against the status quo. The people who make these shows love the medium of TV. The current landscape is unsustainable—shows are being made, airing, and canceled before anyone knows they exist. There are more series airing now than ever before, and yet TV is harder to break into now than it was 20 years ago. The entertainment business has always been made of a combination of archaic nonsense and combustible chaos, but everything is more nonsensical than ever. Meta TV used to be tongue-in-cheek, now it often has the characteristics of gallows humor.
The best thing about 2022’s slate of meta shows is that they let the audience understand the bubbling anxiety felt by the people making TV. The creatives behind these shows aren’t just trying to draw attention to the fourth wall, they’re desperately trying to smash through and grab our attention. They know things are weird, they know that TV is becoming a stranger place that it already was. How this road of algorithms and content ends is unknown to everyone, even the people greenlighting the next legion of shows designed to target the taste clusters of everyone with $10.99 a month. The questions remain: Is anyone listening? And how much does it matter if we are?
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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