In the world of television, meta refers to a show that refers to itself, either explicitly through breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience or implicitly through vague references to the fact that the characters are on a TV show. Here are our 20 favorite shows that feature meta content.
Nathan Fillion loves filling his new show with tiny references to his previous show, Firefly, and while dressing up in his old character’s outfit was great, my personal favorite was when Richard Castle revealed that he speaks Chinese and learned it from watching his favorite TV show, a nod to the fact that characters on Firefly frequently spoke a little Chinese.
The show opened season 2 with Jacob Ben Israel filming the glee club and using it as an excuse to comment on the show as he pointed out that fans on his blog complained about the club’s song selection and Will’s rapping, two issues real fans had.
#18 Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy had many subtle nods to fans, but none was more enjoyable than the big musical episode when Buffy said, “Dawn’s in trouble, must be Tuesday,” a hilarious comment on the day the series aired and the fact that fans were growing tired of the slayer’s little sister always getting into harm’s way.
#17 Cougar Town
The show stopped being about cougars early in the first season, but the writers were stuck with the title, so they turned it into a game and had changing title cards that openly mocked the fact that the title has nothing to do with the show’s premise anymore.
#16 Cop Rock
This epic bomb of a show ended with two characters talking about how the show was canceled before breaking into one final number where the fat lady literally sang as the cast and crew joined together to say goodbye and go out with a meta-bang.
After fans were less-than-pleased with the complicated third season, the show started fresh for season 4, even having Weiss tell Vaughn “Last year sucked.” It certainly did.
#14 Sports Night
In the finale, the network was purchased by a mysterious man who told the show-within-a-show’s producer, “It’s a good show, Dana. Anyone who can’t make money off Sports Night should get out of the moneymaking business.” It’s obvious this was creator Aaron Sorkin’s final dig at the network that canceled his brilliant and critically-beloved show.
#13 ‘Til Death
In the fourth season, one of the main characters began suspecting his life was a sitcom, even commenting on the fact that his wife is constantly being replaced by different actresses. In reality, it was a sitcom and one of the main characters was switched out on a regular basis.
#12 Veronica Mars
Clarence: “It’s a done deal.”
That bit of dialogue in the season 2 finale referred to Duncan calling Clarence Wiedman to confirm that he’d killed Aaron Echolls, but on a meta level, it was all about speculation about whether the newly-created network the CW would pick up Veronica Mars for a third season, which it did.
#11 Northern Exposure
Northern Exposure was always a quirky show with constant pop culture references, but the meta-ness of it all was never so apparent as in the second season episode, “War and Peace.” When a chess game between Maurice and a visiting Russian escalates beyond reason, the two men find themselves meeting for a snowy duel to the death. No easy solution seems possible, until suddenly and abruptly, Dr. Fleischman puts a stop to the nonsense. Citing the program’s “sophisticated” audience, he points out that the whole duel situation is far-fetched and unworkable. Fleischman is criticized for breaking the fourth wall, but the other characters eventually go along with the idea. A short discussion of plot points brings the decision to just skip to a good bar scene later in the script.
#10 The O.C.
Summer’s favorite TV show was The Valley, which had storylines and exaggerated melodrama that mimicked the show itself, using it as a way of addressing any bad plotlines or annoying characters.
The entire season 3 episode “Expose” was a brilliant piece of meta comedy where the show addressed concerns about new characters Nikki and Paulo, the ridiculousness of the notion that they were on the Island all along but we never saw them, and the hatred of them by having them get buried alive.
#8 30 Rock
Since it’s set at NBC, this show loves poking fun at itself and the network, but nowhere was it more obvious than when Jack Donaghey ended an episode by saying, “And now, The Jay Leno Show.”
#7 Boston Legal
Though it started as a drama, creator David E. Kelley decided to liven things up by breaking the fourth wall, going as far as having Denny Crane cue the theme music in one episode after telling new characters, “Welcome to Boston Legal.”
Abed is, without a doubt, the most meta character in the history of TV. He constantly refers to his life as a sitcom, points out when the group is using a TV cliche and lives his entire life as though it were a TV show, which it actually is.
#5 It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
This show was pure meta as the main character knew he was on a sitcom, made references to the audience and often involved them in the plots of the fictional characters on the show.
#4 Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
The show tried something very different when it featured an entire episode where an earthquake in Los Angeles left Kevin Sorbo missing, causing the writers and producers to scramble to find him. Actors played all of the people behind-the-scenes of the show in an episode that was entirely outside-the-box.
Creator Glenn Gordon Caron helped invent the genre of dramedy with this hour-long show that consistently broke the fourth wall, made references to the script and basically redefined what modern scripted television could be. Nearly all meta television that followed owes a huge debt of gratitude to this groundbreaking series.
#2 Arrested Development
In the final season, Arrested Development pulled out all the stops with an episode called “S.O.B.s” all about the family trying to make money to stay in business, a commentary on the show’s desperation to stay on the air. It featured jokes about possibly moving to HBO or Showtime and an overt plug for fans to tell their friends about the show.
The show became very meta when it introduced a series of books called Supernatural based on the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, and added to it when it featured a fan convention for Supernatural lovers in one episode. But now the show jumps the meta shark with Sam and Dean being transported to an alternate universe where they are actors named Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles who star on a TV show called Supernatural.