Television is an ever-evolving medium that is constantly trying new things to keep viewers at home engaged and excited. Television has become almost cinematic in the last two decades or so in the way it is produced. Budgets have become bigger, production value has increased, and the writing continues to get more creative. Starring in a TV show used to be a stepping stone on the path to movie stardom, and now movie stars are more frequently taking on television projects in between their movie roles. It’s a constantly changing art form that continues to break boundaries and captivate viewers through intelligent storytelling.
A component of television that makes shows attractive to viewers is the ability to get truly creative and explore that creativity over multiple episodes and seasons. People love catching Easter eggs and references to pop culture in their favorite TV series because it makes the TV-watching experience more immersive and exciting. It makes us feel like we are in on the joke or the secret with the characters.
Since there are endless possibilities for including Easter eggs and references given the episodic format of a series, the medium has a tendency to push the meta boundaries and make the audience question the reality of what they are watching. That can be irritating at times, but it can also make for great television that is talked about for years to come. There is a surprising amount of self-aware television shows out there, so here are 11 of the most meta TV shows ever made:
Community presents itself as a quirky sitcom about a suspended lawyer who is sent to community college when it is discovered that he never actually earned his bachelor’s degree. In an attempt to get to know one of his classmates, he forms a Spanish study group that ends up attracting the attention of a larger-than-anticipated group that eventually forms a tight-knit community.
The show quickly gets meta after that with self-aware dialogue about the show and characters referencing the fact that they’re in a “bottle” episode. A lot of the meta elements of the show stem from Abed’s (Danny Pudi) vast knowledge of TV and movies and his habit of turning everything that happens to the group into something out of pop culture. He even directs a show titled The Community College Chronicles, so he can use his extensive knowledge of television to guess what will happen to the group before it happens.
The show also frequently explored other genres and even had animated episodes mixed in. Some episodes of the six seasons were entirely made to pay homage to other films and television shows, such as Goodfellas. There’s even an episode where the characters walk through a valley of singing plants, and it is stated that it won’t be expensive to walk through the valley because the songs the plants are singing are in the public domain.
10 Seinfeld (1989-1998)
Right off the bat, Seinfeld is completely self-aware. Jerry Seinfeld played a fictionalized version of himself that was a stand-up comedian exactly like he was in real life. That alone left plenty of room for comedic moments based on the meta nature of the show, but then season four kicked it up a notch. Season four revolves around Jerry and George producing a sitcom called Jerry, which is obviously a direct reference to the show they are actually on. Earlier moments from the show were recycled to be added to this faux show, just as creator Larry David did with Jerry Seinfeld in real life.
The show has also been critiqued for being “a show about nothing,” which is exactly how Jerry and George pitch their show to executives at NBC, which is also the network that Seinfeld originally aired on.
9 30 Rock (2006-2013)
Tina Fey’s 30 Rock is a behind-the-scenes look at what occurs when trying to run a successful sketch comedy show. The show also stars Fey as Liz Lemon, the head writer of the sketch comedy show TGS with Tracy Jordan who must deal with a conceited new boss and an outrageous new star without losing her cool. Given Fey’s background on the real-life sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live as both a star and a writer, her character is a reference to herself and life working on a live comedy show. Plus, Fey’s real name is Elizabeth, and Liz is a commonly used nickname for that name. Also, Tracy Jordan is an exaggerated caricature of actor Tracy Morgan, who plays the character.
The show is even more meta than those surface examples. NBC aired the show originally, and it is constantly referenced throughout the series. There is even a major storyline that sees NBC being sold to a company called Kabletown, which is almost certainly in reference to NBC being sold to Comcast in 2011. Even the name of the show refers to NBC as the street address of the network’s headquarters is 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Every episode of this show is meta in one way or another, so you may just want to watch the show to catch every Easter egg.
8 Family Guy (1999- Present)
Considering that the show has been on the air for 24 years, it is not surprising that this animated comedy is full of self-aware and fourth-wall-breaking moments. Family Guy particularly likes to acknowledge the fact that they are in a cartoon and the show will actually refer to itself as one. Sometimes characters will be caught doing strange or disturbing things, and they will directly address the audience by questioning why anyone is paying attention since it’s a cartoon. Peter and Stewie will even tell the viewers at home what kind of episode it’s going to be or who an episode is going to focus on. Coming from the talented, bizarre mind of Seth MacFarlane, there’s no questioning why this show is as self-referential as it is.
7 Rick and Morty (2013- Present)
What started out as a show very loosely based on the premise of Back to the Future quickly expanded into a full dismantling of the entire main family on the show. The co-creator of Rick and Morty, Dan Harmon, also created the aforementioned sitcom Community, so it is not unusual that this show is also dedicated to the self-aware model of storytelling. It indulges in humor that tests the limits of being meta, and the show is never shies away from addressing itself and getting critical about it.
6 Saved by the Bell (1989-1992)
Whether you grew up in the ’90s or not, you have most likely seen an episode of Saved by the Bell. It’s a classic teen sitcom that people still look back fondly at today. The show was so popular that it spawned two TV movies and two spinoff series, one that followed the characters to college and one that followed a new set of students at Bayside High. The show taught a lot of valuable life lessons to young people, but it was also completely self-aware. Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) served as the show’s narrator, and would frequently call “time-outs” to explain to the audience what was really going on. Zack wouldn’t just break the fourth wall by talking to the audience, he would actually stop time for the other characters while he moved around and talked directly to us. It’s a bit strange to think about now, but the constant fourth wall breaks made for entertaining television.
5 Episodes (2011-2017)
Just as movies about movies are inherently self-referential, so are shows about shows. The concept of making movies about movies or shows about shows is already an intriguing idea for moviegoers and TV fans, and the self-aware aspect is just an added bonus. In the Showtime series Episodes, two married British television writers and producers named Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) are enjoying success thanks to their hit TV show. Their lives are upended when a Hollywood network executive convinces them to make an American remake of their show.
Episodes stars Friends actor Matt LeBlanc as Friends actor Matt LeBlanc. He plays a heightened, fictionalized version of himself when the studio recasts him as the lead actor in the Lincolns’ show, which was renamed to Pucks! for the American audience. The show is meta from the get-go because of this, but it also pokes fun at Hollywood and the process of running a successful television show with studio executives breathing down show runners’ necks and actors being difficult. Episodes gets even more meta when the three of them decide to make a show about their experiences while making Pucks!
4 Moonlighting (1985-1989)
Before he was a Hollywood action star, Bruce Willis was David Addison Jr., a wise-cracking detective on the hit show Moonlighting. Also starring Cybil Shepard as former model Maddie Hayes, the show centered around David and Maddie as they manage a private detective firm after she was left nearly penniless after being swindled by an investment advisor. The show heavily leaned into the will-they-won’t-they aspect of their partnership, but the show also saw the two handle many quirky cases and go on a series of misadventures throughout the five seasons.
The show was a melting pot of different genres, mixing drama with comedy, mystery, and romance on a whim. It was constantly breaking the fourth wall by having the characters reference themselves as characters on a TV show. There was even an instance where they walk off the set into the studio parking lot, but continue to act in character as if the characters are the actors’ true personalities. During the production of the series, there were some delays and scheduling inconsistencies due to some behind-the-scenes issues, which were then promptly referenced in the show. The series finale of the show even saw Maddie and David struggle to accept that Moonlighting was over.
3 Arrested Development (2003-2019)
The beloved sitcom Arrested Development was famously canceled in 2006 after only three seasons before being brought back to life in 2013 by Netflix. The show then took another break between seasons, with the fifth and final season airing from 2018 to 2019 on the streamer. The show pioneered a new standard for sitcoms with its overlapping storylines and its ability to manage a large cast of extremely different characters.
The mockumentary style of filming allowed the show to make fun of itself while also continuously referencing the network (or streamer) it was airing on. Arrested Development made numerous references to the actors’ previous roles and also had actor/director Ron Howard narrate the show to the viewers, who was the executive producer of the show. He even guest-starred in the later seasons as a fictionalized version of himself.
2 She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022)
Despite the mixed reception and the undeserved hate it gets, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law was exactly what it was always supposed to be; a comedy about a 30-something woman navigating her personal and professional lives, with the added struggle of obtaining superpowers that turned her into a giant Hulk. The show was always meant to be funny, and not taken too seriously. The show managed to address a lot of issues that women struggle with on a daily basis without losing its sense of humor. Considering that it is an official MCU project that directly ties in with the main MCU timeline, it is also very meta.
She-Hulk takes place in a society where superheroes are commonplace and superpowers are no longer a novelty. It shows fans what life is like for the average citizen living in the world of the MCU. Just as her comic book counterpart is aware that she is in a comic, her television counterpart is completely aware she is in a television show. Jennifer Walters a.k.a She-Hulk (Tatiana Maslany) breaks the fourth wall in every single episode to address the audience and explain whichever shenanigan she’s currently handling.
Anyone who watched the show experienced a moment where they genuinely thought their Disney+ account was acting up during the finale when we are brought to the home screen. This turned out to be Jennifer crawling out of her own title card and finding her way to Marvel Studios, so she could discuss her finale with K.E.V.I.N, the robot that decides the outcome of every MCU project. Not only is that entire scene ridiculously meta, but even the robot is an alternate version of Kevin Feige himself.
1 Supernatural (2005-2020)
Out of all the shows on this list, Supernatural may be the most meta of all of them. Taking place over the course of 15 seasons spanning 15 years, the writers had ample time and space to get as creatively self-aware as the network would allow. Supernatural was so hyper-aware of its own existence even in the earlier seasons. In the season five episode “Changing Channels” the Trickster sends Sam and Dean to an alternate universe where they have to live through a variety of different TV shows and commercials, including a sitcom about their lives. Before that episode, it was revealed in season four that an entire series of Supernatural books had been written about the brothers’ lives by a prophet named Chuck, who we learned much later on was actually God writing every minute of the boys’ lives.
The show saw the boys be subjected to fan conventions that mirrored real-life conventions for the show, a high school production of a musical based on their lives, and even an episode where the brothers are sent to the animated world of Scooby-Doo. Not only that, but one of the most iconic episodes of the show had Sam and Dean sent to an alternate reality where their lives were a TV show called Supernatural, and Sam and Dean had to play Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Castiel’s actor Misha Collins even live-tweeted the episode as the fictionalized version of himself. There are so many chaotically meta moments that break the fourth wall in this show that it would need an entire article dedicated to detailing each instance.