Speaking of queens, Starz is running a terrific new series about one of the more complex royals in European history. In “The Serpent Queen,” Samantha Morton, always so intense, plays Catherine de Medici, the 16th-century queen of France who is largely remembered for her villainy and her attachment to the occult.
One of the unusual features of the show has Morton’s Catherine turning to us on occasion, breaking the fourth wall in order to slyly comment on the action or simply shoot us a telling look. The series is reframing Catherine, to some extent, as a woman struggling to survive in a male-dominated time and place, and those direct, edgy asides bring us closer to her. They create an intimacy between the queen and the modern viewer, as if she knows the future will understand her behavior more thoroughly and sympathetically than her present.
It’s always a risk when a writer has characters break the fourth wall, looking into the camera and addressing the audience. The meta device can interrupt the storytelling spell by calling attention to the act of storytelling. Suddenly the viewers can become too aware of themselves and the artifice of the art form. When done well, though, and sparingly, wall-breaking can serve the narrative, as it does in “The Serpent Queen,” and as it has done for a few recent series. It is breaking good.
HBO’s “Gentleman Jack” — whose recent second season was its last — used wall-breaks in the same way, and often to the same effect. Suranne Jones’s Anne Lister is far ahead of her time, as a gender-fluid lesbian who is living as openly as she can in 1830s England. She makes little jokes to us indicating that she, like Catherine, is in league with the future and looking to it for sympathy. Because she knows the future will look on her with more favor, she is willing to bring us into an intimacy with her.
Anne also prides herself on her intelligence and self-awareness, and her contact with viewers is her way of showing off those qualities. She of all people is not going to pretend that there is no audience there. She is not going to act as if there is a wall where there is none. In the hands of Jones, it works smashingly, just as it does with Morton’s Catherine. Both of these historically significant women are emphasizing their brave refusal to abide by conventions — the conventions of their time, and even the conventions of storytelling.
The Brits seem to be more attached to the device as a dramatic tool; one of the most memorable uses was in the BBC’s 1990 “House of Cards,” later remade in the United States. It got a huge boost with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” in 2016, as the woman we only know as Fleabag makes acerbic observations to us throughout the series — perhaps because the first season of the show originated as a stage play, a medium that has a history of characters breaking the wall, or at least pushing against it in soliloquy style. The device works perfectly on the show, but in a different way than it does with Catherine and Anne.
For Fleabag, we were the audience she was always playing to, in order to keep at an arm’s length from herself. She was using her jokes to us — about sex, about the men she was involved with — to project superiority toward others in her life. Without knowing it, we were like a drug, helping this grieving and guilty woman dodge her complex emotional pain. At one point, she visits a confessional to talk to the priest, and the emotions that pour out of her put to shame her snarky fourth-wall confessions to the audience. At the very end of the series, as she has begun to re-embrace her life, she bids us farewell with one last wall-break, a poignant little wave. She’s done with being on the run.
We’re very accustomed to another kind of wall-breaking these days, thanks to the popularity of the mockumentary comedy format. Characters are continually looking at us and talking to us on shows such as “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family,” and, most recently, “Abbott Elementary.” They share their feelings and observations directly in their solo interviews, providing us with humorous counterpoints to the action we’ve just seen or are about to see. They act as talking heads regarding their own lives. On reality TV, which informs the rise and popularity of mockumentaries, these sequences are known as “confessionals.” Sometimes, a character — notably John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert on “The Office” — will break simply with a dry look at the camera, an amusing “Help me” or “Can you believe it?”
In comedy, wall-breaks are less chancy, since the spell being cast is usually looser than it is in drama. Our suspension of disbelief is often more tenuous going in. On “30 Rock,” which regularly toyed with formatting, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon would occasionally make a product placement joke, directly to us, in the show’s ongoing deconstruction of the world of TV entertainment. “Malcolm in the Middle,” too, was filled with Frankie Muniz’s Malcolm making comments and clarifications looking into the camera. Have you seen “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” from 1986 to 1990, in which all the characters — and especially Garry — are giddily aware that they’re in a sitcom, with a regular stream of comments to the live audience? Maybe it’s not even wall-breaking, because there’s barely a wall there in the first place.
The name of the show’s theme song? “This Is the Theme to Garry’s Show.”