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‘Arrested,’ ‘Gilmore’ bend the fourth wall

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/ Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Brian Bellmont

Waitwaitwaitwait. Hold everything. Did we just see Henry Winkler, who plays an incompetent lawyer on Fox’s “Arrested Development,” make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to The Fonz, his iconic character from “Happy Days”?

Yes, yes, we did. During a scene set in a bathroom, Winkler’s Barry Zuckerkorn character stops to look in the mirror, then pauses, Fonzie-style, and holds up his hands as if to say “Why bother?” Aaaay.

It’s a mini-trend. More and more, TV writers are referring to other television shows and movies, particularly shows the actors have been on before. When done well, these sly winks at viewers reward longtime entertainment fans with a satisfying little nugget of nostalgia.

On stage, or in movies or TV, when a character stops, pulls himself out of the action and directly addresses viewers, it’s called “breaking the fourth wall,” a reference to the imaginary barrier that separates the actors from the audience.

Today, an effective comedic weapon in many writers’ arsenals is a variation on breaking the fourth wall — the self-referential wink. Characters don’t go as far as addressing the audience, but they say or do something that pays homage to television itself, witty nods that tell the viewer, “Hey, we know you’re watching a TV show.” Call it bending the fourth wall — pushing up against the convention without actually going all the way.

The groundbreaking late-1980s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” for instance, was practically one long self-reference, starting with the postmodern theme song: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry's show; Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song.”

Sometimes, a show will cram in a self-referential punch in the face instead of slyly working it in, and that’s the equivalent of being smacked over the head with a cricket bat. It might get your attention, but it’s not very pleasant. In last month’s “Growing Pains” TV-movie, one character said to another, “Mike, haven’t you learned anything after 166 episodes?” Why didn’t Alan Thicke just grab the camera lens, stick his face in it and wink?

Bending, not breakingThere’s a less obvious way of incorporating these references, and the shows that do it best slip them in so quickly and sharply, they barely register. By the time the audience realizes what hit them, they’re scrambling for their TiVo remote to replay the scene again and again. The most rewarding is when a show slides right up to the edge of breaking the fourth wall — without smashing through. For TVholics, that’s the Holy Grail.

In the annals of TV, one show stands out as the top winker of all time. “St. Elsewhere,” the quirky hospital drama that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988, peppered its scripts with fourth-wall bending nuggets that many grateful viewers recall even more fondly than the compelling plotlines or richly drawn characters.

An ongoing subplot featured a man who was convinced he was Mary Richards from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” When “Mary” ran into guest-star Betty White, who was playing a hard-edged military officer, he recognized her as Sue Ann Nivens, the character White played on “MTM.” White’s character, of course, thought he was nuts.

One of the most fun was when two actors from “The White Shadow” — another of “St. Elsewhere” executive producer Bruce Paltrow’s creations — met in the hospital’s hallway, and only one character had any memory of their time together on the basketball court.

Cartoons get into the act, too. “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” feature more meta-references than just about any other show on TV. And “Sealab 2021’s” Marco Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar Diego Garcia Marquez, played by Erik Estrada, routinely references his former Ponch-tastic life by singing the “CHiPs” theme song or donning a highway-patrol helmet.

Even “The A-Team” gave a nod to its roots, when, while on a film set, Face (Dirk Benedict) did a double-take at a guy dressed like a Cylon — Benedict’s metallic archenemy on his earlier series, “Battlestar Galactica.”

One of the most memorable acknowledgements of an actor’s TV past came in the series finale of “Newhart”  held up by many as the . Bob Newhart, after playing innkeeper Dick Loudon for eight seasons, wakes up in a familiar-looking bedroom that turns out to be the set of his former program, “The Bob Newhart Show.” In bed with him isn’t Loudon’s wife Joanna, but Bob Hartley’s wife Emily, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Bob describes his “weird dream” of owning an inn in Vermont and wearing sweaters all the time.

‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’As time marches on, the deepening well of TV past must seem irresistible to writers. Most of today’s TV scribes grew up watching television, and it’s one of their most vivid frames of reference.

On today’s TV schedule, two shows do it better than anybody else. “Arrested Development” and “Gilmore Girls” are notable for knowing winks that reward longtime TV viewers.

“Gilmore Girls” has rewarded careful viewers with several fabulous in-jokes throughout its run — subtly intertwining the actors and the characters they play in a delicate little dance.

The most memorable was a reference that popped up during the show’s second season. Lorelai, watching her daughter Rory at a dance lesson, quipped, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” a reference to the classic line uttered by “Dirty Dancing’s” Patrick Swayze. Funny on its own? Sure. But what made it extra special was that Kelly Bishop, who plays Lorelai’s mother on the show, also played Baby’s mother in “Dirty Dancing.”

“‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’ is one of the best lines ever uttered on screen, because it’s insane,” “Gilmore” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino told MSNBC.com. “It was just sitting there, and we took it. That was as close as we’ve ever gotten (to breaking the fourth wall). But it was so worth it. Because, seriously, nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

Only in its infancy, FOX's Emmy-winner “Arrested Development” (second season premieres Nov. 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET) has already woven in several memorable fourth-wall-bending moments. Henry Winkler pulling a Fonzie in the bathroom mirror? Already a classic.

But there’s an even better one, from the middle of the first season: After publicist Jessie makes fun of George Michael’s goody-goody ways by calling him “Opie,” narrator Ron Howard dryly comments on what’s going on in the scene, saying, “Jessie had gone too far…” But then he adds, “…and had best watch her mouth,” referring to the jab she just took at Howard’s former TV persona. The fourth wall bends ever so slightly. And perfectly.

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Aaaay.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis.