A Video Essay By James McArthur
This video essay explores the theatrical device of direct address within television narratives. Television shows are usually constructed to create a fictional yet realistic world, following a constructed story world that the filmmakers have created. In general, television has specific formal rules in place that should never be broken within fictional naturalistic narratives. Within fictional naturalistic narratives, characters are supposed to be unaware of the presence of the audience or the camera itself. There is not supposed to be a camera within their fictional world. Direct address breaks televisual rules. If direct address breaks the rules, then the question is raised “Why use direct address within television narratives?” The answer to this question is that direct address is a powerful theatrical convention that creates a relationship between the character of a narrative and the viewer. By using direct address, the filmmakers make a deliberate decision to involve the audience into the world of the narrative. Within this statement and video essay, three television shows will be examined in terms of their use of direct address. These three shows are The Office, House of Cards, and Malcolm in the Middle. Each of these shows use direct address as a powerful convention to form a relationship with their viewers.
Three shows were analyzed in terms of their use of direct address within television. These shows were The Office, House of Cards, and Malcolm in the Middle. The Office is a mockumentary. House of Cards is a political drama. Malcolm in the Middle is a family sitcom. In order to form this video essay, other scholarly sources were needed to form a foundation in understanding the use of direct address within television and these specific shows.
Direct address has been used for a variety of reasons in the realm of television. A notable example of direct address can be found within the mockumentary genre of television such as The Office. A mockumentary is a motion picture or television program that takes the form of a serious documentary in order to satirize its subject. According to Jane Harkness, "These shows function as intersections between the real and the unreal as they effectively parody documentaries. They play with the boundary between fact and fiction by looking and feeling real, but occasionally flagging themselves as fictional. They are also wildly successful" (Jane Harkness). Shows that fall within the mockumentary genre often use direct address to make the fictional world feel real. Within the mockumentary genre, documentary crews are in this fictional world and present the characters as real. Mockumentaries differ from other genres such as dramas and family sitcoms because they use the documentary mode of production. The documentary crew functions within the fictional world and is an additional layer between the characters and the viewers.
Malcolm in the Middle is a family sitcom that also utilizes direct address. Malcolm in the Middle was a popular family sitcom in the early 2000s. Malcolm in the Middle received critical acclaim even though it used the unconventional use of direct address through the main character of Malcolm. Direct address is arguably used the most within the comedy genre. It is often used to make a joke. In Malcolm in the Middle, direct address replaces the traditional laugh track. Direct address is also used within Malcolm in the Middle to place the show within the real world and make Malcolm a relatable character to the viewers. According to Matt Crowley, "Unlike most sitcoms at the time, Malcolm In The Middle was filmed in the now-ubiquitous single-camera style — allowing for more intense and uncomfortably funny moments without the relief of a laugh track" (Matt Crowley). A key element of Malcolm in the Middle is its humor. Direct address allows the audience to be in the space with Malcolm and highlighted moments of humor for the audience.
House of Cards is a political drama that utilizes direct address. House of Cards received positive reviews and several award nominations even though it used the unconventional theatrical condition of direct address. The show is set in Washington D.C. and is the story of a congressman Frank Underwood. Frank Underwood is the main character of the show and directly addresses the audience. Within House of Cards, direct address is used to allow the audience to understand the thoughts and methodologies of Frank Underwood. Through the use of direct address, Frank Underwood invites the audience into his world. Frank Underwood as a character consistently lies and deceives other characters within his world. However, with the audience, Frank Underwood is honest and truthful to the audience.