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by Alison Willmore
February 5, 2013 12:07 PM
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Before 'House of Cards': 10 TV Characters Fond of Breaking the Fourth Wall

Everyone, "Modern Family" (2009–present)

When "Modern Family" was first conceived, it was as an "Office"-style mockumentary -- but by the time it made it to screen, the explanation of who was there filming and why was removed. "Modern Family" is shot in a loose, documentary style, and the characters have reality show style confessional interviews, but they're not talking to anyone but us, the viewers. The show uses the visual language of unscripted television to offer what are basically asides to the camera in a less abrupted stylized fashion.


Ellery Queen, "Ellery Queen" (1975-1976)

This deliberately nostalgic NBC detective series, based on the series of mystery novels about the title character, never failed to offer the audience a chance to guess who done it. As in the books, before the final reveal Queen would turn to the camera and run through all the evidence and clues, leaving the viewers to mull over who the culprit was before reconvening after the commercial break to reveal the culprit.


Belle/Hannah, "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" (2007–2011)

It wasn't just this Showtime comedy's frank, female-centric attitude toward sex that earned it comparisons to "Sex and the City." Like Carrie Bradshaw in the first season of HBO show, Hannah Baxter (Billie Piper), aka Belle, didn't just narrate the series, she talked directly to the camera about her life as a high-class escort. It was as much an example of the character's relative isolation due to her lifestyle as it was a device to allow her to explain her decisions -- as she fought to keep her prostitution separate from her normal life as a girl supposedly working at a law firm, the audience ended up being the only ones let in on both sides of her existence.


Dobie Gillis, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (1959-1963)

In the early days of this CBS sitcom, at least, Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman) often began and closed out episodes speaking directly to the camera about what was on his mind. To reinforce this fact, Dobie did this while sitting next to a reproduction of "The Thinker," though given that he was generally consumed with getting girls and making money, his musings were generally not as profound as his character seemed to believe they were. 


Thomas Magnum, "Magnum, P.I." (1980-1988)

The Skipper used to look to the camera whenever his first mate did something ridiculous on "Gilligan's Island," and George Reeves used to wink at the audience at the end of episodes of "Adventures of Superman," but no one acknowledged the camera like Tom Selleck on "Magnum, P.I." Playing Oahu private detective Thomas Magnum, Selleck's signature move was to deliver a smirk to the audience that seemed intended as a self-acknowledgment of his mustachioed existence -- of course, people are following along at home. John Hillerman's Jonathan Quayle Higgins III also got some glances to the camera, but they were more of the "can you believe this guy?" variety.


Garry Shandling, "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (1986–1990)

Garry Shandling's Showtime comedy showcased an unique type of self-awareness -- Shandling, playing himself, was perfectly aware that he was a sitcom character, frequently addressing the audience and starting episodes off with monologues. "I think of you as more than viewers -- I think of you as friends," he explained to the camera and studio audience in the first episode while laying out the premise, kicking off something that was both a throwback to shows like "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" and surreally ahead of its time.

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4 Comments

  • J | February 9, 2013 4:30 AMReply

    Funny how I can upon this article. Yesterday I was wondering if Modern Family was actually breaking the 4th wall or if not since I assumed it was a Office type mockumentary. I was watching House of Cards and thought I'd google why is Frank talking to us.... I wasn't even thinking about the Modern Family question.... Anyway thanks for that & great article.

  • John Barrie | February 5, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    Great list, but I think honorable mentions could go to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original) and Tiny Toon Adventures for teaching a generation of children what the 4th wall was.

  • CW | February 5, 2013 12:21 PMReply

    Addressing the camera was used as a device in the first season of "Love & War", but it was one of the casualties of a massive retooling going into the second season.

  • Carbine125 | February 5, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    Uh...Malcolm in the Middle