Time is a flat circle—and in 2014, so was entertainment. Sure, self-referential movies, TV shows, and plays are nothing new (see also: Singin’ in the Rain, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Kiss Me Kate). But this year, it sure seemed like more and more stories—and music videos, and, in some cases, real-life events—were taking the möbius-strip route. Because we couldn’t figure out a way to write a list about being a list, we decided instead to pull together a chronology of meta-highlights:
Jan 27: EW premieres the poster for Mistaken for Strangers, a meta-documentary about wannabe filmmaker Tom Berninger and his famous brother, Matt—frontman for The National. The movie started as footage for a series of videos Tom intended to post on the band’s website; eventually, he told EW, “towards the end of the tour, people started to tell me the best stuff I had was of me, because I looked like such a fish out of water. And when Matt and I are together, we are such an odd couple. That’s when I started realizing what my movie could be about.”
Feb. 7: Behold The Lego Movie, a plastic hero’s journey saga that’s also a commentary on hero’s journey sagas—the prophesied savior the characters are searching for is literally called “the Special;” it’s later revealed that, uh, the prophecy was totally made up, and “the Special” is special only because he thinks he’s special—and the nature of play more generally. (The movie’s argument—build what you want! Don’t follow the rules!—is belied by dozens of tie-in Lego sets that give step-by-step instructions for recreating scenes exactly as they appeared in the movie.) Appropriately enough for a film based on toys that represent just about every brand under the sun, it’s chock-full of in-jokes and references and callbacks to directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s earlier work; see our guide for a complete-ish rundown.
Feb. 10: Incoming Late Night host Seth Meyers reveals that Fred Armisen—a musician turned comedian turned fake musician—will play real bandleader on his new show. Bandception!
Feb. 11: Actor Shia LaBeouf, who ended 2013 being fingered for plagiarism—then apologizing with plagiarized words—launches “#IAMSORRY,” an “art instillation” in which a silent LaBeouf stares at visitors while wearing a paper bag reading “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” on his head. It’s a meta-stunt (“famous man gets attention for saying he’s no longer famous!”) that, fittingly for LaBeouf, apologizes for plagiarism by… copying the work of artist Marina Abromovic.
Feb. 25-March 4: On Glee, Rachel and Santana feud; offscreen, actresses Lea Michele and Naya Rivera are rumored to be doing the same. The real-life drama culminates with rumors that Rivera has been pushed off of Glee; Santana doesn’t appear in the show’s fifth season finale.
March 4: Jordan Klepper joins The Daily Show as a correspondent, debuting with a segment that doubles as self-conscious commentary about being the new guy on The Daily Show.
March 19: HBO, onetime home of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras, debuts its latest showbiz meta-comedy: Doll & Em, a partially improvised series starring real-life best friends Doll(y) Wells and Em(ily Mortimer) acing as heightened versions of themselves.
March 21: Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel to The Muppets, opens with a fourth-wall-busting song called… wait for it… ”We’re Doing a Sequel.”
April 3: Is James Franco’s Instagram scandal—in which he’s caught propositioning an underage teen—actually a brilliant viral marketing campaign for his movie Palo Alto—in which he plays a soccer coach who has an affair with a teenager? Alas, the answer turns out to be “no.”
April 11: “Stephen Colbert,” the fictional character who hosts The Colbert Report, takes some time out of his show to discuss David Letterman’s imminent departure, adding, “And I’ve gotta tell you—I do not envy whoever they try to put in that chair.” (Who are they putting in that chair? Why… Stephen Colbert, of course. The real one.)
May 4: Months after The Lego Movie’s release, The Simpsons does its own long-in-the-works (surprisingly great!) Lego-themed episode; it includes plenty of in-jokes, including an acknowledgment that The Lego Movie came first.
May 5: It’s official: The Comeback, a series about a washed-up sitcom star (played by real-life former sitcom star Lisa Kudrow) making a reality show, is officially coming back to HBO after 10 years off the air.
May 9: Community, present-day TV’s most whimsically, consistently metafictional show, is canceled (for now). Eventually, this announcement will become a meta-commentary on cancelation; watch this space.
May 14: More Glee: Rachel ends the season by heading to LA to make a pilot… about her own life. (Thankfully, it doesn’t look like that show’s gonna be a success… which itself is maybe a comment on Glee’s gradual popularity nosedive.)
June 4: Remember Phil Lord and Chris Miller? They’re back with 22 Jump Street, a reference-heavy sequel that’s all about movies (Channing Tatum’s character: “I’m really glad you’re back, Schmidt.” Jonah Hill’s character: “What are you talking about? What contract dispute? I’ve been here the whole time!”) and being a sequel (the task force’s headquarters move from 21 Jump St. to… 22 Jump St., right across the street). The best part? A concluding montage of proposed sequels that sends the guys to medical school, a semester at sea, art school, culinary school…
June 11: Donald Glover suggests to us the ideal Community video game: “The last level should be that you build the level. That would be dope.”
June 16: Film critic Kevin B. Lee releases Transformers: The Premake via YouTube. The 25-minute short weaves together footage of Transformers: Age of Extinction’s Chicago shoot; it’s a movie about making a movie that’s about a billion times more interesting than the movie within the movie.
Aug. 5: MTV reveals that it’s found stars and a director for a long-gestating TV show based on the Scream franchise, a treatise on horror movies that doubles as a pretty scary movie itself. (The first movie’s original title: Scary Movie, which would later be co-opted for a parody franchise.) One of the characters is “an artsy loner who aspires to be a filmmaker;” she’s gonna be the murderer, right?
Aug. 23: Doctor Who returns with a new, more distinguished Doctor… and an episode in which audience surrogate Clara is shamed for judging new star Peter Capaldi for being of a certain age.
Sept. 7: Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill (him again!) collaborate on an Opening Ceremony fashion show that’s more like a meta take on Fashion Week itself—in which, as EW’s Esther Zuckerman writes, “fictionalized versions of Humberto Leon (Mitchell) and his stylist, Brian Molloy (Cannavale), prepare for their upcoming show.”
Sept. 16: Rejoice, Veronica Mars fans: Play It Again, Dick is a self-referential webseries designed just for you. And only for you.
Sept. 28: An appropriately meta Simpsons/Family Guy crossover event airs, featuring plenty of meta jabs both at the concept of the crossover (“A crossover always brings out the best in each show! It certainly doesn’t smack of desperation. The priorities are always creative and not driven by marketing”) and at each show individually (Homer: “It’s just a lousy rip-off!” Peter: “I think I speak for all of us when I say I am over the Simpsons!”).
Oct. 9: Broadway dream team Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, late of The Producers and The Odd Couple—plus heavy hitters F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing, and Rupert Grint—join forces for It’s Only a Play, a backstage comedy designed for theater nerds.
Oct. 14: Speaking of meta-theater, here’s Found, a meta-musical co-written by practiced meta-writer Hunter Bell (title of show) and featuring practiced meta-actor Danny Pudi, of Community fame.
Oct. 17: And here it is, the meta-event of the season: Birdman, a dark comedy with so many layers it’d take a long, beautifully presented cover story to detail them all. (Ahem; that was meta-commentary.)
Nov. 2: Fox’s beleagured sitcom Mulaney, a show about a young standup in New York City that’s been heavily criticized as a Seinfeld ripoff, airs its fourth episode. The money quote, delivered by a girl John Mulaney has just dumped: “I even defended you when people said you were a Seinfeld ripoff!”
Nov. 7: Too Many Cooks, a demented short that begins as a gentle parody of cheesy sitcom opening credits before veering into a million odd, self-referential directions, quietly debuts on YouTube and soon sparks a phenomenon.
Nov. 9: Because one crossover wasn’t enough, The Simpsons abandons all hope at a pretense of continuity to do a crossover with the late, great Futurama. There is, of course, a joke about how Bender’s pretty much just Homer with an antenna. (True.)
That same night, HBO airs the first episode of the revived Comeback, in which Lisa Kudrow’s character, Valerie Cherish, gets the lead role in a TV show about the making-of the TV show she was shooting in season 1. Meaning this series now has a show (the fake sitcom) within a show (Seeing Red, the show about the sitcom) within a show (the fake reality show, The Comeback, Valerie is shooting) within a show (the real Comeback). Phew.
Nov. 10: Taylor Swift, object of a billion “crazy ex-girlfriend” jokes, elects to embrace those stereotypes in her video for “Blank Space,” in which she casts herself as the ultimate psychotic clinger.
Nov. 11: Supernatural, long known for playful self-referentiality, goes to new lengths with its 200th episode, in which Sam and Dean watch a musical about their own lives (while fighting a goddess, duh).
Nov. 21: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 hits theaters. Those who haven’t read the book may be surprised to learn that it’s less an action movie and more of a thoughtful deconstruction of propaganda and how it works. The best detail: A “propo” video, made by District 13, that looks just like a trailer for… a Hunger Games movie, complete with the same four-note musical sting.
Nov. 29: Lifetime debuts Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, a fourth-wall-busting comedy featuring tedious meta-references (Grumpy Cat stops the movie at one point to tell you to tweet along with her) and one genuinely funny moment:
Girl’s Mom: “Did… those kidnappers touch you?”
Grumpy Cat: “No, that would be a different Lifetime Original Movie.”
Dec. 12: Top Five, Chris Rock’s Toronto phenom, is set to hit theaters. Think of it as a more lighthearted Birdman; the plot centers on Rock’s character, a veteran comedian turned movie star who wants to be a serious actor. Let the Hall of Mirrors remain unbroken!