In his article, Mittell talks about “metareflexive” narrative mode, which not only focuses on the diegetic world of the TV show, but also celebrates the behind-the-scenes ability to engineer the plot structures (35). Television shows that are “metareflexive” tend to always be that way–Arrested Development and Seinfeld are both very self-conscious and reference the fact that there is a behind-the-scenes, with “winking at the audience” in ways of saying “we know we’re a TV show.” Television shows that aren’t “metareflexive” can sometimes have “metareflexive” moments, but usually only moments in an episode that is otherwise grounded in the sitcom’s diegetic world. It was timely to read about this type of narrative mode this week, because the most recent episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia was completely “metareflexive,” going so far as to hint at this attribute in the title of the episode “The Gang Recycles Their Trash.” This show is normally contained within itself, but for some reason the characters chose to become acutely aware that they were part of a TV show this week. The episode starts with a literal trash problem in the area and the gang scheming on how to make money from it. They each propose ideas on how to work this situation to their advantage. Dee straight up says, “We’ve definitely done this before” and indeed, it’s true–all the ideas they have are drawn from previous episodes. At first Dee is the only one who notices this, but then the rest of the guys realize it too and even say they are “taking ideas from the trash” and that some ideas “weren’t ready to be trashed.” There are modifications to the ideas (i.e, instead of selling gas door-to-door, Mac, Dennis, and Charlie collect trash door-to-door), but they are essentially the same. Even minor characters from previous episodes come back and are acknowledged as previously being in the gang’s lives.
The end of the episode ends with the gang back to the bar, drinking, and quickly moving on to the next idea–as every episode does. However, in this episode Charlie winds up calling out that they jump from bad idea to bad idea, which is what happens in essentially every episode. Each episode is a new bad idea. Charlie then says they need to learn from their bad mistakes and make adjustments to solve the problem they had set out to fix instead of just stopping and drinking and going on to the next thing. This is meta because Charlie is calling out the structure of each episode and the ultimate resolution of each episode arc. However, this time, they decide to try to keep at the problem they had set out to fix and, while doing this, Charlie points out that everyone was able to contribute to the group and they worked together. This statement could be read on an entirely different level of meta, because the “gang” can also be construed as the writers of the show–meaning that they do have to work together and each person contributes on a regular basis.
It was very unsettling to see this show become metareflexive for the one episode, because it pulls you out of the show where before you believed in this world that they had created. It kind of destroyed the world and characters. Sunny by no means is a standard sitcom, but once you’ve established a narrative form—especially for seven seasons—to break out of that mode has a very false and unnatural feel to it.