The Gang gets self-aware

22 Oct

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.

3 Responses to “The Gang gets self-aware”

  1. evanharold October 23, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    This reminds me of the problems that faced “Community” before Dan Harmon was booted off the show. It was more of a survey of televisual forms than show with a cohesive style. It threatens the success of a show to play with its presentation on such a dramatic scale. This is exactly what “Community” sought out to do, but with rewards of massive Internet fandom despite network and Nielsen failure. The value (but also the sense of falseness you mention) of surprise metareflexivity seems determined by Internet culture, which celebrates above anything the sort of ironic intertextuality seen in memes, cameos, etc.

  2. jhaderlein October 23, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    I agree that meta-reflexivity will always have a potential to be disruptive to the realism or at the very least the suspension of disbelief towards a television program. However I think that the nature of the material constraints of television production the illusion of realism has always been tenuous at best. Popular television stars have often throughout history become celebrities in their own right, creating the same problem you get from cinema wherein you are watching Brad Pitt play his next role, only now you are watching Bryan Cranston, multiple Emmy-award winning actor, continue to ply his trade as America’s leading dramatic television actor. Now with the addition of DVD commentaries, youtube exposes, and events such as Comic-Con, interaction with the creative forces behind the curtain is easier than ever, and in fact has become part and parcel of the fandom experience. It’s Always Sunny even signaled its awareness of how the perceived distinction between fabrication and realism is largely irrelevant these days with their recent commercial campaign for the new season that featured the gang recast by the network to maximum absurdity, a gag which gained an additional level of genius from the fact that any dedicated fan of the show knows they have creative control and therefore could never simply be “fired.” What seems to be trending here is that since audiences are assumed to only already be “in on the joke” of the reality behind television series, they are now expected to continue to relish that inclusion, as some breaking of the fourth wall can now create further rapport between the series and its loyal fan-base.

    This most recent episode’s humor clearly comes in a sense from a clever utilization of this process. The fact is that “the gang” on screen really is the primary creative force behind the show, three of them being creators, and the improvisational aspect of the scripting meaning they all directly contribute to the narrative as well as its performative aspect. In some sense then every time Charlie or Dee has a stupid idea on screen it often is “just the gang” having these crazy thoughts. I felt the episode, though certainly meta-reflexive, did so in a less damaging way than some, partially because I already understand this show as so intimately tied to a media world outside the confines of the show’s narrative bubble, and partially because to me the show has always seemed more like a group of friends goofing off on screen than any attempt at a coherent presentation of an illusion. Maybe they have only been given the liberty to start riffing on their reality as creators because with time it is assumed their audience is static, so they can’t simply alienate new viewers with an experimental episode like this, but I also feel that there is something in the constitutive nature of the modern production process that will have us see more of these kinds of creative moves in the future, despite their potential for alienation, as a continued bid for the affection of the niche audience most shows now play to.

  3. Shen Xiang October 24, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    It would be worthwhile to discuss the third season of Arrested Development under a lens of reflexivity. There were mixed responses from the fan network; some who found it ironically enjoyable, and others that believed that it was Howard’s way of admitting defeat. Admittedly, the omniscient narrator disrupts any semblance of realism within the diegetic space, yet, this is quite arguably meta-reflexive TV at its most visceral. Deep regards.

    Shen Xiang
    Yale, Cinema Studies ’14

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