Reality TV and the Death of Irony

It has been said that irony died with the destruction of the World Trade Center.[1] The 90’s were a decade filled with an ironic undertone that defined pop culture and a culture of not taking things seriously. Shows such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons permeated culture and reflected a sentiment of ironic disinterest in accepting the seriousness of life. As a reflection of the decade, these shows furthered a nihilistic existence for many young people in the 90s. The patriotism that the orchestrators of 9/11 attempted to stamp out, ironically marked a new wave of patriotism and a crusade for freedom that nobody would have imagined was possible on September 12, 2001; this irony is visible through the transformation of TV viewer’s preferences.

To understand the transition of a society from irony towards a society of realism, it is important to understand the definition of irony. Irony can be hard to define because it “is inherently confusing. Not only are its definitions confusing; it is confusing by definition.” [2]Irony is defined in the literary sense to be the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. In society, irony found its way into the 1990s through the underground (and eventually popular) grunge movement.

Understanding the popularity of what people watch on television lends insight into the values and interests of society. Just as television of the 90’s moved away from the family values of 80’s television, so too has the landscape of post-9/11 television shifted from irony to reality. Television of the 80’s was centered on family values and built off of the comedy of the family dynamic. Shows such as Full House and The Cosby Show were centered on family and depicted uniquely familial situational comedy. The 90’s marked a transition to carefree, ironic shows that lacked real purpose and relied on the comedy of disaster and misfortune.[3] Sitcoms of the 1990s frequently ended without resolution and sacrificed closure for “the art of the unhappy, but the very funny.”4 The rise of reality television almost directly coincides with September 11. Shows like Survivor, Fear Factor, and The Apprentice burst onto the television scene and were embraced by a viewership that sought to experience “reality” from the comfort of their couches. As a social barometer, the transition of television away the ironic and trite television of the 90s to the reality TV of the new millennium marked an inevitable need to understand reality in society.

The shock of an attack on American soil had a profound effect of transforming the sentiments of the American public. Irony and apathy gave way to the necessity of living in the reality of the present. Ironically, the freedoms and patriotism that were targeted on September 11 were bolstered rather than weakened. September 11, 2001 brought about the necessity to switch from an ironic mindset to a mindset based in reality. Literary irony is, and always will be, alive and well. 9/11 forced the public to abandon irony as its societal lens, and adopt reality to understand the world.


[1] Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, quote published 18 September 2001.

[2] Thompson, Jennifer. “Irony: A few Simple Definitions.” Teacher’s Resource Web. n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2012

[3], 4 Huston, John. “Hibbs examines `Seinfeld,’ other shows about `nothing.’” The Online Observer. 3 Dec. 1999. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

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