Sitcoms such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, and You’re the Worst utilize a counter-intuitive method of hooking viewers by making their characters unlikable, yet completely watch-able. Characters such Dee and Dennis Reynolds, Lucille Bluth, and the Gretchen-Jimmy couple utilize the recent popularity of self-deprecating dark humor. Plotlines in It’s Always Sunny often revolve around the rampant narcissism of the characters, and how that self-obsession makes bad situations worse and blocks the main characters from achieving meaningful solutions to the condition each episode revolves around. You’re the Worst centers plots around the emotional failings of two characters falling in love, and how their insecurities make for an unconventional and precarious romantic relationship. The humor and brief moments of heartfelt sincerity keeps the viewer from turning off the television in disgust, while it seems as though the audience is meant to revel in the failures of each character because their personality flaws put them there.
Shows with fundamentally flawed characters allow the audience to embrace their own personal failings and relate to plotlines, but within the relative comfort of fantasy and detachment. Rather than presenting characters with palatable “quirks”, like Monica’s OCD on Friends or Cam’s overdramatic nature on Modern Family, we see the fundamental and extreme flaws of main characters that will ultimately be their undoing. This makes for a unique viewing experience – rather than centering a plotline around a successful conflict resolution, viewers are satisfied with an unhappy ending because that is what the characters deserve. On the pilot of You’re the Worst, the two main characters meet at Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding. Jimmy says such horrible things to the bride that he is kicked out (“This hasn’t been the last time we slept together” as a toast is a great way to start the hate-fest), while Gretchen is on her way out to do blow paid for by a stolen wedding gift she intends to pawn. They constantly do terrible things together and acknowledge how emotionally incapable they are of maintaining a healthy relationship, yet eventually become a monogamous couple. As the theme song goes, “I’m going to leave you anyways.” We are meant to root for them to break up. The audience sees their own fear of commitment and narcissism in each character, and we find that endearing and relatable. Sitcom no longer represents a fantasy of escape and perfection, but also a more sinister extension and overidentification with our own human condition. While dark sitcoms still make for a fantastical break from reality, it is merely an exaggeration of our worst flaws rather than our aspirations (seriously, I want Monica’s rent-controlled NYC apartment).
By Elyse Conklin