What Is Situational Irony in Film and TV? (Definition and Examples)

situational irony definition
'Meet the Parents'Credit: Universal Pictures
Let's define situational irony together. 

Storytelling is one of the oldest human art forms, and you could argue the most enduring. When we sit down to listen, watch, or read a story, we have certain expectations set. We want to be enveloped in the tale and taken through various emotions. 

The twists, turns, laughs, and tragedy all must hit at the right moment for the story to be great. And we love it when the beats keep us guessing and begging for more.  

Rooted in the best storytelling is situational irony. 

Don't know what that means? Don't worry, we have you covered. 

Today we'll define situational irony and look at some examples from entertainment and in pictures. We will learn how it can help you in your storytelling and hopefully see you apply it moving forward. 

Ready? Let's go. 

What Is Situational Irony in Film and TV? (Definition and Examples)

Situational irony definition 

Situational irony is a storytelling device that occurs when expectations about something to happen are defined by what actually happens instead. It is the literary device equivalent to the rug being pulled out from under you. 

There are four types of situational irony. 

Subtypes of situational irony:

  • Cosmic irony (Irony of Fate or Destiny)
    • This feels like divine intervention, sort of like the concept of It's a Wonderful Life, with Clarence the angel helping George. 
  • Poetic irony (commonly called "poetic justice")
    • Think about the end of Breaking Bad, when Jesse is finally freed from drugs and Walter dies alongside his meth lab. 
  • Structural irony
    • Think about how the narrator in Arrested Development comments on what happens in the show. That's structural irony. 
  • Historical irony
    • Think about The Social Network, where a guy who made a friend-finding app is alone at the end of the movie. 

Situational irony in all genres 

What I love about situational irony is that it can be applied to all genres.

Since the very essence of storytelling is subverting expectations, you can apply this technique to scare people in horror, to excite them in thrillers, to make them laugh in comedies, and to gather strong emotional responses in drama. 

It's meant to keep the audience on their toes, no matter what. 

Situational irony in pictures

Before we get into movies and TV shows that employ this storytelling technique, I wanted to look at some still photos that involve situational irony, to get you in the mood to dive deeper. 

situational irony definition
Credit: Funny Art Pictures

Obviously, the joke here is that we expect to see the hours of the store being 24/7, but instead we see that it has closed. Sorry, I have to explain the irony in these pictures. That's probably pretty ironic in itself. 

Next up, check out this moving truck. 

situational irony definition
Credit: Ironic situations
The juxtaposition here between the words on the truck and the actual unwise move trying to drive it under a low roof is hilarious.

I think we understand the definition now, so let's move into some instances in film and TV. 

Situational Irony Examples in Film and TV 

We gave specific examples under the four types of situational irony, but I wanted to dig deeper in this section. Maybe the most famous example of situational irony is from the movie The Sixth Sense. Cole can “see dead people,” and we finally figure out that Bruce Willis's character is dead at the end of the movie. 

Another version of this would be in the very premise of Along Came Polly, where Ben Stiller plays a guy who assesses risks for a living and begins to date a woman who engages in all sorts of risky behavior. 

Or what about in the TV version of Watchmen, where when you look into the police chief's closet, there's a secret room full of Klan memorabilia. Maybe he wasn't on the right side of the law after all? 

The more you dig into situational irony, the more you realize that it is your job to keep the audience hooked and wanting more. 

What are some of your favorite examples? 

Let us know in the comments!      

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