Dramatic irony occurs in a story, play, movie or television show when the audience knows what is happening but the characters do not. It is used for a variety of purposes, mostly to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Knowing what is going to be happening to the character connects the audience to them even more. It is used for comedic purposes as well as dramatic ones in many television shows.
Dramatic irony is constantly used on television to create an air of tension and anticipation. The audience may very well see who has committed a murder early in a show, but none of the other characters in the episode are aware of this. Watching them interact with the killer and try to piece things together that the audience already knows makes for apprehension and nervousness. Many crime dramas use dramatic irony in this way, allowing the audience to know who is guilty rather than have to figure out who the killer is along the way.
Making the audience feel sympathy and empathy for a character is also a goal of dramatic irony on television. In one scene the audience may see a set of circumstances unfold that a character in the next scene is totally ignorant of. When that character finds out what is happening, with the audience already knowing, the audience will feel some sort of emotion, depending on the likability of the character and the situation.
Television comedies rely heavily on dramatic irony to set up episodes. Characters will be unaware of a state of affairs that the audience has seen. Laughs are generated when the character not in the know begins to find out the truth that the audience has known all along.
Some television shows will use dramatic irony and still leave the audience guessing. A crime drama called “Cold Case” is a prime example of this type of format. Each episode begins with a murder from the past. The audience knows the character is dead, but as the episode unravels and the events leading to the character’s death unfold, the audience still has to try to figure out who the murderer is. They have an advantage through the use of dramatic irony as they know that the character will die, enabling them to look for clues along the way through that person’s interaction with other characters.
The television situation comedy “Three’s Company” was the perfect example of dramatic irony being used for comedy. Each week a series of events would take place that the audience saw but that the main characters were unaware of. The majority of the episode was aimed at setting up a final scene in which all the characters finally reached the same page that the audience had been in on all along, culminating with everyone finding out at once.