Monday, February 7, 2011

10. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (More Like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" On Methamphetamines)

MAC: HEEEY-OH!!! [Sitting in a wheelchair, Mac wheels through the door and comes to a screeching halt in front of Dennis and Dee.] What’s up, bitches?
DEE: What – um, what?!
MAC: Dennis, you would not believe how great this thing is. People give you free shit, and women treat you like a puppy they just found out on the street.
DENNIS: Really?
MAC: Yeah, dude, I was thinking: You pick up one of these bad boys, we head down to the mall, there’s a ton of talent down there, we’ve been looking for a new angle.
DENNIS: That does sound like fun.
DEE: Yeah, yeah, that’ll work.
MAC: Oh, I’m sorry, Dee. Um, we’re putting ourselves into the shoes of the unfortunate, see what their world’s like, maybe gain a little perspective. What do you do?
DEE: Well, I don’t take advantage of people.
[Dennis laughs at the implausibility.]
MAC: Look at Sweet Dee, sitting on her cloud of judgment, handing down life lessons to all the sinners.
DENNIS: Come on, Mac. Let’s go get crippled.
-A fairly standard dialogue between the self-centered and highly delusional protagonists; 
“Charlie Gets Crippled” (Season 2, Episode 1)

Run time: August 4, 2005 – present
Created by: Rob McElhenney
Broadcast via: FX (Syndicated on Comedy Central)

Dramas are not the only TV standard that has changed with the turn of the century. Comedy has taken on strange new territory since Seinfeld ended, and though there continues to be hundreds of failed sitcoms that are still rehashing the same stock scenarios, there are also bountiful crops of new flavors of funny sprouting each season. Some don’t last long, as the TV industry is a tumultuous one, but a few have surprisingly thrived. Of all the comedies that have been lucky enough to establish themselves throughout the decade, perhaps the lewdest, crudest and funniest of the bunch centers on a crass group of slovenly sanctimonious and stupendously stupid a-holes that represent pretty much the absolute worst type of young Americans that these United States have to offer.

It’s been branded as “Seinfeld on crack” by FX, and they’re at least half right –It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a deranged and demented send-up of modern humanity and our terrifying tendencies, impulses and quirks – though I prefer to think of it as more of an inversion of Arrested Development, presenting an entirely different modern take on the down and out. When asked about his influences, creator Rob McElhenney will gladly tell you about his two favorite examples, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the original British version of The Office, though I’ve heard others bring up Trailer Park Boys and The State as potential sources of inspiration. And while it’s not nearly as psychotic as Tim and Eric Awesome Show or Childrens Hospital, it is still a plenty perverted remedy to the common comedy. What Always Sunny somehow does better than all of these programs is dilute the humanity out of our vices and self-absorption and inject that essence into every fiber of the show’s being. This is beyond selfishness as it worst; it is self-satisfied glee at the height of desolation. And it unleashes itself upon a world powerless to stop it week by week.

Now, It’s Always Sunny is different from your standard sitcom in many ways. First and foremost, there is its obvious love of tackling bold, topical issues that most sterile sitcoms wouldn’t come to close to considering touching. Even Seinfeld and Curb haven’t messed with some of the things we’re seeing here. Not only does Always Sunny impeccably mishandle scenarios about abortion, terminal illness, depression, recessions, homelessness, molestation, serial killers and sex offenders, statutory rape and underage drinking; it also subtly imbues itself with a simultaneously imitative and innovative flair. It’s at once familiar, yet totally unlike any other show you’ve seen before. It centers on The Gang (Charlie, Dennis and Mac, three best friends and bar owners; Sweet Dee, Dennis’s twin sister; and Frank, Dennis and Dee’s "father"  and allegedly Charlie's as well) and their day-to-day misadventures, giving us the same sitcom set-up but letting the hysterics unfurl in unexpected ways. Yet despite this similar fashion to standard sitcom structuring, Always Sunny has no laugh track for the jokes, no moral insight for the audience and no triumphs for our main characters.

I was talking with my coworker the other day about the appeal of the show. Actually, we were talking about the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson flick Anger Management, which my coworker was not the biggest fan of, mostly because Adam Sandler’s character is so miserable throughout the whole thing. Knowing that he loves Always Sunny as much as I do, I asked how he tolerated the misery that The Gang gets themselves into every episode. He was quick to point out that he never once sympathizes with any of them, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world (which it is). He was right because the simple fact is that no sane person would ever want to hang out with The Gang. Just like the gangsters in The Sopranos, you hope that you never cross paths with these people (and if you did, you’d pray to gods you didn’t believe existed in order to not draw their attention towards you).

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia started as one of those scrappy upstart styled passion projects that has spiraled into the one of the most successful comedy series of this new millennium. Philly-born McElhenney did not go to film school, but he knew what he wanted to do. After immersing himself in television as a youth, he figured out what he wanted to see in a sitcom. Originally conceived as a short film, McElhenney imagined a scene where a guy goes to his friend’s place, just to get some sugar, and the friend tells the guy that he has cancer, to which the guy panics, only wanting to get his sugar and go. If this kind of cynical scenario doesn’t do it for you, this may not be your type of show. But McElhenney believed he might be on to something, so he continued to write, including parts for his friends Glen Howerton and Charlie Day, and soon he had enough for a pilot. Making it themselves for a shoestring budget, they shot and performed it on the fly, learning as they went along how to produce, edit and present a pilot. The ideas kept coming, and FX seemed to embrace the show very heartily, ordering a batch of seven episodes. After a very strong first season, a good thing got great when the Always Sunny cast added one to its roster: Danny DeVito. DeVito helped to pioneer this sort of misanthropic comedy since way back in the day, both on television (Taxi) and in films (most notably Throw Mama From The Train), thus his entry into the Always Sunny universe opened and affirmed the possibilities for such antisocial antics. He takes insanity to a whole new level, and he elevates the entire cast with him in the process. Likewise, they have brought the best out of him; DeVito hasn’t been this hilarious in years.

I think I’ve mentioned the work of the cast in every one of these entries, but there is something special about the stars of Always Sunny. The frantic energy, the madcat logic, the ping-ponging tantrums and inane banter – I haven’t seen a cast interact so incisively and have this much fun every week since Seinfeld. I believe this is where everyone’s tendency to alike It’s Always Sunny to Seinfeld comes from: three guys and one girl making for a perfect combination that makes you feel like they actually have been friends all these years. I also believe the cast mates when they go on late night shows and give interviews and talk about what a blast it is to be on the set. There are many comedies where the pros show up and knock it out of the park, but some casts come off like bands as gangs, the kind that project that familial bond grown from a love of doing this endeavor night after night. More than any other show on this list, you could not remove or replace a single member of the main cast and have it stay as good (or improved). Their contract has them making shows for at least one more season. Whether they’ll bow out or take on more episodes in unknown at this point, but I hope that for however long the show goes on that The Gang maintains this pace. With nary a bad episode, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is on its way to complete classic status not just in the realm of comedy, but in boundary-pushing television in general.

German composer Heinz Kiesslin’s optimistic orchestral “Temptation Sensation” provides the perfect soundtrack to contrast the darkness of the show. With picaresque shots of various Philadelphia locales seen through the sounds of strings and soothing wind instruments, this quick credit sequence brings an ironic chuckle and a proper sense of contradiction that gets one perfectly in the mood for the show. [ALSO OF NOTE: It’s Always Sunny has one of the best cold opening devices, with the final joke of the scene leading into the title of the episode. The episode’s title card starting with the song is sublime.]
Sweet Dee

BEST CHARACTER: Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds (played by Kaitlin Olson)
The guys of The Gang are self-absorbed, narcissistic, conceited blowhards, and Frank is their perfect elder-statesman match. But there is one person out there who can out-declass all of them: Sweet Dee. An aspiring actress and comedian who vomits/dry heaves whenever she gets nervous (which includes every time she performs publicly), Sweet Dee will scorn the guys for sinking so low and then proceed to tap the well out at even darker depths. Kaitlin Olson’s performance calls for a good mix of verbal and physical comedy, and I love that she does not try to moralize or sympathize with her character. Olson plays Dee for the conniving parasite she is, matching the gentlemen in refusing to seem empathetic, responsible or likable (though, like the rest of the cast, she is strangely lovable).  So many comedies use the female lead character (a wife or best friend usually) as the voice of reason or the flash or brilliance, but Dee only further exacerbates every situation she inserts herself into. And when it comes to deeply inlayed cynicism, Sweet Dee’s got it down like no one else: In a recent episode, The Gang decided to distract Charlie with a trip to the spa, accompanying Frank (who scolds The Gang for being so cynical and joyless), while the rest of the them prepare a surprise party. Dee complains that she should be going with Charlie, since she is pregnant and the guys never do anything nice for her, so Dennis decides they should give the passes to Dee. Liking the idea, she decides to sneak out before Charlie can see her, until Dennis points out that she still has to take Charlie. Her response: “Ooooh, shit, yeah. Frank, you might be right about us getting cynical. I just jumped straight to default and was gonna throw this second coupon in the trash. But the Charlie thing? Yup, we’re doing the Charlie thing. Okay, I got it, I’m on it.” That is as good as Deandra Reynolds gets.
BEST SEASON: 5 (of 6 so far)
Since season 3, every episode has been a complete smash. But I arbitrarily have to pick something, so I will go with Season 5. All of the previous seasons are great, but Season 5 is the first since the first that featured no continued story or multiple-part episodes. IASIP is hardly on going saga, but it does have a modicum of continuinity. In season 5, the cast and crew gave themselves the challenge of making each episode a single one, striving for their best every time. Fresh off the heels of the late 2008 financial collapse, Always Sunny swam the national poverty vibe with a freshness that amazingly topped the unbelievably absurd Season 4. Road trips, wrestling, interventions, the movie industry, flip cup competitions, the World Series, the economic recession, kitten mittens, bromance breakups and The D.E.N.N.I.S. System – episode for episode, Season 5 presents all that is glorious about Always Sunny in splendorous fashion each and every scene of each and every episode. The only thing missing from the fifth season is the McPoyle twins, which makes it the perfect starting season for those initially averse to extremely discomforting incestuous families.
BEST EPISODE: “The Nightman Cometh” (Season 4, Episode 13)
Though it may be a touch played out by ultrafans, this musical episode really shows the type of gumption, creativity and talent these players have. It’s a “let’s start a show!” type of episode, where the illiterate Charlie Kelly writes a musical for The Gang to perform. Everything leading up to the big night is riddled with laughter, but the musical itself is the centerpiece of all the adoration. Insanely catchy songs (including the “Dayman” song written by Charlie and Dennis in season three) and a strange story merge on the stage to create a disturbingly blithe bit of theater. The episode was so successful that during the off-season, The Gang launched themselves on a short tour throughout a half dozen major American cities playing a full-blown production of The Nightman Cometh musical (and many of the episode’s non-show antics, which do play into the climax of the story). The tunes are hummable, and the gags land exactly where they need to. Though no other episode is like it, “The Nightman Cometh” is an excellent example of just what kind of crazy comedy Always Sunny can be.
BEST MOMENT: “Wildcard, bitches!!!” (from “The Gang Solves The Gas Crisis,” Season 4, Episode 2)
Like those great Larry David shows, Always Sunny likes to build to a sweet climax by episode’s end, and none is sweeter than this one from season four. Driving a van full of barrels of gasoline, plotting elaborately to sell the gas back for an ultra high price, and delegating roles to each other such as “the brains” and “the looks” and “the wildcard” (this position rather obviously goes to the over-eccentric Charlie Kelly), The Gang has gotten nowhere pretty fast by talking themselves into a plan that will surely end badly. Mac, behind the wheel, attempts to slow the van down, but the brakes have been cut. Charlie announces that, because he’s the wildcard, he’s decided to cut the brakes, and then he kicks open the van’s rear doors and rolls out (literally). The rest of The Gang does likewise, just before the van crashes, and though the gang is safe, an innocent bystander’s car is destroyed (and his sanity snapped). Just another day in the life for The Gang.