Image B Sound C+ Extras D+
"The Gang Gets Racist," "Charlie Wants an Abortion," "Underage Drinking: A National Concern," "Charlie Has Cancer," "Gun Fever," "The Gang Finds a Dead Guy," "Charlie Got Molested," "Charlie Gets Crippled," "The Gang Goes Jihad," "The Gang Gives Back," "Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare," "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom," "The Gang Runs for Office," "Hundred Dollar Baby," "Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass," "The Gang Exploits a Miracle," "Dennis and Dee Get a New Dad"
by Ian Pugh When confronted with the inescapable, unfunny vacuum that is Carlos Mencia, I used to tell people I hated that which was self-consciously controversial. I soon realized, though, that any property that genuinely pushes the envelope has to be aware of its material on some level; it's probably more accurate to say I hate that which features controversy as its only selling point. Hostel Part II's DVD cover may sport an obnoxious stamp guaranteeing that it is "shocking and explicit," but the film puts those qualities to use in a capitalist redux of The Wicker Man. "The Sarah Silverman Program." may touch on taboo subjects, but it does so to question the self-aggrandizing persona of its star. Then you've got "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (hereafter "Sunny"), which parades the horrible actions of its lead characters as if they meant something on their own, believing that its toe-in-the-water venture into forbidden territory exempts it from criticism. Take a long, hard look at the episode list above, and know that just about every teaser sequence in "Sunny"'s first two seasons is followed by a smash cut to one of those titles--and in this brief moment, find everything you need to know about the episode and its comedic trajectory. The quality of the writing itself is ultimately summed up by the subsequent opening-credits montage showcasing the various sights and non-sights of Philly by night. While personal experience dictates that sunny days and dispositions are indeed hard to come by in that city, the fact that the series must directly invert the implications of its name reeks of desperation to have its weak antics seen as darkly ironic.
As stupid and reductive as "South Park"'s exaggerated vision of political situations can get, credit where credit is due that those involved usually have an opinion on the subject at hand, however misguided. "Sunny", on the other hand, is content to lift hot-button topics wholesale, filtering them only through the narrow desire to have its characters say and do things at which society-at-large wags its finger. The show is perhaps best described as a freeform disaster, following gosh-ain't-they-terrible bar owners Charlie (writer Charlie Day), Mac (writer/creator Rob McElhenney), and Dennis (writer Glenn Howerton) as they concoct various plots to get rich, get laid, get respect, or all of the above--allowing high school students to partake in their booze (1.3, "Underage Drinking: A National Concern"), for instance, or manipulating the popular reaction to cancer (1.4, "Charlie Gets Cancer") and physical disabilities (2.1, "Charlie Gets Crippled") as a means of engendering sympathy, or signing up for welfare so they can slack off (2.4, "Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare").
As the series progresses, Dennis's sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson) is slowly pulled away from a somewhat higher moral stance and initiated into these schemes; in a telling bit from one of the otherwise-skippable documentaries on the "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Seasons 1 & 2" DVD, Howerton mentions that it was tempting to throw the show's lone female character into the role of the outraged voice of reason, consistently appalled by the actions of her male compatriots. In the sense that the creators make any such revisions to its premise, what does "Sunny" do but transfer that identity onto its viewing audience? The series' notion of itself as "'Seinfeld' on crack" (as it has been described by some critics) is taken far enough past the tipping point that its characters' motivations cannot be regarded as anything other than an attempt to be awful for awful's sake. At least "Seinfeld"'s antiheroes gave the impression they were irredeemable by nature.
The addition of Danny DeVito as Dennis and Dee's loathsome father doesn't help--if anything, the presence of a famous "dirty old man" character actor gives the writers even more of an incentive to rest on their laurels, culminating in both the laziest moment and most blatant attack on pop culture of the first two seasons, "Hundred Dollar Baby" (2.7). After "the gang" indulges in steroids, the episode ends with a shot-for-shot imitation of the traumatic plot twist that kicks off the third act of Million Dollar Baby--a joke Scary Movie 4 pulled off a lot more successfully in its over-the-top deflation of melodrama, demonstrating how genuine subversion always trumps a sarcastic carbon copy. (It's strange and sad to contemplate that anything in the Scary Movie franchise has the ability to surpass another comedic institution in this manner.) It's unfortunate that "Sunny" is more than happy to telegraph its punches, as it squanders a great deal of potential conjectured early on with the discovery of a vintage Nazi uniform owned by Dennis's grandfather (1.6, "The Gang Finds a Dead Guy"), viewed as a holy grail for its hypothetical monetary value and potential to inflict psychological damage on Dennis. It's a hilarious scenario for its off-handed treatment of the material (i.e., it never feels like prefabricated controversy), but its true worth is in its exploration of historical stigma--as well as its reminder that, in order to create a genuine discourse, it helps for outrageous concepts to have an attendant purpose.
Fox bundles the first two seasons of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on DVD in a box set consisting of three discs bound in two thinpaks. Since the series is shot on cheap digital video, the full-frame image has no choice but to look a little crappy and washed-out; the commentary participants rightly point out that flesh tones (unintentionally) lean towards orange. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio meanwhile demonstrates with its tinny back channel that anything beyond simple stereo is superfluous for this show. As far as supplements go, Disc One includes scenes from the original pilot (then titled "It's Always Sunny on TV"): an earlier, even cheaper version of "Charlie Gets Cancer" (1.4) set in Hollywood, with our intrepid heroes playing out-of-work actors instead of bar proprietors. From one cliché to another, I suppose. Disc Two's lone extra is a commentary on "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom" (2.4) teaming DeVito, McElhenney, Day, and Howerton, while Disc Three starts off with a commentary on "Hundred Dollar Baby" with Day, Howerton, and Olson; both can be summed up by Howerton's assertion in the latter that "nobody finds this funnier than we do." No shit.
Continue on with the "Special Features" proper and "Sunny Side Up" (17 mins.), a cast-and-crew retrospective doc that assures its participants' membership into the Mutual Appreciation Society; the boundaries of good taste are discussed in such a smarmy, say-nothing manner I'm forced to conclude that the cleverness of "The Gang Finds a Dead Guy" was purely accidental. "Kaitlin Audition Featurette" (5 mins.) reveals that Olson's audition script reshuffled the characters' identities for "Charlie Gets Cancer," resulting in the millionth iteration of the same scene in this package--and it goes without saying that it wasn't all that funny to begin with. "The Gang Fucks Up" (4 mins.) is a gag reel, naturally, and this dropping of the "f" bomb--a no-no in the series proper--doesn't change the fact that it is, like all gag reels, by and large a waste of time. Finally, Fox Movie Channel's "Making a Scene: 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'" (9 mins.) is a dry, uninformative piece that spends half its running time recounting DeVito's ridiculously tight shooting schedule for the entire second season (20 days). The other half is dedicated to the mundane ins-and-outs of maintaining continuity. Originally published: January 2, 2008.