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Time of the Season: S1-2 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (’05-’06)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 6, 2007

“Clown Baby has arrived…”

Can you believe how long it’s been since I’ve done one of these columns? Seems it was only a few months ago that I was cranking these out every couple of days, but a combination of external factors sapping my time normally devoted to catching up on old (well, not new) TV means that I haven’t actually written one of these bad boys since my write-up of the original run of Sports Night almost two months ago. And aside from the usual self-loathing unavoidable when watching 15 or so straight episodes of about anything, it feels good to be back in the saddle again.

Anyway, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Quick sum up for those still unexposed to the show–a twin brother and sister, Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Deandra / “Sweet Dee” (Kaitlin Olson) own an Irish pub in Philadelphia, along with Dennis’s friend Mac (show creator Rob McElhenney) and Mac’s childhood friend Charlie (Charlie Day). In the second season, Dennis and Dee’s dad Frank (Danny DeVito) shows up and buys a share of the bar as well.

There’s some minor subplotting going on as well–Charlie’s infatuation with an extremely uninterested local waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and Frank’s addiction to unethical gambling practices among them–but as far as actual plot arcs go, that’s about it. Most of the time, the four (and as of the second season, five) of them just lounge around their bar, yelling, hatching get rich quick schemes, and looking for ways to compete with each other in ridiculous contests of pride and vanity. Works for me.

Props to my friend REL for browbeating me into finally giving this a chance (as well as showing me my first handful of episodes), since it’s certainly a winner–the sort of heartless, super-black comedy badly missing from my TV rotation sinice I got sick of watching the same Seinfeld reruns for the 7th and 8th time twice a night. In fact, the show’s semi-official tagline is “Seinfeld on crack,” which is fairly accurate, though I prefer “Arrested Development without a conscience” (DeAndra even looks like AD’s Lindsay Funke after a few years of smack dabbling).

‘Coz when I look back on it after having seen some of Philadelphia, it seems more and more like Arrested pulled its punches a little. And that would’ve been OK if the show had legitimate heart to go with it, but it tried a little too hard to have it both ways–to simultaneously maintain a rep as the least compromised comedy on TV, but to still throw enough half-hearted sentimentality in there that critics could still maintain that all the backstabbing and near-sociopathic self-interest on display in the show was OK because at heart, it was a family show (which, as the show’s ultra-cynical finale made blindingly obvious, it most definitely wasn’t). Plus, it had that fucking awful Ron Howard narration.

Not to say that Philadelphia is the better show, necessarily–AD was almost certainly more creative, had more unique characters (played by better actors) and was possibly even funnier on an ep-by-ep basis. But after the way AD had to temper itself to stay on FOX (and ultimately, on the air at all), the way Philadelphia absolutely refuses to apologize for the heartlessness presented is more than a little refreshing. Not to mention that its status as an FX show means that it can actually let loose with the language a little bit–they still can’t use “fuck” (resulting in an increasingly unnatural reliance on the substitute “bang”), but they can usually work around it enough so that you don’t notice so much.

And despite lacking the depth and diversity of AD’s cast, Philadelphia‘s crew can still certainly hold their own. The group dynamic (three guys and one girl, all selfish assholes only looking out for number one–which I guess makes Danny DeVito’s character a combination of Frank Costanza and Newman) is the part of the show most obviously cribbed from Seinfeld, but unlike that show, which centered around and was even named after its star–obviously the most narcissistic member of the cast–Philadelphia tends to be fairly democratic with its division of time and plot space. If you had to choose a protagonist, it’d probably be Dennis, simply because he’s the most outwardly successful of the bunch, but unlike Jerry’s position smug superiority over his three friends, Dennis’s ass gets kicked, physically and emotionally, about as much as the other three.

Consequently, there’s not really one character that’s more relatable or likeable than the others–you’re not rooting for any one of them to triumph over the others, you’re generally rooting for them all to fail, and to be as hilarious as possible in their self-destruction. The one character that possibly merges as being the most sympathetic is probably Charlie, but that’s not because he’s any less detestable a person than the other three–rather, he’s just a little bit more pathetic than the others, and so you want his ass to get kicked slightly less, since it seems like life has already done most of the job already. And I do keep hoping the waitress (who might be the cutest short-haired girl in popular entertainment since Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment) throws Charlie at least one pity-fuck, even if he has to lie, cheat and blackmail his way there–which he’s already done, even, just not quite successfully enough. And that’s one of the brilliant parts of the show, really–watching it, you’re already operating under the assumption that you’re in a moral black hole of a universe, so you don’t have to feel bad about the times that you do actually desire these characters’ success to be achieved, by any means necessary.

The other brilliant part? Setting it in Philly. Besides providing the show with a hell of a title–one of those great titles that sounds like its making some sort of comment but actually both means nothing and reflects absolutely zero on the show’s actual content, besides its location anyway–it gives the show a lack of connotation that allows it to function as a kind of Every City, USA. ‘Coz when you get down to it, what do people really know about Philadelphia? Besides the Liberty Bell, the constant failure of the sports teams, and the cheese steaks, I feel like the answer is not much. Which is why I find the opening stroll through the more scenic parts of city, set to the lush strings of a 50s-era TV drama, so hilarious–I know where most, if not all of these places are, and yeah, they’re kind of nice looking, but would they have any meaning whatsoever to someone who lived outside the city? I dunno, maybe I’m just a sucker for WaWa namedropping, but I feel like the Philly location was the final stroke of genius to give the show what it really needed–a total blank slate of a setting to let the characters’ horrific actions speak for themselves.

My only real worry about the show is how it’s going to manage to stay fresh. It’s easy to not get stale over two seasons when you only have a total of 17 half-hour long episodes, but can it really keep it up over the course of another couple full seasons? It’ll almost have to introduce some actual plot arcs, and it’s only a matter of time before two of the main characters hook up, and unless they treat that inevitability with the minimum amount of delicacy possible (my vote is for either Mac & Charlie or Dennis & Dee, the latter of which they even sort of foreshadowed in the S2 finale), it could be the end of the show right there. Seinfeld managed nine classic seasons without doing too much of this, but AD could barely hold on for three. It’ll be interesting to see in which camp Philadelphia ends up.

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4 Responses to “Time of the Season: S1-2 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (’05-’06)”

  1. Dan said

    Ron Howard’s narration was fucking great! Especially whenever Ron Howard would get pissed off at one of the characters, like the Michael’s publicist-girlfriend and the narrator of “Scandal Makers”

  2. The Platypus of Truth said

    “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is the best TV show I’ve seen since “The Cosby Show” went off the air.

  3. Hilary said

    “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” has very quickly become one of my favorite shows ever. The writing is hilarious, the characters are great, and I can’t get this out of my head for the life of me:

  4. […] Time of the Season: S1-2 of It??s Always Sunny in Philadelphia ??05-??06 […]

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