The Good: Moments that are riotously funny, Danny DeVito, Moments of character, Daring quality, Price
The Bad: Very crude humor, Lack of character, Some of the acting.
The Basics: With seventeen episodes on three discs It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia presents a poorly-acted sitcom with hilarious shock value.
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a tough sell on DVD, though I will admit I enjoy watching it when it's on and I'm around a set that has cable. Now out on DVD as It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia - Seasons 1 and 2, is a shaky seventeen episode sitcom that trades on its vulgar humor and ability to shock. The show starts out with a daring, if somewhat vile, quality and progresses into something that is remarkably standard, if still edgy in its content. This FX comedy illustrates that the satellite network to Fox, is interested in producing daring comedies as well as their edgy dramas like Nip/Tuck.
Over three discs, this boxed set explores the owners of Paddy's Bar in Philadelphia. Two mid-twentysomethings and their two friends own and operate the bar while finding themselves getting into outrageous situations. Their problems are exacerbated by the appearance of Frank, the father of twins Dennis and Dee when he divorces their mother. He falls in with the slob, Charlie, and soon is misbehaving with the gang. Accompanied by Mac, the gang finds themselves getting into trouble, usually involving drinking, gambling and/or illegal activities.
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a sitcom that is not afraid to go where many other comedies are afraid to. The series opens with Paddy's being turned into a gay bar, which pits two of the gang who are neglected by the gay clientele against the other two, one who gets attention (which he's happy with despite not being gay) and one who's thrilled over the money they are making. In similarly edgy or depraved episodes, the show explores the abortion debate, has a character trying to get sympathy sex by claiming he has cancer, having Paddy's becoming a safe haven for underage drinkers, and finding one of the characters in an ethical bind over a fraudulent child molestation lawsuit. As well, Frank pops up and buys into the bar after the others go on a jihad against a Middle Eastern neighbor, the twins try a welfare scam, and they try to get rich by running for public office with the intent to get bribed.
This is not highbrow humor. Indeed, this is something very far from it. The show deserves credit for being edgy and it often is funny. So, for example, in the episode "Charlie Got Molested," when it appears that Charlie may have been victimized by his high school gym coach, the show rapidly becomes complex and surprisingly funny for a show trading on molestation humor. Dee and Dennis, who have studied psychology, stage an intervention where they try to force Charlie into admitting he was victimized. Charlie, for his part, suspects who is making the accusation and is mortified to discover they got the idea to sue the coach from one of Charlie's drunken rants! And Mac becomes obsessed with trying to get the coach to molest him now as an adult because he feels like he was left out and not attractive enough as a kid for the coach to molest.
The Mac part of the storyline turns the show from something that is on the edge of good taste well over the line and into territory that is disturbing, yet hilarious. Many of the episodes end up that way and the truth is the show manages to be funny.
What it doesn't succeed with is much of anything else. Honestly, almost no one looks to comedies for their moral center and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is unapologetic in its ruthless humor. The problem is, most of it hinges on the characters being self-centered slackers. The bulk of the humor in these episodes comes from most of the characters being lazy, self-involved and out only to better themselves. They generally do not look out for one another and as a result, they have no problem with scheming against one another. The last show I truly enjoyed that did that was Arrested Development and that was far smarter and classier in its execution than this show.
What drove me into the series was Danny DeVito, who begins his tenure on the show beginning with the second season premiere. DeVito plays Frank and it's a sufficiently different role from his prior ones to keep me watching. No, this is not DeVito reprising his role from Taxi and it's certainly different from his eccentric turn as the Penguin in Batman Returns (reviewed here!). Here DeVito is more subdued - until his character is angry - and actually has moments where he seems to be trying to learn the slacker lifestyle. It does not come naturally to Frank and it does not come instantly to DeVito. He lends the show some credibility and sense of perspective. And, as the seasons progress, it is DeVito who is increasingly given some of the show's best lines. DeVito's sense of comic timing is more seasoned than the rest of the cast, which is in its mid-twenties and his appearance changes the tenor some, giving it some points for acting at least.
The series does not have the most impressively defined characters and part of the problem with It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is that because they are mostly morally ambiguous and out for their own gain, they are almost universally unlikable. And while the Bluth family in Arrested Development was unlikable from a human standpoint, they were entertaining and they made some sense. The denizens of Paddy's just seem like a stereotype about young people these days and it does not ring quite as true. The principles of the show include:
Dee Reynolds - Dennis's twin sister. She drinks a lot and is a bartender at Paddy's. She has not finished college, though she took courses that had her geared up for a psychology degree, and is trying hard to find acting gigs in Philly. She takes acting classes and meets a lot of men, though she ends up single constantly either because of who she is hitting on or because of her own issues,
Dennis Reynolds - Dee's twin brother and one of the co-owners of Paddy. He is a college graduate and generally the most successful of the gang. Despite being exceptionally narcissistic and a liar (actually all of the principles in this series are liars), he is open-minded and sometimes even tries to do the right thing. As part of a welfare scam, he ends up trying crack with Dee, which gets them condemned to the worst work at the bar,
Mac - A co-owner of Paddy's and childhood friend of Charlie. He is gullible, his father is in jail on drug charges, and he is awkward with women and claims to be spiritual, despite being somewhat short tempered,
Charlie Kelly - A co-owner of Paddy's and long-time friend of Mac, he's given the worst jobs around the bar. Often disheveled and living in a gross apartment, he is ill-informed, illiterate and the most overt liar of the bunch. He spends much time lusting after a waitress,
and Frank Reynolds - Dennis and Dee's father, he has a lot of money following his divorce from their mother. Frank planned to do good with his fortune but decided he'd rather emulate his kids and their self-absorbed lifestyle. When the opportunity presents itself, he buys into the bar, moves in with Charlie and schemes to destroy his ex-wife while starting a gambling ring at the bar.
None of the characters are particularly likable and they are certainly not easy to empathize with. The show frequently illustrates terrible consequences to the lies, schemes and indifference of the main characters, but in this boxed set there are no episodes that focus well on the consequences to those peripheral to their machinations. Sure, Charlie might get his comeuppance in one episode, but those he hurt along they way just stay hurt and inconsequential after their departure from the episode. It makes it quite difficult to like any of the characters.
The other half of that is in the performances. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia does not have a magic cast. Instead, Glenn Howerton (Dennis), Kaitlin Olson (Dee), Rob McElhenney (Mac) and Charlie Day (Charlie) fill their roles but do not add anything distinctive or interesting to their characters. Indeed, there are moments in both seasons where they either completely telegraph their jokes or they miss the beats to make their performances carry any real humor. In short, the performances are not as funny as they could be and that drags the show down some.
On DVD, the series looks good, at least. Bonus features include commentary tracks on a few of the episodes, outtakes, two featurettes, a "making a scene" special and clips from the original pilot that was used to sell the series. There are no deleted scenes and while the featurettes are informative, they are not earthshattering. This is about all one might expect from a series that very few people have yet heard of or seen.
In the final analysis, it's a tough sell. Those who like Strangers With Candy are likely to find the humor in this appealing. If you're looking for something a little more highbrow or less . . . well, filthy, this boxed set will not fit the bill.
For other works with audacious humor, check out my takes on:
Family Guy Presents Partial Terms Of Endearment
The Hangover Part II
Glee Season Two, Volume One
For other television reviews, be sure to visit my index page that has organized listings of all the television sets I have reviewed by clicking here!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.