It’s Always Misanthropic in Philadelphia

13Sep07

I started this blog for a number of reasons – to share random thoughts about TV, to test drive my scholarly writing, and to network with interesting people among them. One reason I’d never considered was that blogging would lead to getting swag. Not that I’m against swag – I’ll go on-the-record as pro-swag. But I’d never considered that blogging would lead to the accumulation of swag.

Until now. Recently I got an email from a promotional firm called M80 that had noticed my blog and thought I might be interested in previewing the new season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which debuts today on FX). I’d enjoyed the first two seasons of Sunny, and thus happily exchanged my public opinions for a DVD with 4 new episodes and a spiffy Paddy’s Pub t-shirt. These are my honest opinions, influenced by swag only by providing early access to the shows – I don’t have the luxury of being able to go see the pilot previews in NYC, as Jonathan Gray has written about on his new group blog, The Extratextuals. (Note – that promo was completely uninfluenced by swag…)

If you haven’t seen Sunny, it’s within the Seinfeld family tree of sitcoms, with a sprinkle of Arrested Development, but set within a working-class milieu. The show focuses on four twentysomethings with little going on in their lives beyond owning a bar that never gets any customers (save for the episode when they decided to become the local “high school bar” by serving underage patrons), so they spend their time being completely misanthropic and hateful. It’s much funnier than it sounds, fitting into the general subgenre of squirm-com perfected by Larry David.

The second season added Danny DeVito, who brilliantly played television’s first truly hateful comedic star Louie DePalma on Taxi (a key predecessor of the squirm-com itself), as the father to two of the characters. (Actually, DeVito’s character turns out to not be the father to the two characters whom he raised, but to one of their friends…) While I found season 2 enjoyable, it felt that DeVito was acting in a slightly different style – the younger actors used a low-key semi-improvisational style, while DeVito seemed much more stagey and forced. Season 3’s episodes blend the cast more effectively, with DeVito really integrating into the gang, with especially great chemistry with his revealed-to-be son Charlie, played by Charlie Day.

The three main male stars, Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney, serve as both actors and the show’s creators and main writers – the series originated as a short film from the three actors looking to land parts. Sunny is a rare example of a commercial TV show that was not created by experienced TV writers, and it shows… in a good way. Sunny has a shaggy pacing, eschewing the set-up/joke format for a slow build of unlikely scenarios and improbably coincidences, all driven by the basest instincts of the characters.

In the first episode of the new season, Dennis’s turn to environmentalism leads the gang to discover a baby in a dumpster – the newly adopted Dumpster Baby (D.B. for short) triggers an elaborate revenge scenario against hippies, transforms two characters into homeless junk collectors, and inspires two others to turn D.B. into a child star by making him look more Hispanic via a tanning salon. The narrative structure is comparable to the complex Rube Goldberg scenarios built by Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Arrested Development, but the misanthropic attitude is more akin to South Park, with a gang of Cartmans seeking perverse pleasures at other people’s expense.

It’s nice to see a show that is so true to its principles in making its characters wholly unlikeable. Whenever the characters disagree about something, Sunny places them all in the wrong rather than allowing any comfortable possibilities of identification or sympathy. Much ink has been spilled on how the sitcom is a dying form (or art if you please). But clearly there are still great comedies out there, as in the anti-sitcoms Michael Newman wrote about last year. Whenever the sitcom is pronounced dead – which it has been in the 1960s, the 1980s, and 2000s, it reemerges transformed. Sunny belongs on the short list of strong sitcoms of the decade – while it’s certainly not for everyone, it’s worth checking out tonight (or in reruns throughout the week) to discover the fate of poor Dumpster Baby.



2 Responses to “It’s Always Misanthropic in Philadelphia”

  1. 1 Media Maven

    I got an e-mail from those guys too, and I got a free screener as well– but no free t-shirt! What gives??

    And I’m right there with you about the show– I find it to be wholly refreshing and a daring move for FX as they really start to cement themselves as a network to be reckoned with.

  2. I haven’t heard from them, but I’ve scored about 15-20 screener DVDs of movies over the years. Still haven’t managed a free t-shirt, so I’m a little bummed about that.


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