Judge Brendan Babish thinks there's no better way to get to know Philadelphia than by hanging out in one of its rundown Irish pubs.
Our reviews of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: Season Five (published September 20th, 2010), It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: Season Five (Blu-Ray) (published October 14th, 2010), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season Six (Blu-ray) (published September 25th, 2011), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season Eight (published September 22nd, 2013), and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas (Blu-Ray) (published November 30th, 2009) are also available.
Good. Clean. Fun.
A few years ago, three struggling Hollywood actors scraped together about $85 to shoot an unaffiliated sitcom pilot about three buddies who own a bar. Somehow, a copy of the show, titledIt's Always Sunny on TV, got into the hands of some executives at the FX network. They liked what they saw, gave the young men $400,000 to shoot the first season, and rechristened the series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Not only did these executives give hope to every camcorder-wielding actor/writer/director with a dream, they also plucked one of the best sitcoms of the past few years out of complete obscurity.
Now, in anticipation of the show's third season premiere, Fox is releasing It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's first two seasons, 17 episodes, on a three-disc DVD set. The episodes included are:
• "The Gang Gets Racist"
• "Charlie Gets Crippled"
Facts of the Case
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a comedy about three ne'er-do-well friends who own Paddy's Pub, a dive bar in downtown Philadelphia. One of the odd aspects of the show is that these men all have similar personalities; they are arrogant, self-centered, and ignorant. Charlie (Charlie Day, Third Watch) is the shortest of the three, has the thickest beard, and least amount of success with the ladies; he is also the most gullible, but none of the three are very shrewd. Mac (Rob McElhenney, the show's creator) is a little less scruffy than Charlie and slightly more popular with the opposite sex. Dennis (Glenn Howerton, ER) is clean shaven and, despite his penury and insensitivity, quite popular with the ladies.
In addition to these three, Dennis' twin sister, Dee (Kaitlin Olson, Curb Your Enthusiasm), works as a bartender at Pabby's Pub, though she has no ownership stake. She is slightly more conscientious than her co-workers, but Dee still shows many signs of antisocial behavior.
The four-member gang (or perhaps three, as there is some dispute over whether Dee is a member) frequently embroil themselves in crazy schemes that often involve a controversial topic, such as abortion (Mac discovers anti-abortion rallies are a great place to meet chicks), gun control (the gang buys a gun and promptly shoots someone in the head), or religion (Charlie discovers a stain in the office resembling the Virgin Mary and exploits it for financial gain).
In the beginning of Season Two, the gang is joined by Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito, The War of the Roses), diminutive father of Dennis and Dee. While going through a contentious divorce with his wife (Anne Archer), Frank relives his youth by joining the gang in their high jinks.
The obvious corollary to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is Seinfeld. Like Seinfeld, Philadelphia is populated by individuals who embody the worst traits common to the human condition: greed, vanity, sloth, ignorance, and self-absorption. However, whereas Seinfeld subtlety depicted the way these weaknesses affect normal, everyday decisions and interactions, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia extrapolates them to absurd limits. In the Seinfeld episode "The Scofflaw," Jerry suspects an acquaintance of lying about his cancer diagnosis in order to get a free hair treatment from his friends. In the Philadelphia episode "Charlie Has Cancer," Charlie fakes having cancer in the hopes of receiving sympathy sex.
Jerry is insensitive enough to not only suspect his friend is faking, but also to act on these suspicions. But Jerry would never fake the cancer diagnosis himself. In Seinfeld the truly egregious behavior is usually reserved for peripheral characters (although this slowly began changing as the show progressed). In Philadelphia, it's one of the main characters who fakes having cancer. And on top of this, he doesn't do it for material gain, but to get laid. While we all saw a disconcerting amount of ourselves in the behavior of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, the gang from Philadelphia are beyond our ken and beyond redemption.
The brazenness of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is both a revelation and somewhat of a liability. Aided by strong scripts and solid performances, the group's machinations produce a giddiness that is undeniable, largely because of its clear impropriety. In "Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare," Charlie and Mac learn that the city will soon be forcing welfare recipients to work for local businesses. They rush down to the public assistance office to pick out their "slaves." Once there, Charlie quickly requests one of the fit black men he sees in the waiting room; this leads to a bickering session with Mac over whether this request is racist.
While race is a recurring theme of the show, very few minorities or interest groups are left untrammeled over the show's two seasons. While I'm sure some viewers will be turned off by the characters' continued insensitivity, Philadelphia is far too self aware to ever truly be offensive. While Charlie, Mac, and Dennis' schemes would be unconscionable in real life, their misanthropic behavior makes them look worse than any of their victims, and they are nearly always punished for their misbehavior. But most importantly, they're funny. If they weren't, the show would be unbearable.
That said, there are liabilities to building a show around such unlikable individuals. Because all the characters—with the possible exception of Dee—are just about equally reprehensible, in nearly identical ways, there is little distinction between Charlie, Mac, and Dennis. While there are subtle differences in their personalities, many of their actions and attributes are interchangeable.
Additionally, while empathy is not necessary for comedy, it can be an asset. Many of the great sitcoms of the past decade—Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office (both British and American versions)—are populated by selfish pricks; but somehow, they're endearing selfish pricks. The scene in the British Office in which David Brent got sacked was one of the most emotional I've ever witnessed, in a comedy or a drama. This was because I cared about David Brent, despite the fact that he was a despicable person. I can't imagine anything nearly as affecting ever happening in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, largely because there is absolutely no humanity in these characters. This lack of emotional resonance is far from an insurmountable hindrance—in certain respects it's an asset—but it does prevent the show from achieving true greatness.
As It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a low budget comedy series, the picture and sound quality are hardly dazzling, but they are strong enough to never be distracting. There are some interesting special features on this DVD set, though not as many as I would have liked. There are commentary tracks on two episodes, both featuring the three male lead cast members; these guys have a great rapport, and listening to them explain their creative process is informative and great fun. Another interesting feature is the inclusion of scenes from the original pilot, which is a little rough, and doesn't work quite as well in its Los Angeles setting; still, why not include the entire episode? There are also a handful of featurettes and a gag reel, but these are not very substantial.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A couple years ago I remember thinking that Danny DeVito's acting career was probably just about over. Though he's talented, there can't be many great parts for short, aging, rotund, homely, bald men. However, Frank Reynolds is probably his best role since Tin Men. This character allows DeVito amble opportunity to do what he does best: yell, curse, and threaten others with physical violence. (I've always wanted a character to accept one of DeVito's challenges to brawl, just to see how well a guy less than five feet tall fares in a fistfight.)
With the possible exception of HBO, The FX channel has got to have the highest success rate for original programming on television. After a string of strong dramas like The Shield, Rescue Me, and Nip/Tuck, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia shows the channel can do comedy as well. For those who don't venture far enough up the dial to check out this show, do yourself a favor and pick up these DVDs.
These people are the absolute dregs of humanity…but they make me laugh, so not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Scenes from the Original Pilot
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