Sunday, April 1, 2012

Seasonal Lag: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (S7)

Seasonal Lag began as a Flixist c-blog. It covers the most recent season of a given television show, examining it episode by episode as well as against the series as a whole. So named because I am very poor at following shows weekly, or at all.

Note: This blog was originally written for and published on Flixist.

Hello, my name is Jason Savior and this is Seasonal Lag, an attempt at a regular community blog which takes its name from an obscure atmospheric phenomenon in order to offer a haranguing and frequently dilatory retrospective on the most recent seasons of some of my favorite (or most ably tolerated) television shows.

Rejected title: Seasons Beatings, alluding to that charmingly effete way Internet critics have of threatening verbal whallopings to the subjects of their scrutiny which don't impress.

This week's box set is the seventh season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, now extensively truncated to It's Always Sunny in the same irritatingly marketing-approved manner that a certain News Corp-owned science and nature channel was rechristened Nat Geo to better its odds of survival in the hazardous ecosystem of basic cable, a rare implicit endorsement of such a concept by its parent company.

Where We're At

Premiering on September 15, 2011 and concluding three months to the date later, Sunny's ten episode seventh set a new high in viewership for the series while generally maintaining the same low of its brow. As raucous and grotesque as the show has become, the early seasons of Sunny bear as much similarity to its most recent as the Frank Reynolds-portraying Danny DeVito does to the former star of such family-friendly, biology-based comedies as Junior.

While the scatological depths to which it sank in 2008 irreparably soured me on the show in some ways, I remain as much of a fan as anyone of the instantly recognizable patter style of its dialogue. Season seven preserves the status quo of late, keeping topical episodes to a relative minimum and focusing mainly on gang escapades and hijinx. Season four is spiritually reprised with another out-of-time Holodeck episode as well as a continuity-honoring finale. Treading new ground is what garnered the most buzz prior to the premiere: Rob McElhenney's Bale-esque weight gain in order to advance Mac's character. It was a bold move that fit the character well and left me genuinely impressed, particularly as I was forced to alter my mind's eye fantasies of he and Kaitlin Olson having rapidly paced quip-ridden sessions of lovemaking in order to include another fifty pounds of fleshy anatomy (not Axel Lee).

Episodes 1 - 4: Hummingbirds

The season opens strong with "Frank's Pretty Woman," an episode which intelligently highlights some comedically compelling aspects of the non-Garbage Pail characters and introduces viewers well to Fat Mac (Big Mac?). A later episode explains Mac's portliness in greater fashion, yet without the knowledge that this was forthcoming, I was actually quite content with the only exposition being Mac's stubborn and characteristic insistence that he was bulking and the rest of the gang's disgust. Throughout the first several episodes, Mac's wordless background eating provides a very funny bit of business (one might say he chews the scenery by chewing chimichangas, but they'd be misusing the expression and would have to edit their original draft of this c-blog in order to note as much).

The titular prostitute, by the way, is played by Alanna Ubach, whom my childhood brethren will remember as being the original lab girl on Beakman's World. She is pictured below, preparing for the role as Frank's lover opposite another cartoonish man-rat.

Using the episode to reference Dennis and Dee's crack addiction went a long way for me as a sign that the show is set in the real world with some sort of modest facsimile of consequences, which I believe makes the gang's behavior funnier than if it were ultimately a random series of inanity.

A thread ties episodes two and three together, as they (along with episode eight) are the season's only ostensibly au courant offerings. Both tackle pop culture items which are, if not totally reviled by the mainstream, at least viewed with a certain condemnation: the modern Jersey Shore and child beauty pageants. These two aspects of quintessential Americana owe their recent spotlight to nauseous reality programs. Interestingly, "The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore" and "Frank Reynolds' Little Beauties" both refuse to indict in any meaningful way these subjects of popular scorn, deliberately keeping the gang as the most hapless and deplorable people on your screen. While upon consideration this is consistent with the show, as it has never been one to use its license for transgressive comedy as a soapbox, it did seem somewhat odd to present every Toddlers & Tiaras mother in a Philadelphia dive bar as a supportive parent in possession of a healthy moral barometer. The Jersey Shore episode, likewise, concludes the Mac and Frank B story with a guido ex machina, to satisfying comedic effect.

Finally, the first RCG-penned episode of the season, "Sweet Dee Gets Audited," is an early high point, marrying a fitting coda to season six to an in-bar subplot which acknowledges Frank's seedy business background. It also features, helped in good part by a physical performance from Olson worthy of an animated GIF, the best classic Sunny title card smash of the season, a comic novelty of which I'll never tire.

Episodes 5 - 9: Emotional Battery

We hit a mid-season lull with "Frank's Brother," commonly considered the worst of the lot, despite the guest appearance of multi-talented Wire alumnus and heartthrob Lance Reddick, whose performance is so competent that one forgets this is possibly his only credit in comedy. Like "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell" in 2008, such episodes almost demand sympathy from the viewer - the makers of the show know as well as the audience that the concept is kitsch, but we're expected to allow it so that the regulars have a chance to stretch out of the confines of the established setting. I'm reminded of interviews with the cast of Next Generation I saw as a child in which they all seemed genuinely grateful to get out of their Starfleet uniforms and into a malfunctioning Holodeck at any given opportunity, while the audience was left to grin and bear noir detective Picard or Deputy Alexander.

In "The Storm of the Century," Dennis' sexual parasitism is played well, although hardly approaching previous heights such as "The D.E.N.N.I.S. System." Aside from the payoff of Dee's sudden distrust of machinery, the episode falls flat and, in an extremely unjustified claim, feels something like a webisode. A step up from "Frank's Brother," but the show wouldn't return to form until the following week with "Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games," my favorite of the season. A bottle episode, of which I am continually a fan, it delivers a potent dose of gang antics without the hit or miss element of an intrusive straight man or one-off oddball. Additionally, it further mines the rich vein of the gang's history growing up together; the various hints of their high school and college years bearing fruits such as Chardee MacDennis greatly enhances the show's present.

"The Anti-Social Network" works well, particularly because of how great seeing the characters' egos bruised by minutiae is as a story seed when it doesn't lead to wild, costumed overcompensation. The labyrinthine Catfish subplot is actually difficult to parse and may or may not completely, fully make sense. Allow me to seductively disrobe and don my "Genius at Work" t-shirt in order to ask: why would Sally's fake Dylan page be friends with the gin bar? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

Some consider "The Gang Gets Trapped" the season's best and, while the concept is intriguing and the final reveal is succulent, it is somewha -

Wait! Maybe Catfish, in an attempt to inhabit the Dylan character, mentioned being a patron of the gin bar in her conversations with Sally, who then friended the bar in an unnecessary and potentially dangerous attempt to add to the profile's authenticity. Shit.

Perhaps... this genius at work... must humbly acknowledge the work... of geniuses.

Episodes 10 - 13: Plan B

Randall Einhorn is credited as co-director of "How Mac Got Fat," evidence of the fact that the episode's pre-Big Mac scenes were filmed but unused last season. I'd like to know more about this - if episodes reaching production but being dropped is common, if it was dropped in prospective service of Mac's weight gain, so on - but I've been unable to find any interviews on the subject. One thing is certain: seeing thin Mac again sheds total illumination to McElhenney's decision, as the contrast leads the viewer to, more than ever before, experience that sensation of "Wow, does anyone else realize how incidentally attractive and doe-eyed this guy is? I wonder if that's positively influencing my opinion of his performance. I bet it's not, I bet he's just very talented and also happens to be very handsome. I wonder what kind of father he'd be."

It is a private monologue which all actors hope that their audience members have individually recited.

"How Mac Got Fat," as I stated earlier, is in some ways superfluous. The embiggening may have been funnier without explanation, although it doesn't obviously detract. Similarly, "Thunder Gun Express," whose thin premise and obtrusively cheesy countdown clock deflates the season's momentum at first, no major apparent problems and some especially funny interplay between Dennis and Mac are memorable upon second viewing.

And like Glenn Howerton defibrillating Jason Statham at gunpoint, the season jolts to its conclusion on a high. "The High School Reunion," parts one and two, echo "The Nightman Cometh" in their grand nod to the series as a whole and surpasses it in their writing and scope. The reveal of Mac's name, despite the distracting continuity error on the placement of the tag itself, is very rewarding, as is Dennis' feverish descent in the second half. Returning cameos from Judy Greer and Jason Sudeikis draw good reactions from the gang, while Mary Elizabeth Ellis' drunken Waitress exudes an irresistibly vulgar eroticism. The dance routine is sublimely haunting.


It's Always Sunny is signed for another two seasons and it will be interesting to see how things continue, as there remains a muffled progression in the lives of the characters within the show. With the quiet cessation of Boldy Going Nowhere's development early last year, only the three leads' blossoming film careers could take attention away from the series. The seventh season, with few outright moments of disgust and the occasional modicum of lucidity displayed by Charlie, keeps the quality of the show afloat, so far abating yet another case of virtually all long-running sitcoms' moribund predilection toward utter caricature.

That's it for Seasonal Lag this week. Thank you for sparing me some time.

Seasons Beatings might have been the title of a WCW pay-per-view.

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