IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (TV SERIES) – DVD review

To recycle a famous line from Mark Twain, reports on the death of the sitcom have been greatly exaggerated. Recent hits like “My Name is Earl,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” and “Ugly Betty” are living proof. So is “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” a surprisingly funny (and bawdy and politically incorrect) comedy that’s been airing late nights on the Fx channel.

Picture a loser-slacker version of “Friends” with a “Cheers” setting, an “All in the Family” approach to tackling sensitive issues, an “Arrested Development” style of editing and cinematography, and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” plotlines that unfold as a result of the idiotic attitudes of the main characters. As the box notes proclaim, it’s a show with “the most vain, dishonest, self-obsessed gang of friends since “Seinfeld.” The difference is, the characters in “Seinfeld” were likeable–even loveable–while these three guys and their gal pal? Not so much. I couldn’t put it any better than the show’s creator, head writer, and actor, Rob McElhenney: “It’s a show about three assholes.”

You’re such a dildo, dude.

How else would you describe three twenty-somethings who buy a bar in Philadelphia because they think it will help them get chicks and they can also drink whenever they want (which is often). These guys take amorality to new heights, whether it’s deliberately opening up their bar to underage drinkers, sleeping with each other’s moms, faking being handicapped, playing both sides of the abortion debate to “score,” or smuggling heroin into prison via their tushies. No sensitive issue escapes McElhenney and his co-stars and co-writers. And the language?

The guys, to a transsexual: “Excuse us, dude. Is that a dick in those pants?”

Charlie Day plays Charlie Kelly, Glenn Hoverton is Dennis Reynolds, and McElhenney is Mac–three Philly friends who, along with Dennis’s sister, Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson), are the core characters. Joining them for season two is Danny DeVito, who was brought onboard because of an ultimatum. With the show languishing in Thursday night obscurity, the gang was told that they needed to bring in some star power if they wanted to return for a second season. Good thing they agreed. DeVito, appearing as a regular in his first series since “Taxi,” really fits in with this dysfunctional bunch. It’s as if we’re seeing the illegitimate spawn of Louie DePalma reunited with the diminutive old lech, who, reincarnated as Dennis and Sweet Dee’s estranged father, Frank, can’t help but refer to his ex- without using the adjective “whore”–even when the noun that follows is “mother.”

(Dennis, to a social services worker): Hi, I’m a recovering crackhead. This is my retarded sister. I’d like some welfare, please.

The writing is strong and the situations so unfathomable that they can’t help but be funny, since one of the main conditions for humor is the element of surprise. You never know what this crew is going to do or say next. But what adds to the rawness is the style of filming. “It’s Always Sunny” is shot with a hand-held camera for most of the scenes, and there seems to be a deliberate attempt to make it look as if it were no better than home-movie quality. People are partially cut out of frames, there’s no laugh track and minimal music, wide-angle lenses are used for close-ups to reinforce the surreal feel, and some shots seem overly far away, while some cuts seem too quick and amateurish. But beneath that rough exterior lies some real artistry.

(Frank): I didn’t go to Vietnam just to have pansies like you take my freedom away from me.
(Dee): You went to Vietnam in 1993 to open up a SWEATshop.

There are imaginations at work here. Twistedones, but imaginations nonetheless. It’s all very well done, and as outrageous as you’ll find on television today. Maybe even tomorrow. Despite all of my attempts to describe this show using comparisons, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is really a unique show that’s going to grab the twenty-something audience . . . if, that is, they can find it. That’s the beauty of DVDs. It gives shows like this a second life.

Here’s a rundown on the 17 episodes from the first two seasons–a relatively scant amount because the show debuted the summer of 2005:

“The Gang Gets Racist”–When a comment made in public is overheard, Charlie and Mac try to prove they’re not racist; meanwhile, a guy Dee is dating spreads the word about Paddy’s Pub, and it turns into Philly’s hottest gay bar. Homophobic? Naw. Not when there’s money to be made.

“Charlie Wants an Abortion”–When an old girlfriend tries to hit up Charlie for paternity some 10 years after the fact, he tries to prove it’s not his son (while the boy pretty much wreaks havoc); meanwhile, Mac and Dennis use the abortion debate to try to pick up women. A very funny episode.

“Underage Drinking: A National Concern–Not only do the guys and Dee create a “safe haven” for high school drinkers as Paddys. They also get so involved that three out of four get asked to the prom.

“Charlie Has Cancer”–This was the pilot episode, retooled. When Charlie tells the guys he has cancer, they try to find someone who will sleep with him . . . but typically get so sidetracked that they end up getting all the action.

“Gun Fever”–This very funny episode pokes fun of NRA types (“Mac has a boner every time he things about buying a gun”) as the guys buy a gun when their safe is robbed, and it turns them into addicts.

“The Gang Finds a Dead Guy”–When the gang finds a dead guy in Paddy’s and the granddaughter turns out to be a looker, it turns into a competition. Meanwhile, Charlie learns that Dennis and Dee’s grandpa was a Nazi.

“Charlie Got Molested”–Is nothing sacred? Nope. Here, the gang mistakenly conclude that Charlie was molested by a gym teacher years ago, and Dennis and Dee stage an intervention.

“Charlie Gets Crippled”–In one of the funniest episodes, Charlie gets mistakenly run over by his friends and ends up in two casts and a wheelchair, something that turns out to be quite the “chick magnet” at a strip club. Soon, everyone is pretending to be physically challenged.

“The Gang Goes Jihad”–When a neighbor threatens to close Paddy’s, the gang fights back. Meanwhile, Frank goes into a funk when his ex-wife returns.

“The Gang Gives Back”–When Mac, Dee and Dennis are sentenced to community service because of their misdeeds, they twist it for their own purposes. Charlie, meanwhile, uses AA to hit on the waitress he has a crush on.

“Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare”–The siblings decide to pursue their dreams with the aid of public assistance, but things don’t go as well as they’d hoped. That leaves Mac and Charlie trying to run the bar, while Frank asserts himself as the all-knowing father-figure he never was.

“Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom–In this weird episode, the gang uses the threat of sex in order to achieve their own selfish purposes. It’s perhaps the most outrageous episode of the season.

“The Gang Runs for Office”–Politics (like everything else) brings out the worst in this group as Dennis runs for office and Frank goads Dee into running against him.

“Hundred Dollar Baby”–In this very funny parody of “Million Dollar Baby” Dee wants to learn how to box after the guys run away, leaving her to face a mugger alone in an alley.

“Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass”–Charlie wants to prove he’s a patriot, and so the gang turns Paddy’s into a freedom-loving place; Dee, meanwhile, decides that her acting career needs a boost, street-style.

“The Gang Exploits a Miracle”–In another hilarious episode, the gang tries to cash in when a water spot on a wall looks kinda like the Virgin Mary.

“Dennis and Dee Get a New Dad”–When the kids’ mom tells them that Frank isn’t their real father and they try to get acquainted with “Dad,” Frank goes off the deep end. Meanwhile, Mac and Charlie visit Mac’s father in prison to prove how tough they are.

The episodes are presented on three discs, housed in two slim plastic keep-cases with a cardboard slipcase.

Video:
The picture is a little rough, which, of course, is compatible with the rough, raw, home movie look that “the gang” seems to be going for. But there’s really only a slight graininess, while the color saturation and contrast levels seem to be good. Though some sites list this as widescreen, it’s really full frame (1.33:1).

Audio:
The audio is English Dolby Digital Surround, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Like the video quality, it’s pretty decent, but still in keeping with the home movie style.

Extras:
The extras are pretty standard. There are several audio commentaries on episodes by “the gang” which are entertaining enough, and which will particularly appeal to Philadelphians because they point out where things were filmed. There’s also a blooper reel that’s frankly not as funny as the show itself, two scenes from the original pilot, a brief feature on Olson’s audition, and a brief making-of featurette that focuses on the show’s development (it was originally intended as a movie). But the glitziest bonus feature is probably one that was shot for the Fox Movie Channel: “Making a Scene: ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia.'”

Bottom Line:
DVD gives TV shows a second chance, and this one is certainly deserving of a wider audience. It’s funny, it’s outrageous, and it treats taboos like a bowl of pretzels that’s there for the taking. The characters may not be the most likable group, but the situations and dialogue are hilarious, and the show has a really distinctive feel to it. Just brace yourself for the language and offensiveness.

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