After years of getting shut out of the Emmys, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia took the hot air out of awards season with season nine standout “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award.” Their journey to pander to the lowest common denominator eventually led the Paddy’s crew to a rival pub: brightly lit, staffed by a telegenic and almost suspiciously diverse crew of bartenders, the mood kept peppy aside from the occasional tender moment between the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic leads. The Gang enjoys the sugary blue cocktails and gimmicky drinking games, but ultimately scorn the garish setting and return to their black hole of niche dysfunction.
It’s Always Sunny’s contempt for the artifice of creaky TV comedy is obvious, and in “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy,” they revisit the issue to even greater analytical and comic payoff. The episode creates a demented meta reflection of itself in a Truman Show-ish deception staged for Charlie and Mac’s mothers, and through that cracked mirror, they expose the core fakery of the type of sitcom that this nasty, gleefully amoral piece of work so defiantly is not.
The episode begins with Charlie’s mother sending him a hieroglyphic-strewn ransom-note-looking letter, which he worryingly interprets as a cry for help. He’s convinced that his “aggravatingly sweet” mother is being tormented by her roommate, Mac’s snapping turtle of a mom. With the bad influence of Dennis in the mix, they arrive at the conclusion that the only course of action is to surreptitiously install cameras all around what they deem “Old Lady House” and monitor the women’s behavior 24/7. They blow past a few minor ethical pauses — Frank’s rationalization of “They’re not women, they’re old!” would be pure cruelty if that phrase didn’t perfectly capture network television’s disposition towards actresses over 40 — and just like that, the greatest vérité sitcom since Weiner is born.
Sitting like fickle gods behind their camera switchboard, the Gang gradually learn the language of the sitcom tradition through trial and error, taking jabs at its instructive obviousness every step of the way. Dennis clearly spells out how the form can emotionally manipulate its viewers, ordering them to chuckle along with a laugh track to lighten an otherwise dark moment, or using musical cues in place of actual characterization. Returning to the example of Ralph “Why I oughta!” Kramden of The Honeymooners fame, Dennis illustrates the razor-thin line separating the disturbing from the hilarious, a line on which It’s Always Sunny has now sambaed for more than a decade. A murder evaded by seconds, threats of domestic abuse, an incestuous love triangle, unchecked obsessive-compulsive tendencies, the phrase “You are a horrible woman and I can’t wait until those cigarettes kill you, I shall dance on your grave”: It’s all just one canned laugh away from being comedy gold.
However, It’s Always Sunny doesn’t hate sitcoms writ large. How could they? This half-hour relies on the same absurd contrivances and humorous miscommunications that you can find on network schedules any weeknight. What they’re railing against is the bullshit, the hackiness of comedies that rely on wacky neighbor characters who pop up to generate applause and deliver an easily remembered catchphrase. The unending punishment heaped upon Dee continues, as she spends the episode with her head stuck between the bars of a banister, breaking wind and enduring ridicule. “None of the stuff you’re doing is playing, except for the fart stuff,” Mac tells Dee. As notes from the network go, it’s pretty harsh.
It also speaks to the biggest and sharpest ax this episode has to grind: the scourge of mass appeal. It’s Always Sunny has benefited from FX’s famously permissive attitude toward their creators, free to pursue their depraved impulses down whichever dank alleyways they may lead. They turn up their coke-dusted noses at those lesser sitcoms obsessed with what does or does not “play,” compromising their comedic sensibility for the sake of numbers. That much is clear when Dennis breaks down the premise of the show they’ve inadvertently created as “the grunty one physically abuses the shrill one, and the shrill one psychologically abuses the grunty one, and it really plays!” In the eyes of the Gang, this represents their version of a broad and easily enjoyed program.
The Sunny writers seem to know full well they aren’t for everyone, and they revel in filling that role. They happily occupy their niche, and would much rather do something specific well than something general passably. Their whole “Seinfeld set in a moral vacuum” shtick alienates some viewers, whether it’s because of the constant yelling, the casual atrocities that dot each episode, or the fact that its main ensemble is comprised of reprehensibly bad people. When Mac urges his mother to amp up her screen presence by telling her, “Be agreeable, which makes you rootable, which makes you likable,” it’s easy to hear it as a comment card from a focus group. Which, of course, turns Mac’s mom into a mouthpiece for the show itself when she delivers her defiant reply: “Fuck you!”
- Charlie takes the episode MVP title with his rambling description of his thought process. This is now the joke to beat for the season: “I’m thinking about my mom starring in a show. Now I’m thinking about minotaurs. Now I’m thinking about a hoagie sandwich. Now I’m thinking about a glass of water to go with the chips. How many of my thoughts do you need?”
- As they watch the live camera feed, Charlie and Dennis snack on Let’s brand potato chips, a sort of in-joke among TV obsessives. The prop food has appeared on dozens of shows, and its presence here is likely a wink to the episode’s deconstruction of TV’s many ersatz touches.
- Mac’s mom’s inability to not look directly into the cameras she doesn’t even know are there is a great, weird quirk, matched only by Mac’s insistence that she’s a gregarious star in the making.
- As he doggedly pursues Charlie’s newly “famous” (read: appearing on a closed-circuit camera feed) mother, Frank continues to live in a fantasy dimension of his own creation, where he’s somehow both an irresistible lothario and also a prince of filth.