Written by Musgo Del Jefe
I've always kept the FX Network at arms-length. It seems that every time I committed to them, they went and changed their hairstyle, clothing, and accent so that I could barely recognize them. I first fell in love with the upstart fX (attracted by their clever smaller-case "f"), which promised me "TV Made Fresh Daily" through the mid-‘90s with their live shows centered around an apartment somewhere in New York City. I spent mornings with their unique news show that “Robin & Co.” is still copying today. Towards the end of the ‘90s, they changed their name to FX, cancelled all the quirky live shows that had attracted me in the first place, and quickly became a dumping ground for recent and then current Fox shows.
I adapted and found it sweet that they were the only channel airing M*A*S*H and X-Files repeats. When Major League Baseball playoff games overlapped, FX was there to help out. This move, later copied by MTV/Viacom when they turned The Nashville Network to The National Network and then to Spike, proved initially popular with young men. But as that initial attraction was dying, FX hit on the ideal mix when they took a chance on a graphic original program, The Shield in 2002. I found this little number by accident and fell in love with the network all over again. I was addicted and would forgive them hours of Married With Children repeats for an hour of this brilliance.
FX followed this lightning in a bottle with two other successes in 2003, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. Neither made my Tivo, but I respect the quality of these offerings. In June of 2005, they ventured into the world of documentary series (a leap considering the formula for their previous successes in original programming) with the brilliant 30 Days from Morgan Spurlock.
In August of 2005, they would take another leap and try original comedy, calling their two shows "The Dark Side Of Comedy." Both Starved and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia debuted on August 4, 2005. My Tivo was so full that I felt I could only add one of the two. I bet on red (Starved) and the wheel came up black (Philadelphia). Starved wasn't "The Dark Side;" it was just plain offensive, three men and a woman with eating disorders, and even worse, it wasn't funny. The other show was "Dark," and it also starred three men and a woman, but it had the advantage of being funny. Philadelphia played out for seven episodes that fall of 2005, and was renewed for ten episodes in the summer of 2006. As the third season gets underway, the first two seasons have been released on a three-disc set.
The premise of the series is simple. Mac (Rob McElhenney, creator of the show), his roommate Dennis (Glenn Howerton), and his childhood friend Charlie (Charlie Day) are co-owners of a Philadelphia bar called Paddy's Irish Pub. Their bartender is Mac's twin sister, Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson). By the start of the second season, Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito) joins the cast as the father of Dennis and Dee and as Charlie's roomate (and maybe Charlie's biological dad?). The formula of multiple men and a woman has worked on plenty of comedies, M*A*S*H and Cheers being older examples. But the bar in Philadelphia isn't the same filter that it served in Cheers. Here, the bar serves merely as a plot device in most episodes for our characters to come into contact with new people or as a catalyst, creating a problem that needs to be solved or explored. The writers have chosen a much more current template for their comedy.
In the post-Seinfeld era, more current comedies have tried to copy the Friends model to a much lesser success. Philadelphia has taken the irreverent aspects of Seinfeld to the next two levels. It's not an accident that our lead characters fulfill the base roles that we're comfortable with. Sweet Dee is Elaine with an exaggerated amount of romantic failures. Dennis is the ultra-confident, successful with women, but never effected by the break-ups exaggerated Jerry. Mac is a slightly less ethical version of Kramer that feels a need to compete, and usually lose to, with Dennis for women. Charlie is George taken to a naive extreme. In a Seinfeld-esque moment during Season 1, Charlie lies about having cancer in order to date the waitress at the coffee shop that wears a Lance Armstrong cancer bracelet.
Each episode stands alone. I like the way we usually get little to no back-story before the plot of each episode kicks off. We start with a title card of a time (e.g. "3:15 p.m.) and a day (e.g. "On a Tuesday") as if telling us that we've just turned on the camera because something interesting is going to happen. Like most good comedies, the episodes rarely go down the path that you expect. For example, the first episode, "The Gang Gets Racist" starts out as a story on racism about Dee's new boyfriend but 10 minutes in, it has completely turned into a story about becoming a "Gay Bar." The "Charlie Wants An Abortion" episode, starts with Charlie finding out that he has a child from 10 years ago to one of the funnier moments of the show as Dennis and Mac try to decide which side of an abortion rally is likely to provide them the best dates.
The episodes are consistent. The gang (including DeVito who just blends in from the beginning as if he was always a member of the cast) is always arguing with each other, they are naive (their takes on the War On Terrorism in "The Gang Goes Jihad" is hilarious), they will throw each other under the bus given a chance, they lie about everything, and in great comedic fashion, they never win. Balance is maintained in the world.
The long-term problem for this show may be the same thing that has made the first two seasons so superb. In small doses, this is the perfect summer show. It's about nothing and it's about no one. We don't really like or root for any of the characters to succeed. In fact, we revel in their downfall, because it's so funny (in "Dennis & Dee Go On Welfare", we don't want them to pursue their dreams while on Welfare, we want to see them fail miserably). The episodes, while funny, don't tend to leave me wanting more, like Arrested Development or even Curb Your Enthusiasm. Summer shows don't have to do that; they rest on my Tivo until I need a mindless break. I expect more of a fall show. You're competing against The Office, 30 Rock and even Family Guy. I fear that a show about no one won't last past the key Third Season when it's not so Sunny outside.
Bonus Features. A "Making Of" featurette, outtakes, and two episode commentaries are hardly worth influencing your decision to buy this set. It's a funny show with a good cast that doesn't come with the baggage of having been in other shows or movies, except for DeVito. Other network offerings have set the bar high, with commentaries on most episodes and enough bonus features to fill and extra disc. I like that this set lets the original episodes speak for themselves.
Is this the new FX? No fancy make-up, short sensible hair, smells like strawberries, and just a bit of a "dark" side? If so, I'm in love again.