A sitcom's foundation is its ensemble, and in a good sitcom, that foundation has enough strength and depth to eventually fuel hundreds of stories and thousands upon thousands of jokes. When we tune into sitcoms we follow faithfully, we expect the familiar and the surprising in equal measure. Our core cast will be there, in that same apartment/cafe/dive bar, and the tall one will be vain, and the short one will scream a lot, and the really short one will do something gross with food, and from that area of relative comfort, the show is free to explore new unexpected ways to make us laugh our asses off.
When a show departs from those expectations, it's a gamble, and one that immediately sets up expectations for a payoff. Sunny technically did this once before in season four's “The Gang Cracks The Liberty Bell,” but the powdered wigs and pseudo-period dialect were just a goofy riff on what was essentially just another half hour with the gang at Paddy's. On “Frank's Brother,” however, we not only switch settings entirely, we leave all but one member of the gang for most of the episode and spend much of it with two brand-new characters. It was jarring, but I had faith that it was all for a reason, that reason hopefully being jokes.
Interrupting a lively debate about Uzis and hoagies that I wouldn't have minded seeing more of, Frank's long lost brother Gino (Jon Polito) arrives at Paddy's, and within seconds, the two are quite literally at each others necks. Gino's mad because he thinks Frank has been in touch with the woman whom they've both claimed as the love of their lives. The gang pulls up their chairs in anticipation of a juicy flashback, and soon, we're in the swingingest black-people-music bar in Philly, where Gino is a bookie and Frank just a kid with a terrifying wig on his head and jazz club dreams in his heart. Frank falls for Shadynasty (pronounced Sha-DYnasty, a far classier name than “Shady-Nasty,”) a singer at the club and the girlfriend of the owner, and thus the troubled saga of their love begins.
Let me get my most superficial quibbles out of the way first: Shadynasty should have been one of the first two girls, right? When the love of Frank's life is revealed to be the prettiest and thinnest member of the girl group serenading the club, I have to say it was a little surprising (not to mention a little eye-rolling to see Naturi Naughton once again play a character that may as well be another chocolate bunny). Sure, we were dealing with a younger and more idealistic Frank (though I had my doubts about the reliability of our narrator), but I was still waiting for some dark, weird side of Shadynasty to be revealed. Also, I found it disappointing to learn that Frank had such a regular-sized brother. Maybe I'm easily amused, but I feel that this episode would have been at least 30 percent funnier if it followed two little filthy, hoagie-eating cauliflowers snortin' coke and bangin' whores in the swingin' seventies.
In all seriousness though, what it comes down to is that there was just nothing particularly funny about any of the new elements: the '70s stuff or Gino or Shadynasty (other than the fact that Shadynasty is named, well, Shadynasty). This episode denied us our security blanket, and then failed to provide us with the fresher, funnier, weirder blanket that it's completely fair to expect from a show with such a strong track record. You can't just regurgitate a bunch of cliches and call it a joke. “The '70s sure were wacky” isn't a strong enough takeaway for a show that has proved itself capable of much more subversive, strange comedy.
That strangeness peeks out every once in a while here. I loved the bit where Frank starts chomping on a piece of bread while taking away Gino's gun as a transition from the flashback to present day, and the gang's collective horror at Frank's blithely racist narration was pretty great, the “those were the days” exchange between him and Dee being a highlight. In fact, in what little screen time the rest of the cast has, they're in top form. Has anyone noticed how Mac is starting to be the most meta of the gang? (“Guys, it's almost five, I'd like to see this story play out,” he says as the episode enters its final act, his blasé manner unfortunately echoing my own.)
The running joke, that Frank and Gino keep accidentally sending Shadynasty's true true love Reggie to jail, is not a bad one, but it could have been taken so much further and only gotten funnier. I was reminded of Rickety Cricket being batted around by Dee in season two's “The Gang Exploits A Miracle” with about a fifth of the inhumanity. Reggie just seems to get nicer and nicer with every jail sentence; even as a Black Panther, all he wants to do is give Gino a pamphlet very sternly. Again, this is funnier on paper than it plays out over the half hour, maybe because the episode is so filled with less-funny tangents.
I'm all for Sunny experimenting from time to time, but I don't think that separating us from our ensemble so completely is the way to do it. And sure, sitcom episodes split up their main cast all the time to go chasing after B- and C-plots, but Frank always works best as a character when he's got someone to play off of and either abet or be horrified by his idiosyncrasies. Gino didn't really do either emphatically, and I won't be too bummed out if he doesn't return to Paddy's anytime soon, because even that rum ham brought out more of Frank's personality.
- Speaking of Mac's meta line, did anyone get the feeling that the regulars were sort of commenting on the overall “meh”ness of this episode? “We might pop in and out mentally,” Dee warns Gino before the first flashback, and indeed, it was hard not to.
- “Then I guess that don't leave me with no choice but to be a mature-ass adult about this shit.” Reggie just may be the most rational character in the Sunny universe, and I love how that qualifies as a joke in and of itself.
- Judging by the gang's ability to just waltz into an airport terminal without a boarding pass, I guess this episode takes place in the summer of 2001, at the latest.
- However spotty this episode was, the '60s-era sequence and Naughton's presence did momentarily make me imagine an alternate version of the late, lamented Playboy Club with Danny DeVito in Eddie Cibrian's role, and that's worth something.