There's a lot of life in the old sitcom format yet, my friends. Witness It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which makes hilarious hay out of TV's hoariest genre. Just give it one more twist: The characters believe that they are lovable sitcom types engaged in wacky hijinx, while in reality they are actually amoral, venal, stupid sacks of doorknobs. Somehow their horrifying and uniformly offensive misdeeds get transformed, through the magic of their firm (and baseless) belief that they are fundamentally sympathetic characters, back into sweet-natured sitcom ditziness. It's as if Laura Petrie were married to George Costanza, and both of them modelled their lives after Badlands.
The third season premiere finds the gang in familiar terrority, opportunistically spouting the rhetoric of goodhearted people with none of the attendent emotion, while concocting what Newsradio memorably termed "cunning plans and crazy capers." In order to fit in with the environmentalist crowd, Dennis hippyfies himself by another 25% everytime the scene changes; Frank and Charlie reduce themselves to homelessness because they can't resist the lure of discarded scrap metal; and Mac and Dee try to market the baby they found in the dumpster as a Latino tv star. And that's just the premiere; in the bonus ep, "The Gang Gets Invincible,", Mac and Dennis decide to re-enact "the New Kid on the Block movie" by trying out for the Eagles at a stunt everyman day, Frank reveals that his idea of a tailgate party is dropping acid, and Dee puts on a fake moustache to show up the boys at the tryout despite her body being "90% scoliosis."
For my money, the premiere takes almost half the running time to get its sea legs again, and the "Invincible" episode goes too far into grotesquerie with the return of the McPoyle clan, the inbred nemeses of the Reynolds, and a sweaty LSD POV in which Frank tries to crawl into a toilet. But who would want to miss the appearance of Green Man, Charlie's latex-clas mascot alter-ego, or Dennis's interior monologue while he goes out for a pass and regrets not having "popped the jersey off"? The Sunny gang leave no script thread untugged, for better or for worse.
The received wisdom from the "everything was better two years ago" crowd is that the introduction of Danny DeVito into the mix of petty criminals turned an underground gem into corporate mush. As someone who came to the show during the second season, I call this early-adopter snobbery. Actually, DeVito's well-known cutesy-asshole persona just underscores the delightful offensiveness of the show. We always had to be reassured that Louie De Palma had a heart of gold underneath his misanthropy. But Frank Reynolds can be a unmitigated bastard with no redeeming virtues but comic timing, and on FX, the natural home of the lowest dregs of humanity, he fits right in.
--Who has better lives than child stars? Nobody! My God, they're the happiest people on earth!
--Rob McElhenney manages to justify the Holy Trinity of shlub behavior -- walking out, crawling back, and drinking beer -- all "for the sake of Dumpster Baby." That is one flexible infant.
--More happens in Sunny than almost any other half hour on television. That's why it's so refreshing when the show completely blows off its expository responsibilities by having Charlie announce the results of his detective work by bellowing "Who wants to hear a mindblowing story?" and getting no takers.
--The best way to introduce novices to the Sunny ethos is to play a montage of scenes of shameless littering. Two episodes into the third season, two classic additions to the genre: Mac chucks a Big Gulp in an alley, and Mac and Dennis smash beer bottles in the stadium parking lot after synchronized public urination.
--A fake Donovan McNabb shilling for McDonald's who's actually Elvin from The Cosby Show. Folks, if you miss Arrested Development, that throwaway gag ought to bring you running like the dinner bell just rang.