Things that went through my mind when I first saw the title of tonight's episode:
- "Bleh, easy target."
- "Oh, but it's Sunny. They'll go off on some weird tangent that I would never have imagined."
- "I bet Dennis will pop his shirt off within the first two minutes."
Well, being right on two out of three ain't bad. “The Gang Goes To The Jersey Shore” starts off promisingly by eschewing the typical orange skin and steroids jokes that have been done to death, and gives us a Jersey Shore filled with hypodermic needles, roving packs of dogs, and bum sex. In other words, it puts the Sunny brand on Seaside Heights, a brand that works when it's a background player and quickly loses its shock value when used aggressively in lieu of actual jokes. And that's exactly what happens in the second half, when things get a little lazy and predictable, culminating in a handful of easy jokes and a montage that has a few good laughs but seems more like a cop-out than anything else. (And for the record, it takes a full three minutes and seventeen seconds for Dennis' shirt to come off.)
The gang heads to the Garden State in an effort to recapture the magic of the Reynolds Jersey Shore family vacations of yore (an idea that in itself is worthy of a flashback episode) but make the mistake of arriving after a toxic spill that has left the glorious beaches deserted and the boardwalk (a “cultural epicenter” in the Dennis' fond memories) a ghost town. While Dennis and Dee (who is sporting a majestic head of cornrows for this episode) search for the party and eventually fall in with a gang of PCP-addled criminals, Frank and Mac get lost at sea and are rescued at the eleventh hour (or more likely, the second) by a yacht full o' guidos. And Charlie spends a too-good-to-be-true night on the beach with the waitress, who kind of wanders in out of nowhere.
If this all sounds as scattered as last week's season opener, well, it's not – but it's also not as consistently funny. The homeless guys going at near the top of the episode feels unearned, and there's nothing particularly interesting about the band of criminals Dennis and Dee are kidnapped by – yes, they're terrifying and on drugs, but so are a lot of people in the Sunny universe. And the juxtaposition between the dark subject matter and the Go-Go's “Vacation” during the montage didn't feel as fresh and shocking as last week's “Pretty Woman” outro (Side note: They really have quite the music clearance budget over there, don't they?) Then there's also just the plain ol' disappointment of promising the Reynolds twins on PCP and not delivering.
But even in lackluster episodes of Sunny there are still too many bright spots to list, and this was no exception. It's a toss-up between Mac and Frank or Charlie's storyline that was the MVP here, but I'm going to go with Charlie's since it had an actual arc that ended in an actual, albeit melancholy punchline. Charlie's entire Jersey Shore experience was so magical and filled with wonders that by the time he and the waitress were nuzzling a puppy together in the moonlight I wondered if he had just never woken up after being strangled by Mac in the cold open (everything about that bit was great, from the callback to Charlie's inability to leave Philly while conscious, to Mac's last-minute decision to skip the rag and chloroform in favor of his bare hands.) Charlie's mystification with the ocean - “Don't swim to Europe?” he repeats after Dennis uncertainly, like a kid a little unhappy to hear that you're not supposed to go head first down the water slide – and pure joy despite being surrounded by mangy dogs and toxic waste were both great examples of how the expertly the character of Charlie Kelly has been developed over the years. In almost every episode we get something we already know about him (will eat anything – see: cakes, urinal) and expand on it (loves the taste of sunscreen.) “Getting to Know Charlie” is one of the best games Sunny plays.
It's also a game that makes us care about a character, who, in less capable hands, would just be a two-dimensional weirdo. So when it turns out that the waitress had been on ecstasy during her whole night with Charlie, didn't remember any of it, and is now disgusted at the sight of him and the dead crab they salvaged from the ocean the night before, it's a little sad. But our Charlie is growing up! Rather than freak out and chase after her like we'd expect, he shrugs and chalks it up to “summer love.” That's more character development than I'd ever ask of my little gross-out cable sitcom, and more than lot of prime time dramas get out of a whole season. (Either that, or Charlie's too wacked out on sunscreen for any of this to have actually sunk in.)
Elsewhere, Fat Mac is starting to show his true Fat Mac potential, by which I mean he spent much of this episode belly-up in a reclining position eating a giant rum-soaked ham. He and Frank's adventures at sea were definitely unlike anything I'd seen on Sunny before, and the surreal absurdity of the whole thing caught me off guard in a good way. (This episode probably also sets a new record for CGI shots on Sunny.) Like “boiling denim” last week, Danny DeVito gets a lot of mileage out of the phrase “rum ham,” and the Castaway reference as it floats away from the raft would have felt tired had it not been, well, a rum ham instead of almost any other object on earth. It was a weird, awesome series of events that was derailed by the arrival of the guido boat and a string of far more predictable gags.
It's strange to have an episode be so ambitiously strange one second, and then comparatively lazy and by-the numbers in the next. This was one of the rare episodes to take us out of Philly, and experience so far proves those can be hit or miss. In a lot of way the show needs Paddy's as its home base, just as an anchor for all of the craziness. But it's good to see the writers trying out the unexpected, and in the end it resulted in enough satisfying laughs to eclipse the not-so hot parts.
- The CGI was so weird, you guys. But kind of great, too? Dee getting partially scalped was all kinds of gross and delightful, but I found myself laughing just as much at the special effects as I did at her reaction.
- Dennis' pecs visibly drop in disappointment when Frank says he will not be strutting the beach.
- Charlie gives his first trip to the ocean an A+! “The sea specimens, the stray dogs, the trash floating all the way over from... Europe.”
- I saw the punchline of Dennis and Dee's speech about the girl in the hospital coming a mile away, but still laughed out loud at “waiting for the HIV to turn into AIDS.”
- “Get into the goddamn car you fat fat ass, fat fat ass!”
- “There are far worse people on the Jersey Shore than the cast of Jersey Shore.”