Before I wrote for DVDTalk, I was a reader, and it was Eric D. Snider's review on this very site that convinced me to blind-buy the first DVD set of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" before heading home from work one night. I didn't regret it; that DVD set was seventeen episodes of inspired offensiveness, starting with episodes like "Charlie Wants An Abortion" and slowly ascending to the glorious peaks of "Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare", "Hundred Dollar Baby" (a genius episode title if I've ever heard one) and "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom". A year later, though, I picked up Season 3 of my own free will and had a vastly different experience. I felt like the show had gained complete freedom to go broader and broader in an attempt to one-up itself, and instead of helping, it was sabotaging the comedy. Without any logistical boundaries for the characters, or "normal" people, per se, to comment on how awful everything is, the gang's outrageous antics exist in a vacuum.
Now I've got Season 4 in my hands, and maybe it's just that DVDTalk is the charm, because writers/producers/stars Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton (along with the other writers) have rediscovered the balance between reason and ridiculousness. My biggest issue with Season 3 was how easy things materialized: in "The Aluminum Monster vs. Fatty McGoo", Frank (Danny DeVito) suddenly has a sweat shop at his disposal, police cars and uniforms show up in "Bums: Making a Mess All Over the City" and in "The Gang Sells Out" they all get jobs at another restaurant. These episodes may present rationalizations for these things, but these objects and opportunities still essentially materializes out of nowhere because the plot necessitates it. It's much funnier when Mac, Dennis and Charlie's schemes are limited by their resources, like a pathetic faked suicide in "Mac and Charlie Die (Part 1)", their get-rich quick scheme in "The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis" or their inadvertent terrorizing of an innocent Mexican family in "The Gang Gets Extreme: Home Makeover Edition". Not only do the horrified reactions of the innocent provide a hilarious contrast to the main characters' enthusiasm, but their actions require less magical screenwriting.
Another problem was the catalyst in several Season 3 episodes. The basis of "Sunny" is that these five people (Mac, Dennis, Charlie and Frank, plus Dee, played by Kaitlin Olson) are selfish, egomaniacal idiots who refuse to admit they're wrong about anything, mostly resulting in catastrophic attempts to one-up each other. Too much of Season 3 begins with an outside element invading their territory, like a dumpster baby or a sex offender who looks like Dennis, which does cause the characters to launch into trademark bickering, but somehow, just doesn't work quite as effectively as good old difference of (wildly uninformed) opinion. This year, we get Dee having a heart attack, Dennis re-discovering his "erotic" memoirs and more of Charlie's endless quest to win over The Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), all of which come from within the characters, and, again, are effectively limited in scope (there are certainly outlandish things in "Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life", but some of them might not have happened).
Only one episode doesn't really work, despite some laughs: "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell" is, of all things, a period piece episode that reveals everyone's involvement in the landmark's historical damage. The episode's premise feels like it was stolen from a considerably dumber sitcom, and it stands out like a sore thumb among the other 12 episodes in the set.
As his role as Frank Reynolds continues, Danny DeVito becomes more and more attuned to the show's sensibilities. Not that posing as a quadriplegic in Season 2 ("You don't do that, Frank! You don't box in a vet!") or acid-tripping in Season 3 aren't certifiable "Sunny" madness, but this year, he devises and hosts a brutal male modeling contest for Paddy's new billboard (which involves standing in manure and eating cockroaches) to try and crush Dennis' dreams, zones out on too much anxiety medication (a homage one of DeVito's earliest roles), carries around a mannequin dressed like Charlie when he thinks Charlie is dead and potentially poops the bed. Kaitlin Olson's "Sweet Dee" also provides several amazing sights, including bird-like eating and sassy fictional reporter Martina Martinez, with a bonus headplant into a car door (a comedy pratfall that borders on miraculous). I also warmed up to Mac this year; McElhenney's head-injured performance in "Mac and Charlie Die (Part 1)" is hilarious.
My favorite character, though, is still Charlie, whose apparent illiteracy and probable brain damage is still peeled back each season to reveal deeper and deeper layers of insanity. It's amazing how good Day can get; moments like Charlie pretending to be a Texas oil baron ("The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis") and explaining the reasoning behind his horrible lifestyle ("Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life") are great, but he manages to top even those breathtaking moments in the season finale "The Nightman Cometh", when he he launches a perfectly-performed tirade at Dee when she asks to cut a song from the musical Charlie has written. Ellis, The Waitress (and Day's real-life wife) also steals a few moments, like her hilarious drunk acting in "Who Pooped the Bed?".
Overall, a successful episode of "Sunny" walks a fine line, and it's really great to see how completely and overwhelmingly this new season fixes the issues of the previous one. It's not every show that can cover glory holing, waterboarding, stage musicals all in one season and still make time for a Sinbad/Rob Thomas cameo, but "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" somehow makes it look easy. Which, of course, may be a sign of the impending apocalypse, or at least, how tasteless, sick and depraved we've become, but if we're sinking into the depths of Hell, at least I'll have something to laugh at as I go.
The episodes in this set break down as follows:
Disc 1: "Mac and Dennis: Manhunters", "The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis", "America's Next Top Paddy's Billboard Model Contest", "Mac's Banging the Waitress", "Mac and Charlie Die (Part 1)".
Disc 2: "Mac and Charlie Die (Part 2)", "Who Pooped the Bed?", "Paddy's Pub: The Worst Bar in Philadelphia", "Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life", "Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack", "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell".
Disc 3: "The Gang Gets Extreme: Home Makeover Edition", "The Nightman Cometh".
"Sunny" Season 4 ditches the thinpaks and slipcovers for a sweet-looking transparent 3-disc Amaray case with what has to be the most clever key artwork the show has come up with yet. It's rare that major-studio artwork is so eye-catching and clever, but this set really looks great. Inside the case is an episode listing on the backside of the front cover, showing through the case, and an insert advertising November 17th's release of the "A Very Sunny Christmas" special and the fifth season on FX (this art being more confusing and weird -- not bad, but not what I would have ever expected, either). I'm also not sure what's going on with the disc art, which is kinda James Bond-y...I guess?
The Video and Audio
"Sunny" is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio -- surprising, almost to find a show these days not shot in 1.78:1 -- and the picture quality is a little rough. "Sunny" appears to be shot on digital video, and since the show's comedy is mostly dialogue and performance based, I'm not surprised to find the image falling on the wayside. Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, meanwhile, is crisp and clear, with the occasional music or sound effect filling all the channels; I'm not against going all-out by any means, but it's good that nobody bent over backwards to give "Sunny" an unnecessary 5.1 mix when this surround track works just fine. English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also included.
"The Nightman Cometh: Live Performance!" (50:13) is a massive featurette/clip from the first performance of "The Nightman Cometh" live at the Troubador in Los Angeles, California. It's alright, and you get to see the entire stage version of the episode in question, but the crowd is a little overzealous (they laugh at almost every single line and yell stuff at the cast), and it seems like some material was cut out, despite the length of the clip. The ending is great, though, with Day giving an even funnier performance than he does in the episode and the entire cast singing along with "Night Man" (twice). The performance footage is bookended by additional material from before and after the performance, including a brief appearance from Rhea Perlman and Rob McElhenney talking about his rock stardom.
"Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life" (7:34) has Dennis reading two stories from his book in a "Masterpiece Theatre"-like setting. Simple, but hilarious.
Finally, a very funny gag reel (5:21) concludes the bonuses on this set. Disappointingly, there are no audio commentaries on any of the episodes this year (we want more, not less!), but what's here is still pretty good.
Disc 1 opens with trailers for "Family Guy" Season 7 [Uncensored], The Marine II and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which I should probably view as a subtle insult towards "Sunny" fans' intelligence. Sadly, the bonus features are not subtitled.
If you're like me and you weren't totally sold on the third season of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", then rest assured that everything is back to normal at Paddy's Pub. If you're like most fans, though, you probably didn't even notice -- which means you too are the audience for this 3-disc set. It's a little disappointing that there are no episode commentaries this year, but the episodes alone are enough to warrant grabbing this highly recommended season.
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