I'm teaching a pop culture course this term. I've taught the course before, so I decided to shake things up a bit this time, in terms of the artifacts. We've studied Bill Hick's stand-up, 1940s Disney cartoons featuring Nazis, and 1950s government films on what to do in case of a nuclear strike. Today, though, we watched an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and it was the first time I really wondered if I went too far.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a show whose basic premise is easy to sum up. The core plot is 5 people running a bar: Dennis, the owner who is also a conceited narcissist; Mac, the second-in-command who's played by a guy who ate himself overweight because he thought it would make his character funnier (it did, but wow, that's commitment); Dee, Dennis' sister who is desperately insecure; Charlie, who's on the borderline between kind of dumb and outright insane; and Frank, played by Danny DeVito, who is rich, disgusting, and insane. And from the start, it's been a show that's prized itself in finding humor in disgusting situations. See, for example, Season 4's "Who Pooped the Bed?" or the Season 7 episode where they host a child beauty pageant.
At the same time, though, there's a definite difference from the early and late seasons. I remember watching the first season in two or three sittings, and ending it feeling like I had been made a worse person for watching. And then I stopped feeling that way. I've joked that it was because some part of my moral sense had died, but, going back to the earlier episodes for my class, I think the show itself changed. It started with the introduction of Danny DeVito to the cast, but even his character underwent some changes. He started as a disciplinarian, tough-love father wanting to indulge himself (reminiscent of the father from Titus, actually, another dark comedy) then gradually veered away from that until the Christmas episode a few seasons later where he emerges naked from inside a couch during a party, and unselfconsciously plods his way out of the room.
Don't think that I'm complaining about the new direction, though. It was when the show got "wackier" that I started to really like it. I love the scenes with Charlie's kitten mittens, and his dream journal. I still sing bits from the musical episode. Chardee MacDennis is probably the closest thing on television that I've seen to Calvinball, in terms of absurdist rules. And even though I'm a vegetarian, I am fascinated with the idea of the rum ham. But I have to admit, the show had a lot more edge in the beginning. Look at the topics from the first season: racism, abortion, sex with minors/underage drinking, cancer, gun control, molestation. We are talking about a lot of topics that are taboo for comedy. And the episodes aren't entirely without heart, either; it's pretty clear, for example, in the "Underage Drinking" episode, that the Gang is just dealing with their own issues from high school rather than deliberately wanting to make out with high school kids, and as a 28 year old, I can relate to still carrying around that kind of baggage (just the first part. Not the second. Don't relate to that. At all.).
I don't really have a conclusion here, except the most wishy-washy one ever. I think the show made the right choice by going in a more absurdist direction; the pure dark comedy was pretty depressing, and certainly not sustainable over 8 seasons. At the same time, though, when I was looking for an episode that was interesting in its own right for a class discussion, it was the early stuff I looked at--those are the episodes that really deal with the issues.
Friday, we're watching an episode of Louie, starring the comedian Louie C. K. It's maybe the only example of a show that I can think of that's pulling off the balance between biting, sometimes dark, social commentary and humor.