Years ago I heard an odd joke that's stayed with me.
Question: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
Occasionally when I retell that joke, I'll get an immediate laugh. Nine times out of 10, though, I get cocked heads, raised eyebrows and "Huh?" as a response.
I don't mind though. Because it's a joke that's actually more revealing than funny. So allow me to adapt it this way: How many surrealists watch FX's sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Swamp.
I can't recall anything I've seen on TV recently (or maybe ever) that's quite as surreal (read: horrifically insane) as this MA-rated cable series. On the surface, the show's setting feels stereotypically familiar—like a low-rent Cheers, maybe. Frank Reynolds owns and operates a grungy bar in South Philly. Orbiting around that narrative focal point are two of his grown children, Dennis and Dee, and two of their friends, Charlie and Mac.
But that's where the similarities with all things Ted Danson come to a screeching, tire-shredding halt … and the fish start to flop around in the incandescent swamp. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia actually ends up feeling like what you'd get if you dropped the Coen brothers, the cast of Jacka‑‑, the members of Monty Python and perhaps even the Three Stooges into some kind of bizarre comedy blender. Seinfeld was a "show about nothing." But Sunny makes Seinfeld look like War and Peace by comparison.
The characters are abrasively obnoxious imbeciles—or, if you like, obnoxiously abrasive imbeciles—who traipse obnoxiously and abrasively through one extraordinarily improbable situation after another. Though Wikipedia is hardly authoritative when it comes to culture, it'd be hard to find a better description of these characters than what I found there: "They are dishonest, egotistical, selfish, greedy, unethical, lazy, arrogant and antagonistic."
OK. Maybe Time magazine's Eric Dodds found a way when he wrote, "If there's one thing that is undeniably true of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia … it's that it is perhaps the most depraved show on television. Simply put, every single character is devoid of any redeeming qualities. In fact, Mac, Dennis, Charlie, Dee and Frank are individuals so horrible and debauched that they have eluded proper analysis for years. After eight seasons and 93 episodes, it has been well-established that these are, with little question, some of the worst people we have ever seen on a television screen."
It makes Sunny unusual in the U.S. Even in our most cynical comedies, Americans like to have characters we can root for. We like to have a moral or two to embrace. The Simpsons, despite all its satire, often ends episodes with feel-good moments or an "awww." The Office, based on Britain's unremorseful and meanspirited comedy, grew kinder and gentler when it made the trip across the pond. We like our snark, like breakfast cereal, sweetened.
So forget about swamps and such, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is nothing more than the cardboard box of TV sitcoms. It's not even in the same room as the food pyramid when it comes to creating a balanced entertainment breakfast. And that means it could actually do some serious harm if ingested.
"The Gang Broke Dee"
After being abused by the gang for so long, Dee has lost hope and retreated into depression. "It's no fun unless you fight back," Frank tells her. And they encourage her to relaunch her comedy career. "You're in that sweet spot between suicidal and actually dead," Charlie says. "Most comedians actually thrive there." So she does—cracking self-depreciating jokes about how filthy her vagina is and how she can't even get a bus to hit on her.
It turns out Dee's career was staged by the gang, but in the process, Dee sleeps with a talent scout and an agent to get ahead, and opens for a comedian named Landslide (whose jokes revolve around diarrhea). She vomits into a toilet several times. More jokes are cracked about suicide (something Mac ironically says you "just don't joke about").
Dee smokes and drinks. A man lounges in his underwear. Gags involve sexual body parts, personal hygiene and other bodily functions. Characters say the s-word three times, along with "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "t-t" and "h‑‑‑." Jesus' name is abused twice, and God's is misused a half-dozen or more times.
"The Gang Gets a New Member"
When the gang opens a time capsule, they find a picture of an acquaintance named Schmitty whom they kicked out of their group years ago. Dee finds a letter to her high school acting teacher, Mr. Meyers. The guys recruit Schmitty again, giving Charlie the boot. And Dee ends up teaching acting at her old school.
Mr. Meyers apologizes to Dee for anything inappropriate he did when she was in school, because, he says, he was drinking a lot. Dennis and Mac apologize to Schmitty for kicking him out of the group, and Schmitty demands that they get down on their knees. Schmitty also mocks the gang's loyalty and taunts Charlie. When Dee gets temperamental, the guys suggest it's because of her pregnancy. Schmitty jokes that a posh lunch is a setup for sex with him later.
Beer and wine get slugged back. Charlie does a ridiculous "butt dance" that involves pulling his pants up very tightly. Dee's shirt reveals cleavage. About 20 profanities include multiple uses of the s-word, "g‑‑d‑‑n," abuses of both Jesus' name and vulgar references to the male anatomy.
"The Gang Buys a Boat"
With their combined resources—$2,500—the gang acquires what they call a "P. Diddy-style" yacht (but is in fact a run-down houseboat) where they can get drunk and seduce women. After buying the boat, Mac and Dennis head off to find some women to seduce while their friends clean up the dilapidated vessel.
Mac and Dennis talk about how taking women out to sea will make them more likely to have sex—because if they don't, the women will worry they'll be killed. We see women dressed in outfits that reveal lots of cleavage and leg.
Dee and Frank gut the boat's interior, tossing everything into the ocean before accidentally setting the boat on fire and sinking it. Barnacles from the vessel's underbelly are merrily fried and eaten. (A good metaphor for this series.) Several characters drink beer and we see a couple bottles of wine or champagne. Throughout it all, profanity flows freely. About 45 swear words include nearly 20 uses of the s-word, four or five abuses of God's name (paired with "d‑‑n") and instances of "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑hole" and "b‑‑ch." Crude slang references the male anatomy.