Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia 7-13: "The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang's Revenge"

No screencaps this week due to technical difficulties.  Your tables shall remain sadly unbroken.  Triple ho.

It's Always Sunny has done a lot of shocking things over the years, but perhaps the most shocking part of this episode is that it opens with a "Previously On" segment.  I mean, there's a standard opening: we see the time and place (almost always Paddy's Pub) flash up on a black screen while hearing the audio of an inane, bizarre conversation, then cutting into that conversation, which continues until one of the cast members barges in with the plot of the week.  I mean, it's the formula for a reason.  Come on, people!

All joking aside, the unprecedented "previously on" segment reflect a remarkable turn to continuity in a normally episodic show.  These are episodes aimed squarely at people who have been following the series since episode one, and know who all of the recurring characters (some of whom have only been alluded to before now) are, know why Dee is wearing a weird metal contraption, and the ongoing downward spirals of the waitress and Rickety Cricket.  None of this is covered in the "previously on", of course: it's almost a futile gesture in an episode as geared as this one is to long-term fans.

There are some who might criticize an episode like this for being lazy, relying on the show's established history to recycle past gags with the joke being nothing more than "Hey, remember this?"  And there's some merit to that.  But to some extent this is the nature of episodic television.  Even shows without ongoing storylines build a world and a shared past for the characters and the viewers, and that past is always an unstated presence.  It would in fact be stranger for a show to never refer to past episodes, as though the characters were constantly being mind-wiped, although this was the standard on TV for many years.

The call-back is then cheap in some ways, but in other ways neccessary.  It's Always Sunny falls into the category of comedies that rely on a cult audience, from their courting of politically volatile subject matter to the clearly personal nature of the audience.  This is a show that started without any kind of introduction to the characters or the setting, as though it had been going on for years and we just got the chance to see it.  I've discussed this kind of bond with the audience before, and call-backs are a big part of establishing that "I'm one of the people who get it" dynamic.  But if they're done well the new audience isn't completely left out in the cold.  When Charlie describes himself as an expert in bird law, that's funny in itself, not just because it refers to a previous episode.

"The Gang's Revenge" even offers a call-back in microcosm.  At one point the gang references Schmitty (himself a character from an older episode), who should be at the reunion, but eventually decides that he'll most likely "swoop in at the end and pick up the drunkest chick here".  Later he does exactly that -- far enough away that we've almost forgotten the original comment, and placed in a context we didn't quite expect (e.g. said drunkest chick being the waitress). And of course, the entire episode "calls back" to the one before it.  The entire thing is structured as a Russian nesting doll of callbacks.

The episode employs continuity in other ways too.  For example, we've been getting hints all season that Dennis has turned into a full-blown sexual predator, a natural extension of his existing personality, through the discovery of weird crawlspaces in the bar and tapes of underage girls and so on and so forth[1].  In this episode we see him produce a "kit" from the back of the van in a fit of rage, made up of what are, for all intents and purposes, rape supplies.  The kit, and his frantic explanations for it, are darkly funny, but even more so if you've been watching this side of his   character be slowly exposed over the course of the season.

This isn't really a character arc  -- the characters of It's Always Sunny are too permanently wretched to really have such things.  Instead of growing or gaining a kind of redemption, they only have new facets of their awful personalities revealed.  Still, it's worth noting how even a mostly episodic show has started to incorporate season-long storylines -- Dennis's emergence as a predator and Mac's fatness this season, and Dee's pregnancy in season six.  In times where serialization is so popular, diluted versions of it pop up everywhere.
Which isn't to say that this episode is only watchable if you're a religious viewer of the show.  If this was the first episode you tuned into, you'd probably feel dropped in the middle of something you didn't quite understand, but as I mentioned above that's the same feeling you get if you start with season 1, episode 1.  It's Always Sunny grounds its inner mythology in the universal, the pop cultural, and the relevant.  This episode may not be a ripped-from-the-headlines story like the ones more popular in the early seasons, but it still takes as its basis a well-known phenomenon both on TV and in real life: the high school reunion, which is basically a recreation of high school starring adults who have supposedly matured since then.

Obviously not everyone has been to a reunion, but everyone is familiar with high school and its resultant drama and emotions -- which is probably why American TV keeps returning to it, to the point of obsession.  The gang shares this obsession, particularly Dennis, who has over the course of the show built up quite a mythology surrounding his prowress and popularity in high school.  Other characters' teenage lives have also been established over the course of the season, such as Dee's "aluminum monster" persona.  Of course, Dennis's delusions of being a "golden god" are shattered when in this episode the popular kids (still acting as the dickish popular kids from high school but also inhabiting the "harried normal person" role that pops up all the time on It's Always Sunny) reveal what seems only reasonable in retrospect: nobody really liked Dennis to begin with, and he was always an outsider like the rest of the gang.

These are outsiders of a different type than the glorified losers you usually see on TV, though.  As arrogant as the popular kids in this episode may be, it's hard to blame them for rejecting the gang.  Who would want to spend their high school years hanging out with a filthy paint-huffing guy, a narc who kept trying to imitate kung fu movies, and a sociopathic prick?  Dee may have been unpopular because of her back brace, but she had an awful personality to go with it.  As much as it celebrates the margins and fringes of society, It's Always Sunny suggests that its characters may be on the fringe for a valid reason.  When the gang decides that their bar is the home they belong in, it's less of a warm-hearted moment than it would be in a show like Community -- it's just another failure to deal with the world of well-adjusted people.

This all culminates in a climactic dance number (no, really) which continues to play with the narrative of the outsider.  It's more subtle than the recent episode of Community, but it's an equally savage take on the kind of mythology that underlies tripe like Glee: there are outsiders (clean-cut, attractive and morally flawless outsiders) but they can win acceptance from those cruel bullies by putting on a big performance.  This narrative is presented in an extended fantasy sequence, rare for the show, and then undercut by the reality.

Interestingly enough, the show lets the viewer determine that the fantasy is just that before the big reveal.  At first it looks like It's Always Sunny may actually be playing this trope straight, but by the time Mac throws off his shirt to reveal a six-pack we know this is firmly a fantasy... and yet the sequence continues for a little bit.  By allowing the viewer to make the connections themselves, it makes said connections all the stronger.

In its form "The Gang's Revenge" triumphs the insider, the superfan who can get all these references and is stoked to see characters that have only been referenced before appear in the flesh.  But its content is a different matter, inverting the outsider narrative and focusing on how sometimes the rejected turn into loathsome people, or were rejected precisely because of this loathsomeness.  It's a contrast between form and function that I don't think It's Always Sunny has fully worked out.  But in a way this contradiction -- along with its nonstop humour -- is what makes it such a viscerally entertaining, violently unstable show.  A show in its seven season should feel like a staid institution by now, but It's Always Sunny still manages to feel perennially on the verge of collapse.

Next week: More about those damn Koreans

[1]This is a lot funnier than it sounds.  Or at least I thought so -- someone who's actually suffered sexual abuse may have a different reaction.  The politics of "offensive humour" are probably worth discussing in relation to It's Always Sunny, which travels in a kind of "political incorrectness" I usually find really aggravating, but for some reason works in this series.  Maybe it's just because the characters are portrayed as terrible people instead of honest men telling it like it is.  Or maybe it's just my priveledge kicking into high gear.  But it deserves a deeper discussion than I'm giving it here.

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