Thursday, November 21, 2013

The penultimate edition of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Two left to go and I've run out of preamble. To the writeup!

After the break: A long awaited sequel is finally unearthed!

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth"
First aired on FX Thursday, November 11, 2010

"I don't have time for your shit, you dumb dickbags!" - Dee Reynolds

When "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" was first being developed, absolutely nothing had been written for the show's only female character, Deandra "Sweet Dee" Reynolds. At the time Kaitlin Olson came in to read for the part, she was given some Dennis lines in the script for season one episode "Charlie Has Cancer" to rehearse with. Olson loved the character she thought was Sweet Dee, and was disheartened to find out that the Sweet Dee in actual scripts was basically a buzzkill. Glenn Howerton admits that the character was "underwritten" and had yet to be developed into anything beyond a free pass for the three male leads (all good friends and the show's creators and writers) to get away with doing terrible things simply because someone on screen was acknowledging they were awful people.

And credit to Howerton, Charlie Day, and Rob McElhenny for not only realizing that writing such a character is a horrible trap for a comedy (or any genre really), but also seeing from Olson's audition that the Dee Reynolds in their scripts needed to match the one on screen. And the Dee Reynolds as played by Kaitlin Olson was not going to be someone who took any shit from three guys just because she was a woman.

"Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth" is both a dire warning to all American citizens and a tremendous episode from "Sunny's" sixth season, uproariously funny and perhaps the first time that Sweet Dee moves out of "just as terrible as everyone else" territory and onto the level of "blowing the guys out of the water with how awful she is". In the grander spectrum of terrible "Sunny" behaviour, nothing on this show for me will ever top the gang being confronted by a mugger and the guys pushing Dee into the attacker and then running away. So perhaps it's just the guys' less aggressively scummy storyline in this episode, the product of artistic and cultural ignorance rather than ignorance of anyone else's feelings or wellbeing (and the fact that Charlie is legitimately trying to do good for the Juggalo kid at Dee's school), that tips the scales in Sweet Dee's favour this time around.

But even so, it's pretty wonderful to watch Dee begin substitute teaching her theatre class with the announcement that the regular teacher has died, bursting into crocodile tears only to announce that was her demonstration of what Jon Lovitz would call "ACTING!". Again, the Sweet Dee of earlier seasons was just as bad as Mac, Charlie, and Dennis and she knew it, but was at least trying to restrain herself from all her worst impulses to go along with their schemes (obligatory reminder that Paddy's Pub once sold liquor to minors and justified this decision by watering down the drinks). To see her evolve into a Sweet Dee who would lie about someone being dead is kind of awesome, especially in a week when a critic at one of the most revered entertainment publications is terrified by Sarah Silverman's simultaneous raunchy standup material and vagina.

But let's also talk about "Lethal Weapon 5," the cinematic masterpiece this episode is most fondly remembered for (this is still a show whose target demo is bros, not that there's anything wrong with that). Making intentionally bad art is pretty easy, but those who do it well really nail it (I'm thinking of all the terrible "TGS" sketches seen on "30 Rock"). And Mac, Dennis, and Charlie's unofficial sequel is epically but hilariously bad. Easily the funniest moment of the episode comes in the movie's final action scene where Dennis and Frank's big fight sequence is interrupted by Dee walking into the back alley to take the garbage out, having no idea what's going on around her. Just a few weeks ago, we saw "Lethal Weapon 6" and I had completely forgotten that the blackface/character change gag happened in the fifth instalment as well. And Frank's sex scene, which may or may not have actually been pornographic, is easily the greatest love scene in film since Tommy Wiseau had sex with that girl's belly button in "The Room".

By design, "Sunny" is a pretty hit and miss show because if you're not onboard at the start of an episode, it's not waiting around for you to navigate through all that traffic and finally get to the station - it's leaving you behind and won't be coming back until the next week. But God bless 'em, it's one of a handful of shows currently on the air that feels like it's not just staying the course in its old age, but constantly learning from their mistakes and evolving from what long felt like a prototype of a TV show. And this episode works so well because it feels like a reflective essay on everything Day, Howerton, and McElhenny had learned in six years about how to write an actual television show with actual characters played by real actors. Sweet Dee was not just a slightly modified version of a real person in the way that Charlie, Dennis, and Mac were written to be alter egos of the actors who played them, nor was Olson an actor who was part of a group of three friends who gave themselves their own TV show and wrote what they knew. And while knowing how to do "good bad" (or maybe "bad good"?) might seem easy on the surface, I think it takes a lot of knowledge and experience from good writers and performs to create something that feels as authentically terrible as "Lethal Weapon 5". If "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is a college screenwriting program, "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth" (and the character of Sweet Dee by extension) is an A level master's thesis.

Odds and ends:

- Mac's "Lethal Weapon 5" notes, during the screening: Charlie should have been cut from the film completely (I protest on the ground that Charlie Day wearing the wig of a Hans Gruber henchman is a hilarious visual gag), and his reaction to everyone laughing at their shitty movie is "It's playing, its playing!"

- I've missed the show's full opening sequence, which has been shortened in recent seasons. And shortened in a way where you never forget it's been cut down

- "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth" was written by David Hornsby, known to "Sunny" viewers as poor Rickety Cricket, a former priest whose life has slowly been left in shambles by The Gang over the course of nine seasons

- Yelling is usually not funny in and of itself, one of my biggest pet peeves in any medium. But boy does Charlie Day buck the hell out of that rule, and placing him in a role where he thinks he has authority gives him a lot of opportunities to raise his voice

- If you've never seen this show, know that Dennis points to "White Chicks" as a very tasteful example of "reverse black face," so yeah, that's what we're dealing with

- Dave Foley is excellent playing a school official, much like he currently does on "The Middle" - great readings from him include "I would never, and I emphasize, never give it to someone I just met" and "Please don't bathe the students"

- Mac thinks Darth Vader was black

- Funniest line of dialogue in the episode: the students in Dee's class brought to Paddy's Pub to watch "Othello" are told not to tell their parents but just think about how cool it is to be in a bar underage. One of them says they've been in bars before and another says "Uh, I've been in *this* bar before." So yes, I'm choosing to believe he was a customer in the aforementioned season one episode, "Underage Drinking: A National Concern"

- One of the notes I wrote down when I watched this episode a week ago just reads "So offensive to everyone" and I think that's a pretty great note to end on

Next week: The end is here. And intentional or not, I saved perhaps my favourite of all 25 episodes and easily the hardest one to write about for last. But this episode has everything: quiches, stingrays, CLIO awards, a Japanese woman screaming at her daughter that she can't go to a sleepover...okay, it has one of those things.