This week’s recap of the greatest show on television is coming to you a little bit late because around the tail end of last week, you might’ve noticed, an orange singularity ruptured a hole in space-time by opening its twaddle-filled gob in Washington. We’ve since stitched back together what little bits of fabric we could salvage and we now return with episode 3 of the 12th season of the Gang’s antics.
‘Old Lady House: A Situational Comedy’
Last week I briefly mentioned how there are roughly two types of It’s Always Sunny episodes: the grounded (by the Gang’s standards anyway) shenanigans, and the high-concept, sometimes musical, numbers. Well, the third episode of this current season of Sunny seems to be making a case for a third category. It’s a flavorsome one, and one that the creators seem to relish dishing out, but it also hasn’t really had enough entries in it to warrant a definitive shout-out. If I was to borrow the show’s naming convention I might call it ‘The Gang Comment On Their Place In The TV Landscape.’ Examples would include the ninth season’s ‘The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award Season’ and the tenth season’s ‘The Gang Misses The Boat Season’—two stone-cold classics—and an older entry that isn’t a particular highlight but is still classic Sunny, ‘Paddy’s Pub: The Worst Bar In America’ from season 4. To a varying degree, all of these episodes make some reference to It’s Always Sunny and the show’s nature, as well as its perception by the TV-watching public. The degree to which ‘Old Lady House: A Situational Comedy’ does this could be fairly described as: with sledgehammer subtlety.
That’s both a good thing, and a bad thing.
Let’s take things from the top. At the start of the episode, Mac and Charlie enter the bar (the bar! More of it soon please, guys!), ostensibly arguing about the respective sweetness of their mothers. When Dee and Dennis enquire about more information, it turns out that the issue runs deeper: Charlie’s mom has been calling him repeatedly, and though he never answers (a point that aggravates Mac, who sweetly yearns for any kind of connection with his parents), he seems genuinely worried about the living situation of his mother—specifically her co-habitation with Mac’s mom who moved into Charlie’s old home after burning her own house down. Charlie presents his proof (see header pic above)—another wonderful entry into the canon of the Kelly family’s gibberish scribblings (this one basically a ransom note with a hieroglyph of a dog included)—and before long Dennis comes up with an ingenious solution: use some of his hidden camera equipment that’s been lying around, useless since he’s been living with Mac and Dee and Old
Black Man, to find out just what’s going on in that house.
Aside from setting up the premise before the title card smash, this opening also provides one of the finer exchanges of the night—and one that typifies the episode as a whole: valid points, made without any subtlety, but with enough humor to, by and large, make it work:
When asked if it couldn’t be considered exploitative to secretly film two women without their knowledge, Frank kicks things off by saying:
‘They’re not women. They’re old.’
And then it snowballs from there:
Dennis: ‘At a certain point a woman goes from being a woman to just being an old person.’
Dee: ‘What happens to a man?’
Charlie: ‘A man lives and then dies, why are we we having this argument?’
Dennis: ‘A man remains a man!’
Ouch, guys. Still, yep, them’s pretty much the breaks as far as popular narratives and common perceptions go. This may not be the nuanced critique that ‘The Gang Turns Black’ provided, but Sunny still isn’t afraid to take swings at the things that matter.
That’s about it for social commentary though, as the rest of the episode is dedicated to the Gang settling down to watch what happens when two of the most dysfunctional mothers in the world, who incidentally are not exactly fond of each other, are left alone to share a living space. Dennis and his creepy, creepy, fucking creepy camera equipment—and skill with it—provide the means to observe, and, pretty soon after things begin, the means to interfere. Yep, Dennis’ need for control, wherever he may find it, breaks through here in his immediate assumption as the ‘showrunner’ of his surreptitiously captured pseudo-reality. After observing the somewhat disturbing moment where Mrs. Kelly is about to cave in Mrs. Mac’s sleeping head with a hammer—
—and after Charlie attempts to brush it off as another example of the classic ‘Why I Oughta’-type threatened comedic violence sitcom trope (the implied horror of which does not get an easy ride), Dennis muses that, though the situation appears disturbing, with the right creative massaging it might come across completely differently, tonally speaking. One pasted-in laugh track later the guys are almost immediately accepting of the shift, and not only that, they become vocally grateful for being given a cue as to which bits of what they are watching they are supposed to find funny—‘It’s weird because the situation really isn’t funny.’ ‘I know, but the laughing tells me that it’s funny.’ Most of the episode from here on in, then, becomes concerned with similar jabs at the traditional multi-camera sitcoms that are now seen as old-fashioned and redundant, and many of which also employed laugh tracks. Because of that, your own personal opinion on the matter will likely dictate your response to some of the barbs being deployed in this Sunny outing. Personally, while I had a great time with some multi-cam/laugh track sitcoms once—e.g. Friends—by and large I appreciate how the zeitgeist has moved on, and the once-fresh form does now feel jarring and outdated. So it’s striking that even though I am ostensibly on Sunny’s ‘side’ here, I don’t think that the episode works overall quite as well as it should.
I have been pondering why this is the case, and though at first I assumed it was down to my desire to see a down-to-earth bar-based shenanigans type episode—and I would not eliminate that form the spectrum of possibility—I now think that the main reason is the lack of character in ‘Old Lady House’. Put simply, the greatest Sunny outings may spit in the face of decency and good taste, or they may flirt with high concepts or tackle weighty themes, but the absolutely finest episodes do so while remaining firmly rooted in character. They show us horrific shit, but they ground it in the (equally horrific) members of the Gang we’ve all come to…love?…or, well, at least know, really well. Sometimes they advance our understanding of their madness. Sometimes they reveal new, twisted ways that they apparently relate to each other. ‘Old Lady House’ doesn’t really feel like it contributes very much in this arena, and though I still had a great time watching it does feel like a slight let down after the two exemplary entries that preceded it in this season, both of which went to dark and disturbing Sunny places while remaining rooted in character.
‘Old Lady House’, while successfully poking fun at hokey sitcom formats, premises, and character archetypes, doesn’t quite shine as well as it could. The brightest spots of this episode reveal the importance of that factor to the show’s greatness. Some of the moments are smaller than others, but they all add a spark that is otherwise missing:
Charlie, wordlessly and instinctively handing chips to Frank (even after Frank makes lewd comments about his mother):
Mac’s raging denial in the face of his parents’ absolute indifference and apparent lack of love towards him:
Dee, forever delusional about her comedic skills, forcefully inserting herself into the ‘sitcom’ as a wacky neighbor replete with ready-made (awful) catchphrases:
Which of course elicits only annoyed bemusement from the guys watching:
Until, that is, she pretends to get her head wedged in the bannister, only for it to happen for real:
Let it be said here loudly and clearly: Kaitlinn Olson is a goddamn magician. Her prowess at physical comedy, and her adept walking of the tightrope above funny, unfunny funny, and funny unfunny is second-to-none.
The crowning moment of the episode, though, is the one most firmly rooted in character, and its reveal at the end does imbue the whole thing with an extra layer of greatness: Dennis, displeased at the fact that everyone in the end knows they are being filmed, pulls the plug on the whole operation. The Gang, disappointed, go home, but it is then revealed that in an act of sublimely disturbing meta-puppetry Dennis had been filming that whole thing too. The watchers were playing the part of the watched all along—and, as per Dennis’ very specific criteria and to his utmost pleasure: they were completely unaware.
That, is goddamn funny, dark as hell, and is exactly what makes even a slightly underwhelming Sunny episode a joy to watch.