It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of FX’s new sitcoms, traffics in outrageous humor. It is smug enough to think it’s breaking ground, but not smart enough to know it isn’t.
Episodes have titles like ”The Gang Gets Racist” and ”Charlie Wants an Abortion,” and the snazzy dialogue is the equivalent of endless verbal jazz hands. Four friends — self-involved twentysomething Mac (creator Rob McElhenney), self-involved twentysomething Dennis (exec producer Glenn Howerton), self-involved twentysomething Charlie (exec producer Charlie Day), and Dennis’ insecure, slightly less self-involved twentysomething sister Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olsen) — run an Irish bar in Philly. There they deal with, and make light of, everything from racism to troubled kids in ironic, arch tones.
In one episode, the guys mistake an African-American man entering their bar after hours for a possible criminal (how’s that for not new?) and then try to prove they’re not racist by trolling Temple University in order to make black friends. This type of cynical-naive overearnestness was satirized much more sharply by Neal Pollack’s essay ”I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman,” published in McSweeney’s way back in 1998.
Yes, the guys get themselves into all sorts of wry mischief, but none of it goes anywhere. Seinfeld (which clearly inspired Philly’s observational, bickery humor) could turn an episode about a loogie into a sprawling satire on the JFK assassination; Philly is content with just plopping down a silly situation and letting us admire its irreverence. Dennis plans to pick up girls at a pro-choice rally, but realizing the better action is on the other side of the picket line, tries to join the antiabortionists. He ends up getting pelted with eggs by both sides, and…that’s pretty much it. You can wait for some greater, funnier theme, but it’s not coming.
In the end, Philly could take a lesson from the ironic T-shirts its characters sport and mock knowingly: Just because you make fun of something doesn’t mean you’re actually funny.