There’s an incredibly haunting shot that closes out “Frank’s Pretty Woman,” the season-seven premiere of FX’s flagship comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A dead prostitute, moments after collapsing from a potent cocktail of heavy drugs and alcohol, is dragged out into the hallway of an apartment building by the show’s central cast of characters. As the gang usually does when circumstances become matters of life and death, they remove themselves from the situation as quickly as possible, turning a corner and exiting the scene. The shot of the deceased hooker, sprawled out on the dingy carpeting, is held for a good 10 seconds before the end credits roll, easily twice the amount of time necessary to induce the signature comedic squirm-tactics the series is known for. The shot also exemplifies why It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has remained fresh throughout the majority of its six years on the air: Similar to the wasted whore in the hallway, the show’s an uncomfortable exhibition of America’s worst kind of society, yet one that’s overwhelmingly difficult to look away from.
The episode continues the winning streak sparked by the frequently genius second half of the show’s previous season. A more true-to-life version of the 1990 Richard Gere/Julia Roberts vehicle Pretty Woman, “Frank’s Pretty Woman” finds Danny DeVito’s Frank Reynolds falling in love with and eventually proposing to his go-to call girl, Roxy (a hilarious Alanna Ubach), a perpetually coked-up mess of a woman who casually tosses out insults like “baby-dick” to an intrusive Dennis (Glenn Howerton). One of the show’s recurring themes is how the gang sees themselves as normal and the world around them as eternally filled with chaos and disorder in need of reforming. An excellent example of this is Dee’s (Kaitlin Olson) short-lived effort to normalize Roxy, making her “appropriate” for Frank to wed. Searching for a change in wardrobe for Roxy in an upscale clothing store, the ever-intoxicated slut carelessly spills a bottle of hard booze on a $500 leather jacket, promptly mouths off to a sales associate and, when asked if she has the cash to pay for it, flashes a massive wad of bills at the man, causing Dee to doubt her original perceptions of the prostitute lifestyle. If there’s one thing that can change the opinions of the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia crew at a drop of a hat, it’s money. In the next scene, Dee is seen copying Roxy’s mannerisms. It’s this kind of smart, quick-change observational humor that the show excels at.
As with most It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes, “Frank’s Pretty Woman” juggles multiple subplots as it splits the gang up into respective teams, each tackling an equally ridiculous task that concurrently highlights and debases aspects of lower-class America. Similar to the effective usage of Kaitlin Olson’s real-life pregnancy last season, the literal elephant in the room this time around is Mac’s tremendous weight gain: Rob McElhenney packed on nearly 50 pounds since last season, and the new season’s introductory episode squanders no time dealing with this issue in a competent manner. After the initial round of berating by fellow Paddy’s Pub employees, Dennis takes it upon himself to expose Mac to the truth about his deteriorating health. After a trip to the doctor’s office for a dual checkup, it’s revealed that Dennis’s physical condition is just about as bad as Mac’s: He’s dehydrated, anemic, and hypotensive due to malnutrition. Following this revelation, Mac enlightens Dennis with his new mantra of “no restrictions,” all the while eating mounds of Mexican food out of a trash bag while injecting himself with latterly prescribed insulin: “This is what America is all about: being able to eat at any rate you wanna eat.” Similar to Dee’s change in opinion regarding Roxy’s finances, Dennis relinquishes his idea of what it is to be healthy at an alarmingly rapid pace. This sudden shifting of ideologies is a defining characteristic of the show’s characters, and one that seems to be more of a focal point than ever.
“Frank’s Pretty Woman” is so much of a roller-coaster ride that the following episodes seem generally tame by comparison. “The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore” is a strong installment, with its choice to portray the Guido Nation as a fun-loving bunch of carefree, non-argumentative muscleheads and guidettes rather than the idiot parade depicted each week on MTV’s Jersey Shore. Ultimately, though, the episode moves pretty slow in its first half, waiting too long to separate the gang and send them off on their variety of disturbing Jersey Shore misadventures (Dennis and Dee are tortured by amusement-park rides and coaxed into a botched robbery; Charlie (Charlie Day) has a romantic evening with Mary Elizabeth Ellis’s reoccurring Waitress, who later reveals to have been under the influence of ecstasy all night, remembering nothing.) At the episode’s conclusion, Dee and Dennis, who were touting the awesomeness of the Jersey shore at the outset, are left physically and emotionally scarred by the past night’s events, while Frank, Mac, and Charlie leave with a new outlook on the beach: It’s a magical place. Again, characters’ opinions are swiftly changed as they doubt their prior philosophies after impromptu exposure to foreign conditions.
“Frank Reynolds’ Little Beauties” suffers from the show’s most common flaw: not separating the gang from the outset and spending too much time inside Paddy’s Pub. Although there are times when largely bar-set episodes benefit It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (take for example last year’s brilliant Halloween episode, “Who Got Dee Pregnant?,” which implemented a Rashomon-style structure recounting the festivities leading to Dee’s impregnation), the maniac verbal pacing of the episode requires sufficient space to flourish. The fact that the gang spends “Frank Reynolds’ Little Beauties” organizing an extremely ill-advised child beauty pageant in the confines of the bar instead of branching out to more interesting locales limits plot development to mostly hackneyed premises: Dee tutors a bookwormish girl to take the competition’s crown, but it’s really for her own personal glory; Mac, Dennis, and Charlie do the same for a young male contestant, “updating” his performance of “Yankee Doodle” with an Auto-Tuned version of the song accompanied by a laser-light show; and Frank dodges investigations from Child Protective Services while covering up a broken nose with a horrendous makeup job from a mortician that makes him look even more like a pedophile in the company of confused pageant moms and dads. All of this is ultimately suffocating within its limited environment, leading to a conclusion that feels predictable and rushed.
I expected great things from “Sweet Dee Gets Audited,” as it’s not only penned by Day, Howerton, and McElhenney themselves, but aims to slyly address an assortment of problems concerning the current state of America’s crumbling economy and political systems. Dee is still collecting benefits from a baby she doesn’t have, rolling throughout the bar on a recently purchased motor scooter. When the IRS materializes at her door, she must cook up a scheme to give the appearance of fully functioning motherhood. Meanwhile, Dennis and Frank do some cooking of their own: cooking the bar’s books while distracting Mac and Charlie from their quest to form a functioning democratic structure in Paddy’s decision-making meetings by initiating simple arguments that, apparently, can’t be solved in any other fashion aside from Mac and Charlie yelling their heads off at one another. (These disputes revolve around topics such as what to do with the dead dog in the alley, whether limes should be sliced thin or thick, and the desired scale, bloodiness, and placement of the bar’s crucifix.)
Where the episode fumbles slightly is in its scatterbrained middle section: Even with a setup as promising as Dee being audited and a subplot involving the possible birth of sensible, non-emotion-driven discussions in Paddy’s, it’s just not as focused and funny as it should be, nor does it deftly deal with the aforementioned societal issues that typically give It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia its most poignant moments. Though the final scenes of the episode do well to supplement those faults, with the disjointedness of all the minor plotlines culminating in a fake funeral for Dee’s offspring (a poster reads: “Barnabas Reynolds, 2010 - Too Soon”) with a giant, scary cross in the back of the bar and the rotting canine’s carcass laid to rest inside an infant’s miniature coffin while the gang cleans up their mess the only way they know how: by hollering at each other until it somehow resolves itself.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia already has its target audience locked in, and if you aren’t a fan of the show as it is, season seven will do little to change that. As has been accurately summarized in one of FX’s taglines for the series, “It’s Seinfeld on crack.” I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe it. As full of gross-out humor as it is filled with distorted studies of offbeat characters who wear their emotions on their sleeves: They say and do what they want, and when they want because, goddammit, this is America. No restrictions, right?