Lynne Marie Stewart, Danny DeVito (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

There’s been a lot of talk going into this season about It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia tying Ozzie & Harriet for the longest-running live action TV comedy in history (once it finishes its already-booked 14th season). Some call foul, since Sunny only does 10 or so episodes a season, but, as tonight’s episode, “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy” contends, you can stick those asterisks back in your, um, pocket. There’s degree of difficulty to consider.

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When the show goes meta on the medium, as it did in the defiantly funny “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award,” the laughs are narrower, but that only makes the points that much sharper. Here, as Mac and Charlie’s dispute over their mothers’ contentious cohabitation leads them to plant Dennis’ suspiciously elaborate system of hidden cameras all over Mrs. Kelly’s house, the show almost immediately shifts into attack mode. The target? The traditional, multi-camera sitcom, with its forgiving and cajoling laugh tracks, music cues, and predictable stable of glib plots and wacky characters. As Dennis—quickly turning media mastermind watching the monitors in Paddy’s office—puts it once he’s started laying in just the right editing, “The grunty one physically abuses the shrill one and the shrill one psychologically abuses the grunty one. And it really plays.”

The grunty one, of course, is Mac’s Mom (Sandy Martin), while the shrill one is Charlie’s (Lynne Marie Stewart), still sticking it out as roomies after Mrs. Mac’s house burnt down that one time. The thing is, this odd couple situation is less The Odd Couple-amusing and more like two genuinely, if differently, insane women plotting to drive each other even madder. Before the sitcom fun starts, Mac and Charlie’s individual mommas’ issues come to the fore, with Mac pathetically as ever flying into a rage whenever someone suggests his mother is not the perfect, loving maternal figure of his desperately needed dreams, and Charlie interpreting his mom’s ransom note-looking letter to mean that Mrs. Mac is trying to kill her. (“If anything, my mom’s aggravatingly sweet, but we’re not having an argument about who’s sweeter,” argues Charlie.)

But both women are awful in their own ways, as befitting those who gave rise to two members of the Gang, and as the Gang witnesses when Mrs. Mac spills hot soup on Bonnie Kelly’s leg and Bonnie returns fire by producing a claw hammer and preparing to brain the drunkenly dozing Mrs. Mac. Charlie attempts to excuse his mom’s murderous behavior (she quickly ditches the hammer when Mrs. Mac snorts awake), by calling up the questionable humor of those classic TV sitcoms like The Honeymooners, calling his mom’s hammer-stalking nothing but a good old “Why I oughta!” This leads to two things. One, the show takes a swipe at those “good, wholesome sitcoms” whose unexamined violence and sexism the disreputable It’s Always Sunny plays expert games with. (Waving away Ralph Kramden’s incessant threats to beat the crap out of Alice, Charlie explains, “He’s not actually gonna do it even though the threat is always there.”) The other is that it gives Dennis the idea to use TV magic to lighten up the horror show that is Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Mac’s daily existence, something even the concerned Mac and Charlie quickly find irresistible.

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Lynne Marie Stewart, Danny DeVito (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

So, even when Mrs. Mac ashes in Bonnie’s pudding, Dennis’ handy laugh track sees the guys munching chips and contentedly enjoying all the sordid abuse as mere wacky hijinks. Apart from the idea that watching traditional, sugary-sweet sitcom fare turns you into a lumpen, salt-gobbling couch potato, there are plenty of jokes about how the very construction of such multi-camera sitcoms is a Pavlovian exercise in mind-fuckery. (The cameras here secreted in Dennis’ teddy bear, globe, and houseplant hiding places.) After Dennis “sweetens the situation,” he interrupts their laughter to muse, “That’s weird, because the situation really isn’t funny.” To which Mac replies, delightedly, “I know, but the laughing tells me when it’s funny.” Getting in on the action later, Frank echoes the joke (hammering it home, if you will), exclaiming, “Having those other people laugh tells me when I should laugh.” “And the music I added makes you know that it’s light!,” chimes in Dennis.

As it did in “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award,” the show isn’t going for subtlety in its critique of the TV landscape. In the previous episode, after going to a neon-bright popular bar to scope out why Paddy’s keeps getting shut out come Philly bar awards time, they’re initially horrified at how the place’s catchphrase-and-cliché breeziness can win people over, only to then get won over by all the low-impact niceness in the end. (The fishbowl-sized fruity drinks don’t hurt.) Here, the Gang’s initial disgust at Mrs. Mac and Kelly’s battle of wills similarly fades into glazed-over desire for more sweetening. “They have timing!” exclaims Charlie, ignoring that his mother’s misery/murderousness.

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What breaks the TV lethargy is everyone’s need to tinker with the formula. Dee, seeing the big (fake) laughs the moms are getting, rushes over to insert herself into the show (now titled Old Lady House by Dennis) as the requisite wacky neighbor, spewing would-be catchphrases (“Cock-a-doodle-doo!”) before immediately wedging her head in the bannister as the sort of kooky sitcom element she imagines Old Lady House needs. That she spends the rest of the episode in there, with only her butt (accompanied by Dennis’ fart effects, naturally) and some ADR to represent her suggests Kaitlin Olson may have needed some time off for her other gig. Mac, desperate to make his monosyllabic mom “pop,” tries gussying her up, to which Mrs. Mac responds with her customary hostility and repeated announcements of impending bowel movements. (“I mean, when you go, are you not having a full elimination?” asks Mac in frustration.) Dennis, reveling in his power as the puppet master, knows Mrs. Mac has to go, preferably in favor of a person of color (“I’m gonna cut around her certainly, at least until the ethnic comes”), leading Mac to parade his mom in front of every possible camera so she can’t be edited out.

Charlie freaks out at Dennis’ plans to introduce a love story between Bonnie and her brother, Uncle Jack (Andrew Friedman), who’s come to retrieve a hard drive he his under the floorboards when he was renting a room. First attempting to break down Dennis’ constructed reality by making Jack a spy (“I don’t want to genre-jump,” says Dennis), Charlie heads over, only to see that Frank is there, making a play for stardom himself by once again banging Charlie’s mom. With chaos breaking out (Uncle Jack turns up in a very tight Cub Scouts uniform for reasons best not gone into), it’s up to Bonnie to explain that her note only was meant to tell Charlie how much she misses him and loves him (cue Dennis’ “Awwwww” effect), and then for Dee to finally break out of the bannister, pass out, and fart for real this time. Roll credits. (Which seem to be some of the people who work on It’s Always Sunny, for maximum meta-weirdness.)

Back in Paddy’s office, the Gang (including Dee in a neck brace) enthuse over the wrap-up, with Charlie, especially, loving the “button” of Dee’s unconscious gas attack. But Dennis isn’t having it now that everyone knows they’re being filmed and he scraps Old Lady House. Dee tries to “rescue” the situation like she claims to have done before, only to see her comedy fart take a decidedly un-funny, pants-ruining turn. “Without the laugh track, that’s really horrible,” grimaces Charlie, with Mac adding, ”You’re just a grown woman who shit her pants.”

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Luckily, Dennis’ desire to secretly film and control the message can’t be contained, as the Gang’s viewing of Old Lady House is revealed to be yet another show he’s producing on the sly. And since Dee’s shart took place inside a show (and Dennis could lay a laugh track over it), he can watch happily, alone in the darkened office eating chips and marvel, “Now it’s funny again.”

As far as conceptual Sunny episodes go, season 12 is proving the gang behind the Gang is nothing if not still ambitious. (Even the screw-around water park episode last week was inventively complex in construction.) Here, the show-within-a-show (within a show) gimmick never runs dry, even as its necessities rely, appropriately, more on situation than on character. Still, it’s both a cleverly nasty swipe at the sort of sitcoms It’s Always Sunny is not and a smart commentary on Sunny’s own stable of supporting characters, whose “one-note” schticks are usually best deployed more sparingly. No offense to Ozzie & Harriet, but for a show to be this scabrously ambitious in its 12th season is nothing to fart at.

Stray observations

  • Dennis, on Uncle Jack’s unexpected appearance: “That creepy pedophile vibe he’s got going is gonna be a hard sell. Even in Europe.”
  • Charlie, on Dennis’ plan to edit in a love-triangle plot among Frank, Jack, and Bonnie: “I don’t want any shape of love between them.”
  • Frank, angry at the cancellation of Old Lady House: “I had a four-episode sex arc!”
  • Mac and Dennis can still be surprised by Charlie’s illiteracy. “I loved all those letters flying around the screen. Those are interesting” “Those are names. Because it’s a credits sequence.”
  • Dennis, watching Mrs. Mac’s hacking cough and thinking bottom line: “I’m concerned about longevity.”
  • Frank: “They’re not women. They’re old.” Dennis: “At some point a woman goes from being a woman to just being an old person.” Dee: “Well what happens to a man?” Charlie: “A man lives and then dies! Why are we having this conversation?”
  • “Now I’m thinkin’ about my Mom starring in a show and I like it. Now I’m thinking about minotaurs. Now I’m thinking about a hoagie sandwich. Now I’m thinking about a glass of water to go with the chips. How many of my thoughts you need? You want me to go on and on?”
  • Watching Dee’s desperately unfunny onscreen antics, Charlie: “You’re not gonna try and put a laugh in?” Dennis: “I wouldn’t know where to put it.”
  • As ever when Mrs. Mac is featured prominently, I’m moved to point out that Sandy Martin is not in fact a horrible, barely verbal lump of a creature, but is actually a respected and versatile character actress, director, and playwright. She’s just that effective at creeping me out.

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