Now three episodes into a very promising ninth season, the fact that It’s Always Sunny has never gotten any Emmy attention (or even a Golden Globe!) is both inconceivable and very, very conceivable. On one hand, there’s the sheer volume of comic talent both in front of and behind the camera which consistently pulls off the seemingly impossible task of creating transcendent black comedy out of one of the most uncompromisingly bleak views of human nature ever seen on television. On the other hand, re-read that last sentence.
“The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award,” finally sees It’s Always Sunny address the issue, and while the episode’s takedown of the show’s perpetual nonentity status when awards season rolls around is packed to the rafters with trenchant, often exceedingly clever commentary on why, say, the Emmys invariably shun edgy, innovative comedy in favor of safe, mainstream fodder, it’s essentially one, long meta-textual joke. It’s a smart, funny joke, but, ironically, it makes its case by shifting the show’s focus away from what’s most award-worthy about it.
Written by Rickety Cricket himself, David Hornsby, the episode finds the Gang (in the midst of berating Charlie about scooping ice with his toilet-snaking hands) getting “hot” when Frank reveals that, once again, they haven’t been nominated for the Restaurant Bar Association’s Best Bar Award. This kicks off a series of attempts by each member of the Gang to claim indifference to the snub, only to immediately betray their burning desire for one in suspiciously specific terms.
Mac: “We never get nominated for awards, okay? And we don’t give a shit because they’re stupid.”
Dennis: “We don’t care about that kind of stuff. Look, am I curious as to why we never get nominated? Sure. Do I care? Not in the slightest.”
Charlie: “I mean it is a little bit odd we’ve never been nominated.”
Dee: “At some point it becomes a little aggressive.”
Dennis: “If I’m gonna put my name on something, it’s gonna be award-worthy.”
Dee: “I can’t imagine that people are doing what we’re doing better .”
Frank: “If you wanna win a nomination, you gotta play the game.”
You get the point. And while the Gang delivers these lines with customary élan, once the premise is introduced, you can see most of the rest of the jokes coming. Which is unusual for a show so adept at keeping viewers off guard. It’s not that the jokes aren’t funny—because they are—it’s just that the premise takes precedence over the characters, and that robs the episode of a measure of its signature anarchic unpredictability.
Take Suds. The Gang heads to the reigning “best bar” only to find it awash in bright neon colors, fruity, fishbowl-sized blue beverages, and a staff consisting of a friendly bartender, his quipping black best friend, and a cute, put-upon waitress with whom the bartender has a sassy, back-and-forth sexual chemistry. Oh, and it’s blasting “Call Me Maybe” and Taylor Swift. On a conceptual level, it’s a brilliant encapsulation of the sort of safe, shiny, pleasantly unchallenging show that voters, and the viewing public (represented by Suds’ happy, easily manipulated patrons), love and heap shiny awards on. And Mac, Dennis, and Dee’s aghast reaction to the place is indeed really funny. But as the scene goes on and the deconstructionism continues, the pattern repeats itself. That this episode is as consistently amusing as it is isn’t surprising—in the hands of this cast, even an intellectual exercise like this has a nice, electric edge to it. And if their acerbic unpacking of standard sitcom cliché is incisive (Dennis on the blandly pretty waitress/roles for women in traditional sitcoms—“She doesn’t need to be funny though, because she’s cute, she’s loveable, everybody likes her, and then if she can tell a joke—hey, it’s just a bonus”), it’s also on the nose. After a while, it’s like a political comedian telling jokes to the self-satisfied applause of an audience he knows agrees with him.
I don’t want to come down too hard on “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award,” though. The enduring unfairness of It’s Always Sunny’s marginalization, and the placid banality of the mainstream comedies that habitually clean up during awards season are piñatas well-deserving of a good whacking. And some of the references are fiendishly clever. The Wire’s Chad Coleman makes a return appearance as Z before Dennis warns against being thought of as a “black bar” because “Black bars don’t win awards. I don’t know why, but they don’t.” Additionally, the Gang’s exchange about Suds’ sassy Maxwell, master of the inoffensive lean-in put-down is the sort of smartly edgy digression the show is so good at. When Mac and Dennis point out, “What’s with the black friend that no one is acknowledging?” “It’s strange to have one black friend and not be constantly talking about it,” the joke is that Suds blithely trades in the “black best friend” stereotype while operating as if race were not an issue at all. While the Gang at Paddy’s is awful about race at every turn (since they are comic exaggerations of the worst in us all), they at least live in the real world—it’s inconceivable to the Gang, and the show, that anyone would choose to be entertained by a place so divorced from all the terrible, messy stuff we actually live with.
Finally, with the stuffed-shirts of the Restaurant Bar Association assembled in the revamped Paddy’s (complete with a neutered, “shellacked” Dee stationed under blinding lights “to soften up her features”), things unsurprisingly go to hell. There’s Frank and Artemis’ horrifying attempt to replicate the dark and classy burlesque bar down the street, which “doesn’t have a lot of customers but a ton of awards” (Boardwalk Empire? Mad Men?). Mac just can’t divorce himself from his world enough to follow Dennis’ light banter (“Ma’am, what would you like to drink, and we won’t jizz on anything.”). And Charlie, inadvisably locked in the basement with the spray cans, provides a more characteristically demented musical number than his blandly-hilarious first attempt at a Paddy’s theme song, beginning with spiders and ending with the chorus, “I don’t need your trophies or your gold. I just wanna tell you all go fuck yourselves!” ringing in the retreating ears of the spit-covered awards voters who were never going to recognize them anyway.
In the last analysis, “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award” is a hilariously mean-spirited “fuck you” cul de sac in It’s Always Sunny’s history. One assumes it was cathartic, but now that they’ve gotten it out of their system, I look forward to the Gang getting back to the business of making Philadelphia a worse place for us all.
- It’s Always Sunny has in fact been nominated for one Emmy, losing the 2013 Outstanding Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or a Variety Program award. Congrats, Marc Scizak!
- Even the Gang is not immune to Suds’ charms. Mac, on whether the bartender and waitress should act on their unspoken attraction—“I’d like to come back next week to see if they do!”
- Loved the running gag about Dee’s terrible comic timing, each example immediately pointed out by Mac and Dennis. With perfect timing.
- As a visitor from a more Emmy-friendly (although hardly vapid) sitcom world, Oscar Nunez unfortunately doesn’t get much to do. Maybe they’re punishing him…
- Dennis, on the nose—“We’re too fringe! I mean, it’s given us a lot of street cred, but we’ve alienated a lot of people in this town.”
- And again—“We know we’re cool, and our customers know we’re cool, but the industry doesn’t get it yet.”
- One more, advising Dee not to tell jokes at the bar—“Men are intimidated by funny women—we just need you to be pretty and benign.”
- Charlie’s on his own for most of the episode, but the payoff is worth it, with his initial Paddy’s Pub song a perfect approximation of the theme for a show It’s Always Sunny would never be. But then the script undermines the gag by having Charlie explain it’s got a Randy Newman vibe. We know it does! We’re fans of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—we don’t need the gags explained to us!
- That’s co-creator Glenn Howerton spiking the camera at episode’s end and yelling, “We don’t need your damn award.” We get it.
- There’s on the nose, and then there’s this: Frank—“He’s been to Paddy’s and he says it’s just a bunch of people yelling over each other.” Dee—“That’s what we do, and if people want to tune in, then…”
- “There’s that bar that just moved in down the street and they’ve already won a ton of awards.” Louie reference?
- And a dig at It’s Always Sunny’s new network home, with Dennis musing, “Maybe it’s our location…”