(l-r): Richard Greico, Richard Greico's seaweed guy, Kaitlin Olson, Glenn Howerton (FXX)

For a show made up of seemingly random acts of stupidity and cruelty, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is deceptively rigorous in construction. It’s easy enough to craft a series around five crude dimwits who—to pick just a few examples—poop the bed, eat cat food, abuse the welfare system, endanger an infant with a scimitar, binge drink, sexually manipulate, and burn down the occasional building, all while berating each other non-stop. It can be done, but whatever shock value it generates is going to fade fast without a plan. Sunny, now into its eleventh season, has always operated under the guiding principle that the broadest, most potentially offensive comedy has to be handled with a paradoxically delicate touch. Rooted in its five main characters’ snarled web of interconnected prejudices and neuroses (if not outright psychoses), the series has consistently created a comedy world where awful behavior emerges as something horrifyingly universal. The Gang may be the worst people in the world, but they are still us.

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So when an episode of the show doesn’t quite work, as “Dee Made A Smut Film” doesn’t, it’s maddeningly difficult to pin down why. It’s a funny enough episode, but, at least considering the standards by which the show has conditioned us to judge it, something of a forgettable one, thanks mainly to a certain lack of rigor in constructing its frame. The Gang all have great moments, but they’re isolated, adrift in a plot that doesn’t come together satisfactorily enough to unify the Gang’s individual awfulnesses into the monstrous whole a truly great Sunny achieves.

Rob McElhenney, Danny DeVito, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day (FXX)

The title and first scene hint that Dee’s latest disastrous foray into acting will take up the bulk of the episode, and the revelation that her surprisingly not-incompetent few lines take place in a Cinemax soft-core skin flick starring game guest star Richard Grieco seems like a great place to start. Things shift immediately, however, back to Paddy’s, where the guys’ discussion of art vs. smut splinters the group further, with Mac becoming obsessed with proving that “the whole art world is bullshit these days,” while Dennis sees Dee’s film as indication that the world is finally ready for a cinematic adaptation of his erotic memoirs. (And here I clap myself on the back for noting last week that a Dennis Reynolds version of 50 Shades Of Grey would be the greatest/most terrifying thing the world has ever seen.) It’s Always Sunny usually splits the Gang off into different factions based on their collective propensity for immediate, hairtrigger obsessions, but this three-pronged story structure (which splits off even further when Frank gets in too deep going undercover as part of Mac’s plan) remains too diffuse, and pays off with something more like a jumbled collision than a coherent resolution.

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“I’m totally vibing with the Grieco thing, bro” (FXX)

Which isn’t to say the episode’s not funny. It’s more that—like last week’s ski movie pastiche—it’s too content just to be funny. That’s picky and demanding, but, again, Sunny has conditioned me to expect more. Charlie’s episode-long decision to “do a Grieco,” complete with leather jacket, backward baseball cap, and grumbly “bro” demeanor gives Charlie Day plenty to work with, his cooly detached assertion that he’s having “one of those hella sweet lives” (and propensity for saying “hella”) screwing up Mac’s plan to fool a gallery owner that Charlie’s drawings come from a deep well of pain and squalor. (That Charlie’s Grieco-esque summation of his life as one of hanging out at a bar with his friends and having adventures and Mac’s version that Charlie’s “an illiterate janitor whose mother tried to abort him” are both true suggests the eternal mystery that is Charlie Kelly.) Danny DeVito also screws up Mac’s admittedly already-doomed plan to show that the gallery lady is full of crap in glorious fashion, his promise to infiltrate the art scene with subtlety involving an Andy Warhol wig, over-the-top theatrical accent, and the glorious alias “Ongo Gablogian.” (Contender to replace “Dr. Mantis Toboggan” in the Frank’s alias hall of fame.)

Meanwhile, Dennis’ subplot sees him approaching a woman at the local film commission with a pitch for his cinematic erotic epic, an endeavor which, naturally, sees him adopting an arch, mellifluous reading voice as he swans into her office leading off with the passage, “A woman’s mouth isn’t for the exit of words, but for the entrance of a man’s dick. And then he did put it in there, in her mouth, I mean. And then they have sex all over the library.” (Glenn Howerton’s little pause to refer to his text before the word “dick” is what really sells it.) Both Dennis’ monomaniacal self-regard and the epic fragility of his ego have been eloquently established by this point. So his willingness to turn over filmmaking duties to Dee once the executive hints that a woman’s perspective might make it viable makes sense, but that still means that she presumably provides funding for Dennis’ insane erotic ramblings, which is problematic. The way the outside world reacts to the Gang’s intrusions into their space is always a delicate but important thing—that this seemingly sane woman would have anything to do with Dennis or his creepy purple porn just doesn’t scan.

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Because, even down on his luck as the episode presents him, Dee and Dennis do secure Dee’s costar Richard Grieco to play the Dennis role in a film based on the time he “bedded an older woman” (his take) or was raped by the Rick Moranis-looking school librarian Ms. Klinsky when he was 14 (Dee’s interpretation). Grieco, once touted as Johnny Depp’s equal in ’90s glowering hunkiness on 21 Jump Street before becoming a staple in barely-released erotic thrillers, is just right here. His self-parody as a washed-up actor desperate enough to take the Dee-Dennis gig in Dee’s apartment in front of library-book wallpaper sees him committing to creating a character still serious enough about his craft to try to touch fingers with Dennis to channel the inner pain that Dennis sweatily assures everyone he does not have. Grieco never winks at the camera, which makes his deadpan requests for his 15th seaweed break of the day that much funnier. Let’s hear it for the Grieco.

But it’s when the plot come together that things fall apart. Mac, having invited the gallery owner (Mary Holland) to Paddy’s for an exhibition of Charlie’s depictions of Rickety Cricket’s autobiographical tales of unthinkable degradation (one of the drawings is entitled “Dog Orgy,” for horrifyingly literal reasons), is interrupted in his spiel when Dee simply wheels the bar TV into the room and says, “Watch this.” It’s a clumsy way to wrap things up, even if her film (completed after she and Dennis fire Grieco over creative differences) is a brilliantly constructed capper to the “Dennis was actually raped” theme, with flowery music playing over adorable, innocent pictures of the 14-year-old Dennis (one grinning happily while cuddling a kitten). For all the escalating jokes about Dennis possibly being a rapist and/or serial killer over the years, the show and Howerton have always depicted his black-eyed craziness as stemming from some serious inner demons, and Ms Klinsky provides what may be the most telling puzzle piece yet. Unlike last week’s SNL, which went for the most blithely lazy take on the “underage guys can’t be raped by older women” cliché, there’s some real comic darkness here, something Howerton makes abundantly clear in his episode-closing speech, a long-winded oration on the nature of art that ends abruptly with an assertion that he was not, in fact, raped. The rest of the Gang (and Cricket) disagree, naturally, their knowing assertions about both Dennis’ victimization and how much Ms. Klinsky did, in fact, look like Rick Moranis dribbling the episode to a close. “Dee Made A Smut Film” has its share of laughs, but, like that ending, lacks the formal sharpness that marks a really great episode of It’s Always Sunny.

Stray observations

  • The whole “what is art” runner here seems like it’ll continue the attack on those critics who don’t appreciate the show begun in “The Gang Tried Desperately To Win An Award.” But while the gallery owner’s high-flown talk is indeed skewered as the mercenary double-talk of a dilettante (her parents pay her bills), the indictment doesn’t stretch much further. (And a critic sighs in relief.)
  • Still, the fact that both the art critic and the film commissioner (who, it does appear, is swayed to fund Dennis once she believes a woman wrote his diary) are both depicted as superficial women in the arts leaves a sour taste.
  • As does the implication that Dennis would have been less traumatized if Mrs. Klinsky had been more attractive.
  • Dennis’ attempts to spin the librarian’s appearance to Dee (“Moranis was always in pretty good shape”) is painfully funny.
  • The mysterious workings of Charlie’s mind are endlessly fascinating. When taken to task for eating chalk to settle his stomach, he responds to Mac’s suggestion he just eat Tums with, “I’m not wasting Tums. Tums are very good to draw with.”
  • Later, Grieco, his tummy upset by too much seaweed, asks for a chalk break.
  • Sweet Dee, film director: “And I want to feel at little bit of emotion coming from your tits.”
  • For the second time this season, an episode has featured Frank staring off into space, lost in visions. Wondering if it’s the start of a “Frank is finally losing it” storyline.
  • The painting Frank fixates on reminds me of a frame from Don Hertzfeldt’s World Of Tomorrow. Which, to be fair, would be very easy to get lost in.
  • “Frank is the Cinemax of humans.”
  • Dee’s comically sparse acting reel was funny and all, but how, exactly did she get the footage from the Shyamalan movie she was rightfully cut out of?
  • Between Workaholics and now Sunny, it’s been a lucrative TV season for ironically appreciated ’90s actors.

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