86. "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom," It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2006)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
The basic question of the debate is: Can a TV series be worthwhile if you don't like or respect any of the protagonists? A lot of people will say "no," and this is the most common reason acquaintances give when they don't like a series I recommend. More than one has flatly refused to watch more than one episode of The Sopranos because the main characters are such despicable people. (Dr. Melfi's morality is cancelled out by her obvious ineffectiveness and her fascination with her mobster patient.) And I've heard "but they're all so annoying" many times when it comes to one broadcast sitcom that will appear on this list later: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Kidding. It's something else.)
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is about five morally irredeemable characters. It's the bottom of a slippery slope that sitcoms have been sliding down since the 1970s, when All in the Family gave us Archie Bunker (who now seems completely redeemable and more a bigot because of his upbringing than because of a dark soul, but who once infuriated a lot of moralists by his very presence on TV). In the 1980s, Cheers gave us a couple of narcissists who used sex to manipulate each other but still had moral limits and a sense of empathy. Then we got Seinfeld in the 1990s, whose regular characters grew more and more oblivious to other people's feelings but came off as immature rather than evil.
I liked all those shows, and though I wouldn't put Sunny quite in their league, I can enjoy its stories about possibly the worst set of regular characters to appear in a competently produced sitcom. (Britain's Peep Show is another strong contender; the protagonists on both shows have the astounding ability to rationalize every obviously wrong impulse they have.) I follow the Jack Benny Rule when it comes to characters who behave selfishly. If their flaws are exaggerated versions of universal fears and insecurities (like Benny's fears of becoming old, poor, and unloved), I can identify with them. But a self-confident asshole with rich guy problems (I'm thinking Charlie Sheen on and off Two and a Half Men) is hard to spend a half hour with.
The four guys and a girl on Sunny are unrelentingly selfish, but they're almost invariably driven by a desire to connect with someone (arguably more so than the chilly Seinfeld quartet). Unfortunately, they only know how to interact with people in the most perverse ways.
"Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom" is one of the show's most disciplined episodes — in terms of writing, not the character's behavior. It's a hybrid of two sitcom episode genres, the Zany Scheme and the bedroom farce. First, Dennis threatens to sleep with the object of Charlie's stalkerish obsession, "the waitress." (She's never called by any other name, and it's never considered that she might not want to sleep with either of them.) Then Mac serendipitously hands Charlie a way to hurt Dennis:
Mac: (in a panic) Charlie, I have a real dilemma on my hands. Now, normally I would never talk to you about these things because you're so incredibly unreliable, but I gotta tell somebody, man. I am busted! OK... Dennis' mom tried to have sex with me!
Mac: Yeah, man. She got naked, she came on to me. I mean, that woman is straight crazy, but I think I wanna bang her! I know I shouldn't do it —
Charlie: I think you should do it!
Charlie: Look, a moment like this comes along once in a lifetime, right?
Charlie: And so you'd be a fool to let it slip through your fingers!
Mac: Yeah that's what I'm thinking. But it's Dennis and Dee's mom.
Charlie: Well, that means that no one ever, ever is going to find out!
Mac: That doesn't make any sense.
Charlie: It doesn't have to make any sense!
Mac: You're right! I'm gonna do it!
(both laugh maniacally)
The rest of the episode involves various attempts at spite sex with various parents, plus blackmail, spying, and double-crossing. It ends with a single tear falling down someone's cheek, something I found hilarious. I'm a horrible person.
• I'm generally not fond of sitcom episodes with elaborate practical jokes or con games. More so than with films and plays, it feels like a cheat when we're kept in the dark until the end about the motives for characters' actions. But it's fun to watch impulsive, poorly thought-out plans blow up in people's faces.
• I never got tired of the "reveals" showing that characters were being spied upon by other characters making absolutely no attempt to conceal themselves.
• Speaking of Tony Sopranos and company, the scene in which a toupéed Danny DeVito has dinner with a former childhood friend who's startlingly warm and decent reminded me of the many Sopranos scenes in which a "civilian" unwittingly crosses paths with the mob. Run away!
• Big Love viewers will enjoy seeing Sandy Martin ("Selma Green") as one of Dennis's attempted conquests.