Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's Always Sunny: The Gang vs. The Walking Dead

at 6:30 PM
The outbreak begins
What a dead-on send-up of zombie melodrama "The Gang Gets Quarantined" was. The building suspicion, paranoia, and isolation. The suspenseful cliffhanger scenes. The compounding insanity becoming a greater threat than the disease itself. The venture out into the dangerous world of the supermarket. The hysterical reaction to a "breach". The quarantine-within-a-quarantine where the potentially infected are kept. The slow-working disease whereby the afflicted remain in denial of their demise. Not only did Sunny nail every trope of the burgeoning survival/disaster/zombie genre that now plagues prime-time television like the T-virus plagued Raccoon City, they worked it all into the hilariously absurdist framework of a flu-stricken singing competition.

The episode kicks off on the eve of a Boyz 2 Men concert, with the gang - having entered a contest to open for the show as "The Motown Phillies" - quarantining themselves inside the bar to protect their singing voices from the ravages of a seasonal flu. As Frank sets about collecting cell phones and laying out ground rules (no beer, no pizza... no hair?), I first thought the episode was going to parody cohabitation reality shows like SurvivorReal World, and Big Brother (sorry, dated references - I don't know what's on TV anymore). "Quarantined" even kinda sounds like a name for one of those shows. The singing contest also suggested an America's Next Best Modular Chef situation, with Dennis demanding the gang exercise their vocal chops relentlessly. But it wasn't long before things began to, as the gang would say, escalate.

As each member cracks under the pressure of isolation, one by one breaking the quarantine, we're treated to delightful scenes of subterfuge as they cover their contaminated tracks. Dennis' jovial phone conversation with a pizza parlor with a punchline twice as funny for its eerie similarity to a particular Walking Dead twist, Dee's sneaky trip down from the ceiling, mouth stained with a blood-like substance, and Mac and Charlie's nervous glances as they deny the "breach" make for hilarious moments of melodramatic parody. In reality, the gang is just hiding stuff like ordering pizza and drinking beer, but it's treated with life and death gravity, drawing attention to the preposterously heightened self-seriousness of shows like The Walking Dead and Under the Dome

Combing... combing... til you were dead!
What really ties the episode together is Frank. The lurking insanity beneath his dead serious performance is both a great execution of the hysterical doomsayer and a perfect use of DeVito's character. I'll be the first to say I'm not generally a Frank fan - he's occasionally funny, but more often seems to be the lowest common denominator hyper-wacky catch-all used to present ideas that wouldn't fit into the well-defined foursome that drives the show's character-based shenanigans. He's a cartoon character devoid of the shreds of humanity that make Sunny's maniacal protagonists that much more ridiculous. Anyway, the quiet madness on display in "Quarantined" really suits Frank - it gives him a tangible creepiness that makes his freak-out moments all the weirder. His obsession with hair was for whatever reason also extremely funny to me - I think it works because the idea that hair == disease is so weird and stupid, but just believable enough as one of those conspiracy theories you might see some Annunaki loon squawking about on YouTube. 

The big twist about the flu was one of those great "how did I not see that coming?!" moments. Sunny definitely swings and misses sometimes with unexpected plot developments (Country Mac's death, ugh), but that makes it all the more satisfying when they knock it out of the park.

The only shortcoming of "Quarantined" is that it's a little too quick to bend the Sunny characters to fit the overall satirical narrative. Each member has some characteristic moments (Dennis proving he can still sing being a particular favorite - is Glenn Howerton the greatest comedic actor of all time?) and is taken in the direction you'd expect, had someone written a zombie Sunny show (Frank is the one who goes insane, Charlie and Mac are the screw-up 'survivors', Dee is the traitor), but the interaction feels lazy and underwritten. Why is the gang listening to Frank and Dennis? While I find it funny that the preposterous Motown Phillies is the one and only scheme that has managed to fully unite the gang and align their passions, it isn't really setup that way and also breaks from the pretty clearly established (in episodes like "The Gang Recycles Their Trash") and itself much funnier truth that the gang simply cannot work together and succeed. I feel like Dee and Mac would've had their own competing schemes going on. In terms of the dialogue itself, the characters weren't really bouncing back much at each other - in particular I was baffled to watch Charlie cast as the boring straight man in a number of scenes. Just felt like a case of subverting the show premise in order to execute the episode premise. But the episode had a great premise and was executed superbly, so that's purely a nitpick. And, as aforementioned, I wish we saw more of this take on Frank.

So that's yet another fantastic high-concept episode from Season 9. Along with "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award", this ranks among some of the finest material from one of the finest comedies in TV's last decade. Perhaps this is one of the weakest seasons in terms of progressing the characters (barring "The Gang Saves the Day", one of the best introspective character episodes ever), but I can't say I really hold that against the show - we're in so deep that it's hard to see how much further they can bend these caricatures without breaking them (look for comparison at what Seinfeld was doing in Season 9: "The Butter Shave", "The Frogger"). Even Increasingly Gay Mac (who personally I enjoy) is really rubbing fans the wrong way (though for whatever reason the same fans happily gobbled up Fat Mac). Moreover, "The Gang Gets Quarantined" demonstrates that the show continues to be outstanding at unhinged satire and mockery, so I'm perfectly happy for it to continue in this direction.

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