Posted on Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
Wow, what in the hell was that? The third episode in the new season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just concluded on FX on the East Coast, and there are already viewer grumblings over what appeared to be blanket-style, integrated product placement. During the second half of the ep, entitled “The Great Recession,” I wondered if I was watching an experimental commercial starring Rob McElhenney and Glen Howerton, with an actual, traditional, (and umm, funny?) new ep to follow. I wasn’t. Compared to the backlash 30 Rock received last season for “witty” integration—which I wrote about (and against) on /Film and was later referenced by Tina Fey and Co. in an ep—I expect Sunny fans to be far more vocal come tomorrow. If you’re one of them, what did you think? Also, I’m going to make a personal policy not to mention the companies involved by name below, because bad press is definitely good press for them in these situations.
The ep started out well enough. I’ve seen diehard fans express hope that the latest season would pick up, but I found the premiere, “The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis,” to be quite strong. The second ep, “The Gang Hits the Road,” was weaker, but good for shits-and-gigs. And “Recession” started out fine, with Frank (series bluechip, Danny DeVito) hanging himself inside Paddy’s, and failing, which seems to make him more depressed and…tinier if that’s possible. But then the gang minus Sweet Dee meet inside an IRL adult arcade establishment (cue shot of its sign) to enjoy steak dinners—which are emphasized several times—as the surroundings glow and pop around them. The food is so good that as Frank leaves in a huff, he returns to put his steak in a napkin. Moderately funny, but something already seemed amiss.
Back at the bar, Sweet Dee opens a bottle of domestic beer, making sure to point out to the gang (i.e. sell them and the audience on it) how the bottle’s wrapper changes color. This is followed by Charlie blatantly mistaking the word “Closed” for the name of the aforementioned beer company. The beer company’s sign is enough to lure in the customers, Charlie shares. Note: I didn’t tally up the number of times the beer company and the arcade were mentioned in this ep, but it was a “shitload.”
It became really effing annoying, because, unlike 30 Rock, it was unapologetic, uncreative whoredom. But like 30 Rock, it really took the attention off the laughs, and while I’m at home trying to relax, sipping a beer myself, I don’t want to think about this shit. I am a firm believer that integrated product placement is a comedy-killjoy—Bill Hicks would agree—because the best comedy serves to alleviate and skewer depressing everyday observations just like it. It’s Always Sunny is one of the more daring comedy series on the air, and one of the funniest. So, it makes no sense to sink to these wasteful lows; unlike say, fully integrating ads on a zillionth Jerry Bruckheimer procedural that parents watch before bed in a glaze. Jk.
Anyhow, after the arcade is mentioned a few more times inside Paddy’s, a payment method at the arcade is then advertised during the normally scheduled break, one that plays directly into the ep’s plot. So, it’s basically a 30-minute ad. Dennis and Mac use a similar method at Paddy’s—which in theory would have their customers exchange real money for Paddy dollars—but it’s so hokey, even for these dolt characters, that it feels like a contraption. Dennis and Mac return to the establishment—arcade lights flashing, looks like a great time!!—and this is where a little of the show’s soul died. The dialogue in this scene is so analytical, boring, and clearly contractually obligated, that the entire ep never recovers. I haven’t been an avid viewer of the show in seasons past, but I can’t recall something like this ever happening before. Sunny prides itself on a high laugh ratio utilizing surreal ADD situations, so when it drags ass in the name of cash, it’s double-strange. I even sensed that perhaps McElhenney and Howerton (who hasn’t updated his Twitter tonight) were miserable with the set-up, or maybe running through the motions as an inside joke.
I dunno. This episode was a massive bummer. What’s alarming is that some of the show’s viewers a la SNL‘s lame MacGruber integration last season probably find all of this hilarious. “They’re selling ads between ads and I have to watch it! It’s so funny.” And then there are those industry-savvy individuals who say, “This is the future, deal with it.” But there are more and more smart critics speaking out against this trend, ones like Emily Nussbaum at New York Mag (and no, this is not integration) who has integrated anti-integration into her journalistic principles as a TV critic…
I fucking hate product integration — not just product placement, but whole plotlines written for advertisers, shows produced BY advertisers, etc. I think it’s a slippery slope and a jump off the cliff and you can lead a horse to water. I know many people will find this naïve, and I know there needs to be an economic model to support TV production, but I think unless the audience speaks back, we’re all gliding into a toxic junk heap without even a peep of protest. (Here’s the big feature I wrote on this topic last year.)
And I really hope that the cast—whom I respect—doesn’t pull a “Ha! Ha!” and say that the episode’s title and the current economy justify this creative decision. If it turns out to be a spoof, sponsored or otherwise, it was poorly done and thanks for wasting 30 minutes of my time. Unlike Frank’s multiple attempts, if this becomes the norm at Sunny, the irreverent show will hang itself with great success.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and on twitter.