‘Office’ vs. ‘Always Sunny’: What’s TV’s best sitcom? (Commentary)

 

Which sitcom would you take with you to a desert island: “The Office” (8 p.m. Central Thursdays on NBC) or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (9 p.m. Central Thursdays on FX)?

I say “Always Sunny” is the superior show. I can see this clearly because they both air on Thursday nights, so I always watch them back-to-back.

“The Office,” now in its sixth season, comes from that British tradition of awkward pauses, but I wonder if awkward-pause comedy naturally loses its edge after a few years.

The show relies heavily on Michael being the prototypical bad boss, with a socially awkward streak that carries beyond the Dunder-Mifflin walls. In the recent Jim-Pam wedding episode, he makes a toast — against Jim’s wishes — and of course says a bunch of inappropriately explicit sexual stuff about the couple. Then he tries to console Pam’s grandma about Pam being pregnant out of wedlock, and he says more awkward things. Of course. Of course.

There is a certain pleasure in watching Michael’s antics, and that of the other iconic cubicle dwellers. Creed’s creepy, Kelly’s a gossipmonger, Andy’s lonely, Kevin’s mildly retarded, Jim is the put-upon guy who is too good for this, etc. They are all comfortingly in character. “The Office” is wacky, sure, but also predictable. I wonder, why is the documentary crew still filming the Scranton branch? Surely they have captured the essence of these people by now.

(Actually, Jim ascending to co-manager and Pam to paper saleswoman is a bit surprising. The happy ending to the dreary [but brilliant] original “Office” was that Tim and Dawn broke free of Wernham Hogg in the end. It seems Jim and Pam are Dunder-Mifflin lifers. Maybe we can blame the bad economy.)

“Always Sunny,” now in its fifth season, is wacky in an unpredictable way. It’s from the “Seinfeld” “show about nothing” tradition, following a group of self-centered friends who are not likable human beings but are nonetheless utterly watchable.

The most recent episode, “The Waitress is Getting Married,” is a classic on par with “Seinfeld’s” “The Contest.” Nearly every scene is played to perfection. Most quoted will be Charlie’s attempt to tell his date that he’s a philanthropist, as Mac and Dennis had coached him to say. Instead, it comes out “full-on rapist.” The visual humor of how Charlie looks — sweaty and disheveled, with a hornet sting on his cheek — is awesome.

Another great scene: Mac and Dennis ask Charlie questions for his profile for a dating web site. “What’s your favorite thing?” “Ghouls.”

I would love to see Charlie Day, who plays Charlie, interviewed sometime, just to see how different he is from his stupid, sheltered character. I don’t know of any actor so willing to embarrass himself for a role. He’s truly a comic genius.

Two other recent insta-classics are “The Gang Gives Frank an Intervention” (I love how Frank’s mouth is wine-stained the entire episode, and “24’s” Mary Lynn Rajskub gives a great turn as “Gail the Snail”) and “The Gang Hits the Road” (Mac is flabbergasted that Charlie has never eaten a pear … or blueberries … and has never left Philly.)

When “Always Sunny” misses, it misses bad. “The Great Recession” and “The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis” are little more than Mac-and-Dennis schemes dragged out too long. But “The Office” can misfire, too. The recent “Mafia,” where Michael thinks an insurance salesman is a Mafioso, was too thin of a premise.

But when they’re at their best, “Always Sunny” gets the edge. It’s on cable, so it can try just about anything; “The Office” feels comparatively mainstream (the webisodes at NBC.com theoretically provide relief — I’m looking forward to the next one, where Kelly and Erin form a girl band).

There’s a good chance “Always Sunny” will deliver a classic episode in any given week, but “The Office” just isn’t clicking at that level right now. So my desert island will always be “Sunny.”