When I was living in Philadelphia, I went to a party once and spent nearly an hour talking to this funny guy before I asked him what he did for a living. That's how Philly is -- you work to live, you don't live to work -- so it takes a while to get around to that question.
"I'm the executive chef," he said, "at the Renfrew Center." I immediately burst out laughing and couldn't stop. The Renfrew Center is a nationally renowned clinic for bulimics and anorexics. I apologized, but he said he got that reaction all the time. He laughed, too.
"It's really hard," he said. "They send the plates back licked clean like they really like my cooking, but you know they're throwing it all up later."
Remembering this moment, I had high hopes for two FX sitcoms debuting tonight. "Starved," at 10, plays like the writers got together and said, "Hey, what happens if you take 'Seinfeld' and give them eating disorders?" It's followed at 10:30 by "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which plays like other writers said, "Hey, what happens if you take 'Friends' but they're not Manhattan neurotics, they're just Philly slackers who run this dive Irish bar?"
Ambitious and accomplished but ultimately unpleasant, "Starved" centers on Sam, a commodities trader and compulsive overeater, acted by Eric Schaeffer (not the one from Signature Theatre), who is also creator, writer and director. His sidekicks are Dan (Del Pentecost), a novelist who gorges and keeps rescheduling his gastric bypass surgery; Adam (Sterling K. Brown), a bulimic but totally buff black cop, and Billie (Laura Benanti), a bisexual, laxative-abusing singer-songwriter. They go to group together, where they recount each week's transgressions to chants of "It's not okay!" from the other sufferers, egged on by a facilitator who believes in shame and humiliation.
There are a few inventive laughs. Dan is addicted to Nemo chocolate cake, which he guiltily buys, eyes and douses with Ajax as a type of aversion therapy. When his building maintenance man catches him ransacking the trash for a treated piece he has thrown out, the janitor asks, "Aren't you afraid you're gonna eat some of that detergent?" Sam, his face covered with chocolate, answers, "Never happens. The icing acts as an impenetrable barrier."
On patrol, Adam pulls over a Chinese deliveryman on a phony bicycle infraction, then agrees to let him off with a warning if he turns over the moo shu pork. After gobbling it down, Adam forces his nightstick into his throat to purge. Fine. But Schaeffer is too eager to go vulgar, so we have to see Adam's projectile vomit splatter all over a homeless man.
The language and sexual situations are exceptionally coarse, even for envelope-pushing FX, and the TV-MA rating warning of possible unsuitability for children under 17 is well-earned. At the diner where they congregate, the boys all decide to see if their manhoods weigh more or less than the carrot Billie intends to weigh on her portable food scale.
And the commentary that goes along with a joint colonic irrigation scene in a later episode is outrageous for cable television, even later at night. Parents, if you wouldn't want your kids to hear the Rev. Willie Wilson's uncensored descriptions of homosexual sex from the pulpit at Union Temple Baptist, you certainly aren't going to want to hear Dan on the same subject.
The far bigger problem is that "Starved" is so busy contriving situations that Schaeffer has paid no attention to character development. Eating disorders overwhelmingly afflict females, so why are three of the characters male? And what are the underlying emotional issues that make them that way? There's a whiff of intimacy avoidance for Dan, a hint of repressed homosexuality with Adam, a tinge of, oh, maybe narcissism with Sam, but this failure to build understanding into the show dooms it to emptiness, with a sour aftertaste. As if you had just, you know, hurled.
By contrast, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (TV-MA) approaches an emotional truth: In the real world, unlike in Laguna Beach and Ocean County, blue-collar kids in aging cities really do graduate from Catholic high school and eventually buy a corner bar.
That's the simple premise. Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day) and Dennis (Glenn Howerton) own and run Paddy's. Dennis's sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson) tends bar with them and majors in theater at Temple University. Dee is the moral center, except when she's not.
They're hitting their late twenties still in arrested adolescence, spectacularly unsuccessful. Their steps toward self-awareness come in hilarious fits and starts. In the first episode, "The Gang Gets Racist," the guys pounce on the young black man who wanders in alone late at night, even though Dee has just told them one of her theater friends is about to show up.
"Guess you don't get many brothers in here," Dee's friend says sardonically, and the men bumble around apologizing. What's charming about the crew is that they realize what jerks they are just in time, and when they try to make amends, they become even bigger jerks. In this case, they decide to raise their consciousness by visiting nearby Temple to acquire black friends, which backfires in an unpredictable way.
In next week's "Charlie Wants an Abortion," the show acidly lampoons the rigidity in the cultural wars by having Mac join a pro-life rally just to hit on chicks. While one passionate beauty leans over a police sawhorse to shout her slogans, Mac eyes her backside, then pulls out a piece of paper. "This is a list of doctors I'm gonna kill," Mac proclaims. "There's already two crossed out," she says, looking a little tentative.
Next scene, they're making out in his car.
McElhenney, a young broke actor and Philadelphia native, made the pilot with his pals Howerton and Day on a hand-held for less than $200, and the show retains this intimate, ensemble feel, without grandstanding or fussiness or mugginess. It keeps the four feeling like good company for a half-hour.
Starved and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (30 minutes each) air Thursdays at 10 and 10:30 p.m. on FX.