It is definitely going to take a few more viewings to fully grasp the inner workings of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s fantastic tracking shot from last night’s episode. There’s been a lot of talk about where the influences behind the shot come from, with True Detective being name dropped before the episode aired and an obvious Birdman feeling while watching it unfold, but it honestly feels more of homage to tracking shots in general. What’s clear is that it belongs in the conversation as one of the best you’ll see.
As an Always Sunny episode, it stands out because Charlie is painted as competent for one of the rare times in the series. Following him through the hectic tracking sequence is a shining moment for him in the show, probably ranking up there with his tryst on the Jersey shore with The Waitress and his birthday episode where he receives his brand new rat stick and we venture into the pages of his dream book. This episode has the benefit of being the most recent, so it’d be easier to throw it up on the top of the heap.
It’s past the show where it really shines, though. “Charlie Work” is the type of episode that helps a series stand out as “legendary” without crowning it as such before it’s wrapped. Think 30 Rock’s live episodes or Seinfeld’s The Betrayal. It’s the type of episode that thrives on the comfort of success and allows everyone involved to play to the top of their game, in this case while creating the perfect tribute to the tracking shot.
That’s what it is at it’s core, a tribute to all the tracking shots. The ones that we’ve covered in the past and that have made a lasting impact. I couldn’t call it just a send up of True Detective or Birdman. There’s DNA in there from both, but there’s also a small dab of Goodfella’s Copacabana sequence (A special table in the back as opposed to a special table up front), the final ride of Little Bill from Boogie Nights and many others in there.
We covered the True Detective influence, but here’s a refresh. From FOX LA:
“True Detective” followed Matthew McConaughey in and out of frenzied danger for six seamless minutes. The FXX sitcom spends an uninterrupted seven-plus minutes on a scene that’s equally manic but minus the gunplay: It involves a desperate bid to save Paddy’s pub from flunking a health inspection.
Glenn Howerton, who plays Dennis and is an executive producer of the comedy about a group of loser pals, said they were “pretty inspired” by the bravado of “True Detective” and found an episode that’s served by the approach.
“Of course, this was months before ‘Birdman’ came out,” Howerton said, referring to the Oscar-nominated film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that has the look of a two-hour tracking shot.
“Inarritu was like, ‘Well, check this out,'” Howerton said, ginning up a mock competition between the filmmaker and the Emmy Award-winning crime saga.
The interesting part is that the reported Birdman “homage” was actually not as intentional as you’d believe. You can glean from the quote above, Birdman wasn’t even out at time this episode was in production, or it hadn’t been seen. Director Matt Shakman explains to Alan Sepinwall over at HitFix, the tricks and camera choices during the shot stemmed more from the limitations of the set as opposed to a direct influence from the Inarritu film. From Hitfix:
The sets on stage are only one level, so every time we go to the basement, there is a camera trick. Some are simple–where we pan past the brick wall and hide the cut or go through a pool of darkness–or where we are more ambitious and use green screen (coming back into the bar from the basement for instance was a blend of a shot that panned into a green screen with a shot of the keg room that continued the motion).
The stage sets that are contiguous are the bathroom, main pub interior, back office, and keg room. The bathroom wasn’t originally connected but we made it connect for this episode. For this episode we also built a partial back alley on stage. There’s a back alley location in downtown LA that we usually go to. We used the real downtown location for when the delivery guy is first seated and Charlie sees Devito running away. I wanted that to be the actual place so the audience wouldn’t doubt the veracity when we used the stage set for later scenes: Charlie arguing with dee about moving the dumpster and checking in with the inspector in the alley. Going from the interior bar set to the real alley required some green screen and a few camera tricks–going into a wall as Charlie passes, and then coming off the wall on location to reveal the real exterior alley, etc.
If the show has done anything over ten seasons, it’s given life to Paddy’s Pub. It’s no surprise that the front of the bar isn’t the true location, but it is a tiny shock to hear that it isn’t a real building on the inside. So much has happened there and the illusion has been executed so well over the years, you wouldn’t think that it’s really just a studio set.
This really comes to light once the tricks are over and the show ditches them for the rehearsed chaos we witness during the last segment:
It begins with Charlie first escorting the inspector inside the bar and continuing all the way through to Charlie leading the inspector to the basement. It was rehearsed at the end of a Tuesday if I remember. Took about two hours to stage it all. Actors then went home to study up on lines and I took the crew through the camera blocking.
The next morning we took about four hours to light everything and rehearse the camera move again and again. Our B camera operator wore a headset and talked the A camera operator through the choreography during the shot. Reminding him what was next, who to focus on, where the next transition was, etc. The AD’s practiced (with a bunch of PA’s and set dressers) moving all the live chickens in and out of the back office in a very short amount of time. And we worked out all the other miscellaneous things–Devito’s black paint, the chickens that shuttled back and forth to the keg room, etc. Then we brought in the actors and started shooting. Took about twelve takes if I remember right. Around 11 script pages. A third of the show. All before lunch.
And there is another section that runs for a bit–from Charlie turning on the power breaker, through bringing the delivery guy to the back alley. That’s a solid chunk too without camera trickery.
These are the moments where you can really grab onto those comparisons. It’s easy to do. There’s a tense nature involved that doesn’t necessarily rival True Detective’s tracking scene, but it does hover with it. The issue here is that you could say the same about an influence from Children of Men, a film that arguably features some of the most tense scenes you can find.
Also present is the frenzied pace of Birdman, Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, and any of the others that follow the same vein. I personally thought of Birdman as soon as I watched the scene on TV, but Shakman denies the direct influence in the interview:
(Also), the Jazz score written by Cormac Bluestone (who also wrote “The Nightman Cometh”) came before any of us saw “Birdman.” So our continuous take “Sunny” episode became an unintended homage to that film.
This all plays into why I’d rather look at the entire episode as a tribute to the tracking shot as a whole. You could find and connect any of the classics to the health inspection of Paddy’s Pub, from the narrative roller coaster that kicks off Touch of Evil to the dizzying character nonsense from The Player. It could be an entire essay if you wanted it to be, but it shouldn’t be.
You don’t need an encyclopedia knowledge to have enjoyed last night’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Just know that you watched something special and there was a lot of thought put into it that covers a lot of film and television history. If you dive further from that point, I’d say it has done its job.