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Losers on the march! FX's new comedy "Testees" makes "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" look tasteful and restrained by comparison.

Published October 26, 2008 11:50AM (EDT)

TV comedies now seem to be populated solely by unapologetic, abject losers. From shows like NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" to newer shows like CBS's "Worst Week" and HBO's "The Life and Times of Tim," good guys and valiant heroes are a thing of the distant past. Instead, what we find are cowards, liars and bloviating egomaniacs who spend most of their time shirking the call of duty, avoiding major inconveniences and soothing themselves with cold beer and video games.

In other words, the small screen has become a lot more realistic in recent months. But unlike the selfish curmudgeons of "Seinfeld," the squirmy, idealistic dreamers of "Friends" or the lazy, self-centered schleps of "Everybody Loves Raymond," the loserly nature of the losers on today's comedies makes up the entire joke. In the worst of these shows, there aren't strange coincidences or endlessly repeatable quips about masturbation or hilarious J. Peterman parodies along the way, as there were on "Seinfeld." There aren't genuine matters of the heart at stake, as there were on "Friends." There aren't relatable life-or-death struggles between married couples over who'll finally unpack a suitcase as there were on "Everybody Loves Raymond." Instead, the jokes revolve around marveling at what losers these losers are.

Hey, sometimes it works. But try to imagine the characters of "Seinfeld" navigating a plot that concerns a butt suppository or a stolen crack baby. The story doesn't progress into more and more absurd territory until it's over the top; it starts out over the top and ends in pure farce, a sloppy mess of deadpan nastiness and manic buffoonery.

Descent of man
Which sounds pretty entertaining in theory, but in practice, we're presented with the same hapless asshats, trying to make some quick cash by letting a man in a white coat insert a gasoline pill into their butts.

Yep, that pretty much sums up the plot of the pilot of FX's new show, "Testees" (10:30 p.m. Thursdays), a show so strange and vile and stupid that I really wish I could strongly recommend it. Created by Kenny Hotz of the Canadian cult hit "Kenny vs. Spenny" (in which Hotz and his friend Spencer Rice compete to see who can smoke more pot or lift more weight with his penis), "Testees" has a similarly juvenile premise: Two guys without jobs, girlfriends or lives of any kind earn money by signing up to be test subjects at a local pharmaceutical testing company.

Each episode, then, focuses on a) unpleasant procedures or the administration of mysterious drugs and b) strange side effects stemming from these procedures and drugs. Hard to imagine? Well, let me break down the plot of the pilot for you so you can get a taste of the madness for yourself.

Ron (Jeff Kassel) and Peter (Steve Markle) have run out of food. They're hungry. They need some quick money. Ron has vowed never to return to Testico, where the pair have been making cash as guinea pigs. Nonetheless, in the next scene, the two are kneeling to lick the bare feet of their former supervisor, begging for their jobs back. Welcome to the new new economy, my friends!

Next, Ron and Peter are getting something injected into their butts. Why do male comedy writers love anything involving poo, rectums or foreign objects inserted into rectums? More important, why do they assume that we're smoking what they're smoking? (We only wish we had the cash to finance that caliber of smokage. Or is it the more recession-friendly and budget-minded crack that comedy writers smoke these days?)

A few hours later, Peter looks pregnant, and he's eating pickles dipped in ice cream. Peter and Ron decide that they want to keep the baby. They avoid calls from Testico, hide out in an old van and finally Peter gives birth to ... a gigantic fart that leaves Ron with a nosebleed. (He's between Peter's legs, getting ready to deliver his baby, when the gas bomb explodes.)

See, I had trouble merely typing out the words in that last paragraph, and yet, not only did the writers of this show come up with all of that, but they stood by with smiles on their faces as a script about butt suppositories and a gigantic fart was distributed to the actors and the director and the script supervisor, and then a crew came and set up cameras and shot the whole thing. How could they not have been lighting up the whole time? I mean, how do you ask a regular, self-respecting human being to hold a boom mike while Jeff Kassel crouches between Steve Markle's open legs, waiting for the fart fan to be turned on full blast? Is this the juvenile male idiocy of Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers trickling down to the small screen?

Luckily, despite my better judgment, I also watched the second episode of "Testees," in which Testico dabbles in erasing memories, and Ron and Peter can't recall who they are or really anything about their lives. Eventually the pair turn to their next-door neighbor, Nugget, who's still angry at them for hiring a male stripper for his birthday party. He tells them that they're a gay couple, and in fact, they just threw a party at which they performed a live sex show for their friends and family, to demonstrate their love for and commitment to each other. Ron and Peter are shocked and disgusted by this news, but they still decide to stage the live sex show a second time, hoping it will jog their memories.

Granted, this story is at least as offensive and obnoxious as giving birth to a gigantic fart. On second viewing, though, the tone of this show is so odd, the actors are so completely unusual and unsitcomy, that you can't help embracing its scrappy sickness just a little bit in spite of yourself. Not only that, but the scene where Ron and Peter strip down to butt thongs as artsy music plays and their friends and family gape in agony? You will giggle. If you have blood flowing through your veins, you will giggle, and you'll hate yourself for it.

Now, some have called "Testees" the "most disgusting comedy ever," pronouncing it "puerile" and "crass" and "tasteless." To me, nothing is more crass than the self-congratulatory nastiness of Showtime's "Californication," HBO's "The Life & Times of Tim" or, in the bland sitcom vein, CBS's "Worst Week." Compared with the loser-guy tomfoolery on those shows, "Testees" is a blast of fresh air -- however stanky and nauseating that blast might be.

Besides, when everyone is falling all over themselves to proclaim how deeply wrong a show is, it's tough not to suspect that it has some redeeming qualities. So let's give this smelly, twisted, gut-churning nightmare of a show a chance, what do you say?

Origin of the feces
At least now we know that the crack trade is booming during these tough economic times. Just a spoonful of crack certainly makes FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (10 p.m. Thursdays) go down in the most delightful way -- or at least, it makes the show's writers whistle while they work. How else do you explain a recent episode titled "Who Pooped the Bed?" in which Frank (Danny DeVito) and Charlie (Charlie Day) argue over who's to blame for the excrement found at the center of their shared bed for two mornings in a row?

Yes, Frank and Charlie sleep together on a foldout couch, just the sort of detail that seems perfectly normal to die-hard fans of the show (now in its fourth season) -- and believe me, they're out there. If you were receiving an education at one of the finer universities in this great nation of ours (aka sitting on the couch smoking bong hits all day long), a sitcom about five aggressive, scheming losers who are primarily concerned with making quick cash and/or screwing each other over would be just what the doctor ordered -- along with two extra-large Hawaiian pizzas.

And even though Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Charlie and Frank team up to hunt and kill a homeless man or steal a crack baby or fake their own deaths or pander for the camera just for a taste of YouTube fame, they do it all with so much manic energy, style and flair that the most asinine of plots becomes unpredictable somewhere along the way. After all, these miscreants spend most of their time sitting around in the dive bar they own, swilling beer. I think they've considered killing each other several times now. Really, anything could happen. Will Dee succeed in having a "Sex and the City"-like night out on the town with the girls, even when one of them has a drinking problem and the other opens conversations with hot men by announcing that she's bleached her asshole? Will Mac and Charlie manage to fake their deaths before Mac's meth dealer father can kill them? Even the bed-pooping incident or a simple rivalry between Mac and Dennis over which of them is Charlie's best friend is laden with unpredictable parodies and plot twists galore until the game becomes trying to figure out how it will all be resolved.

But then, maybe it's the ludicrous dialogue that keeps this weird little ship afloat. Take this exchange among Dennis, Dee and Frank when they discover a glory hole in the bathroom at the bar:

Dee: Why would you want to have sex with someone you can't see?"

Dennis: Well, Dee, I think the real question is, why wouldn't you want to have sex with someone you can't see? It's very European. You see, Europe leads the way with sexual exploration. Quite frankly, I think it's time we caught up.

Frank: This sounds hot! I'm gonna go get some duct tape.

Dennis: Oh, now, hold on a second, Frank. Before you go sticking anything through that hole, you might want to consider that on the other side of this wall, more often than not, there's a dude.

Frank: But you can't see through the wall, so how do you know it's not a girl? You know, I could just picture a girl and then ... it's good!

Dennis: Right, well some might find that method effective. But it's a dangerous game you're playing, Frank.

Frank: Suppose the other guy is picturing a girl also!

Dee: How's he gonna do that with a dick in his mouth?

Frank: I don't know. That's his problem.

Now, see, dialogue like that either makes you cringe or makes you chuckle softly in spite of yourself. Yes, there are always genitals and rectums in the mix, and there's always a whiff of homophobia in the air. This is dude humor, after all. And while I may not appreciate a pilot about giving birth to a giant fart, that doesn't mean I can turn my back on earnest enthusiasm surrounding a glory hole. I'm only human.

None of the screechy goings-on of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" really matter, of course. Do we care if the waitress Charlie's had a crush on for years ever gives him the time of day? Do we care if Dennis tricks Mac or Mac tricks Charlie or Charlie has been tricking both of them all along? Somehow, this ridiculous show manages to entertain us without any semblance of character development or the remotest whiff of a familiar, relatable scenario. This farce wins out through sheer courage of conviction. The show's actors (McElhenney created the show, Howerton and Day write for it, and they're obviously a tightknit group: Day and the actress who plays "the waitress," Mary Elizabeth Ellis, got married two years ago, and McElhenney and Olson got married last month) are seriously committed to their characters and to these unhinged stories. Through determination, they sell this show week after week. They sell it to stoners, crack smokers, losers, college students, teenagers and abnormally juvenile middle-aged people alike.

Is it a truly great show? I wouldn't go that far, but it's funny and unexpected and original, and that's much, much more than you can say for 95 percent of the comedies currently on the air.

Maybe that's a loserly way of thinking about it. What can I say? There's a scarcity of funny shows on TV right now. Besides, maybe this is a good lesson for us, as a recession breathes down our necks like an angry, belligerent drunk: Beggars can't be choosers, but they can be losers.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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