Welcome back to television’s funniest display of human cruelty.
There are other shows that celebrate the darker angels of our nature—the unwavering selfishness of Larry David’s alter egos both on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is sort of horrifying, if you can stop laughing long enough to consider it—but there are none quite as nihilistic and amoral as FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This is a show so committed to the narcissistic, self-serving outlook of its characters that it barely recognizes a world in which love or redemption even exists. The spiritual emptiness is bone-deep; even the dirty, depressing sets look like a place where you’d cut yourself on a sharp edge and catch a bacterial infection.
On the rare occasions when kindness rears its head, it’s either part of a con run by one of the Loathsome Fivesome, or an alien emotion from outside the circle, destined to be mocked or heartlessly used for some small advantage. It doesn’t even matter that Dennis, Charlie, Mac, Frank and Dee are idiots, or that their schemes inevitably fall apart at the seams and leave them in deeper misery than where they started. This isn’t a show where anybody learns a lesson; they only rebound with the implacable, desperate energy of the soulless (comedy zombies!) and callously rip at the next promising thread. Meanwhile, the moral compass spins at random.
So at the dawn of Season Nine, we should have expected a trap when “The Gang Broke Dee” opened on a shot of Sweet Dee in an obvious state of depression, eating a cake recovered from the trash and barely responding to the litany of insults (“you look like—” Mac begins, before Dee finishes the thought: “A bird without tits.”) from the other four. As the title suggests, her role as the group’s punching bag has finally carried her past rage and into a near-suicidal listlessness. The rest of the gang appears worried, and Charlie, Mac and Frank sign her up for an open-mic stand-up comedy night. The goal is to raise her spirits, and they think her depressed state might actually help. “Yeah, you know, you’re right in that sweet spot between suicidal and actually dead…most comedians, they thrive there!” argues Charlie. They add that her new defeatism might even cure her disguisting nervous tic—retching under pressure.
Only Dennis goes against the grain, telling Dee that she needs to settle for an average-to-below-average partner who can take her off their hands for good. He offers to find a range of suitable candidates, and Dee limply agrees to both plans. Oddly, though, her stand-up set goes well, and suddenly she’s getting bigger gigs opening for local stars like “Landslide,” a comic who only does material about diarrhea. Dee’s comedy is atrocious, consisting of bad vagina jokes and mismatched sound effects, but the people love it. Charlie, Mac and Frank form a fan club with t-shirts emblazoned with her catchphrase (“The Joke’s on Dee!”) and only Dennis is astonished and horrified at her success. He continues to bring her photos of suitors with low self-esteem, and turns up at every show, face twisted with jealousy. Dee sleeps with an ugly talent scout to help her career, and when a Los Angeles agent offers her a last-minute booking on the Conan O’Brien show, she’s only too happy to throw everyone who got her there by the wayside and hop on a plane to the West Coast.
And the punchline? Again, we should have seen it coming. The new hotshot agent covers Dee’s head with a jacket to protect her from the swarming paparazzi, she’s rushed backstage, Conan’s voice introduces her after the makeup people dart off, she encourages herself by whispering, “Sweet Dee Reynolds is a star,” and steps through the curtain…
It was all an elaborate set-up, from the word go. She’s back at the bar, facing the cast of her meteoric rise, who all chant “the joke’s on you!” in unison as confetti flies from the ceiling. It’s all a sham—the gigs, the jet (Frank hired it to circle Philadelphia for six hours), the fan club, the laughs. “None of it is real, Dee, none of it!” gushes Mac. Dennis is just as stunned—they left him out the loop too. Dee can only look on, in horror, and ask why. “We wanted to show you that you could sink lower,” Mac explains. And then, just like they wanted, Dee is raging again, destroying the bar and screaming to the gods.
If someone read this review without knowing the show, they could easily see it as a display of psychological torture. And they’d be right—the It’s Always Sunny landscape is strewn with broken people whose hellish lives never seem to hit bottom. The writers are merciless as they dole out misery. There will be no happy endings, only debasement and inhumanity, piled on with a kind of sadistic glee. This is one of two reasons why the show has succeeded as a countercultural work of genius for nearly a decade. The minds behind the madness will never throw you a bone, or cater to your idea of what might be offensive. They will push the bounds of good taste to places where only animated shows like South Park have gone in the past, and because we’re watching real humans perform the barbarities, it’s way more affecting than any cartoon. And they never blink. This isn’t just a show without apologies; it’s a show that pretends not to understand why it would have to apologize in the first place.
The second reason for the show’s success is the incredible acting by the four “friends.” And while the nihilism represents a philosophical approach that usually delivers the comedic goods (example: the gang poisoning Dee’s cup in “The Gang Reignites the Rivalry”), the performances are responsible for at least an equal share of the laughs. Call it the difference between the brain and the heart. If “The Gang Broke Dee” went wrong, it was here—the thrust of the episode was Dee’s “career” arc, leading to the twist ending, and every action was in service of the deception; we had to be fooled too. But the best It’s Always Sunny episodes do a better job maintaining a balance with the performance element. The complaint is similar to one I had about the newest season of Arrested Development; the writers succeeded in constructing an intricate narrative, but the characters became slaves to the puzzle, and it simply wasn’t as funny.
I believe Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day have created two of the greatest sitcom characters ever in Dennis and Charlie, and last night we really didn’t get to see them at their best. There were a few exceptions, such as when Dennis complains about Dee’s comedy, or tries to pretend he was in on the joke from the outset—”I was and I wasn’t,” he shouts, with a forced laughter that sounds more like the onset of hysteria—but in general the plot took over, subsuming the tics and nuances that give the group its dark charisma. “The Gang Broke Dee” was a good, not great, start to the new season. The brain is sharp as ever, but though It’s Always Sunny inhabits a heartless world, it can’t thrive without its heart.