Can a simple pill turn an idiot into a genius? That’s the premise of Flowers for Algernon, the 1966 epistolary novel by Daniel Keyes, and now it’s also the premise of “Flowers for Charlie,” the slightly less ambitious (but way funnier) eighth episode of It’s Always Sunny’s off-and-on ninth season, written by Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff.
It starts in a lab, where the gang is clamoring to be included in an “intelligence experiment” that pays $1,000. The two scientists, though, only want a single subject, and they want him to be as dumb as possible. Dee offers to have sex with both of them, but they’re not enticed. Instead, they set their eyes on Charlie, who proves that he’s no smarter than a lab rat when he repeatedly shocks himself reaching for cheese. The scientists (played by The Dark Knight Rise’s Burn Gorman and 2 Broke Girls’ Jimmy Ouyang in the best supporting turns of the season so far) are delighted; they’ve got their man.
Charlie takes a pill, and immediately begins to show signs of intelligence. He teaches himself Mandarin using an audio book (“I just realized I have two ears,” he tells Dennis), and refuses to kill a giant rat Dee finds in the bar. That means it’s up to the rest of the gang, and they use the opportunity to demonstrate their wit. Mac’s strategy is to bash the rat with a baseball bat wrapped in chains, but Dennis sees the process as a seduction and takes a more cerebral approach. He puts on romanitc music (“You’re The Inspiration” by Chicago) and baits a glue trap with brie cheese. For a weird moment, Mac looks like he’s trying to kiss Dennis, but soon Dee enters with an even better idea—she’s got an “ultrasonic rodent repellent” device, and she plans to obliterate the rat’s ear drums. All three put their plans in motion, and when Dee sticks her hand in the wall to set the repellent, her hand gets stuck in Dennis’ glue trap as the rat escapes.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s brain power seemingly keeps increasing. He plays chess with one of the scientists and posits that Stephen Hawking is “more Lady Gaga than Johann Sebastian Bach,” and rejects Frank when he wants to watch a Police Academy movie as part of “Gruesome Twosome Tuesday.” Instead, he continues to read and devise mathematical formulas and win at chess. Frank grows desperate, and pays the waitress $500 to have lunch with Charlie in an attempt to bring him back to earth. As he tells the rest of the gang, Charlie is their foundation, and the foundation belongs on the bottom. But Charlie is alarmed by the waitress’ stupidity, and begins to experience more side effects of the pill, including sharp pains in his head and complete numbness of the legs.
Back at Paddy’s, Mac tries to get Dee’s hand out of the wall using gasoline to melt the glue, but the gang gets distracted and starts huffing gasoline instead. Frank finds them watching cartoons to see how the cats deal with mice, but when he tries to enlist them to help Charlie, they show no willingness to get off the floor. Finally, Frank asks Dee if she’s holding on to the trap, and with amazement in her eyes, she releases it and pulls her hand out of the wall.
The two scientists are pleased with Charlie’s progress, and they call in their colleagues to show off the results. The gang shows up at the classroom, and are shocked when Charlie rolls out on an old-fashioned wooden wheelchair, with a blanket across his legs, speaking in an accent. He has an invention he wants to unveil, but not before he blusters about what it will mean to mankind. He thinks it will help, but then again, he says with a sinister grin, “the good of the scorpion is not the good of the frog.” With a flourish, he whips the white cloth off his contraption, and reveals the fruit of his genius: A box with a few wires that allows spiders to speak on the phone to cats.
That’s when the scientists reveal their own findings: Charlie’s intelligence hasn’t increased at all. In fact, the pill they gave him was nothing but a placebo. The only thing that actually changed was his level of arrogance, which they display on a line graph rising in comparison to his flat-line brain power. Charlie convinced himself he could read Tolstoy, learn Mandarin and become a chess master and inventor in a matter of three days. When the realization hits, Charlie tries to maintain some dignity by delivering a pompous pronouncement to the gathered scientists: “I believe I was having the plee-see-bee effect.”
The gang all agrees that the word sounds funny, and they march out to watch Police Academy (to the tune of the Police Academy theme song, no less), content that Charlie Kelly is once more the idiotic king of the rats.
It’s Always Sunny works best when an episode’s focus centers on either Charlie or Dennis, and it’s no surprise that “Flowers for Charlie” turned out to be the best episode of the season to date. There’s no weak link on the show, but those two are the darkest and funniest characters, and the really transcendent episodes always have one of the two at their core. It’s not a complex formula—put them in a strange environment, give their personalities room to go crazy, and let them devise the means of their own failure. Charlie’s willingness to believe he was becoming a genius paid hysterical dividends, and there was never a doubt that it would end as it began; with nothing learned, and nothing gained.