The article below contains spoilers for "The Gang Broke Dee," the September 4th, 2013 episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
After nine seasons of no lessons learned, no "awwww" moments or "very special episodes," "Seinfeld" shook Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer out of their bubble and into a world in which they were suddenly held responsible for their behavior and handed a jail sentence after many of the people they'd wronged over the years trooped back to testify against them. Regardless of how you felt about the finale, it was a shocking idea -- the suggestion that the show wasn't set in a universe in which such self-centered, petty-detail-fixated behavior wasn't a norm but was actually just the standard for the entertainingly amoral characters we'd been watching all this time. The series may not have ended with a message, but it definitely gave the feeling of a bill coming due.
God help the "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" gang if the same thing were to happen to them and they were forced to fully account for every terrible thing they've done over eight seasons -- they've racked up enough felonious activity to earn multiple life sentences. Charlie (Charlie Day), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) have always existed in a universe that's like that of a sitcom that's been run over by a car several times and might also have a empathy-eliminating head injury. There seem to be a normal world outside their immediate circle, one that reacts justifiably with horror whenever one of the gang comes around, but for the foursome and their even more disastrous patriarch Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito), life goes on in an endless cycle of psychopathic schemes. They've turned their bar, Paddy’s, into a drug den, they've impersonated cops, they've faked their own deaths, they've started riots and kidnapped people, and they've gradually but magnificently destroyed the life of their former high school classmate Rickety Cricket (David Hornsby).
If there's a line over which the gang will not cross in terms of utter disrespect, the show has yet to approach it, though last night's ninth season premiere on FXX, "The Gang Broke Dee," did manage to wink at the concept of their finally going to far and inflicting permanent damage on one of their own. Like any longrunning comedy, "Always Sunny" has had its ups and downs, but the episode is the first one I can remember to genuinely pose a serious threat to the stability of the gang's existence by disrupting the abusive dynamic that's the basis of their friendship.
Dee, who's most frequently served as the butt of the other members' jokes over the years, finally seems to give up, refusing to fight back or join in whatever plan is being obsessed over this week. She just sits alone, eating month-old birthday cake and smoking and undermining all the insults lobbed at her by getting to the punchline first. "Let me do my thing, you're jumping on my thing here," a perturbed Dennis says. "It's no fun unless you fight back," observes Frank.
As the episode's title proclaims, the gang seems to have broken Dee for good, and it offers a fundamental shake-up to the one of the group's basic means of passing the time. Dee is made fun of, Frank is gawked at, Charlie is egged on, Mac is indulged and Dennis is goaded -- but if one of them actually gets hurt, the system's upset, and given the random timestamps of the episode beginnings, the gang's lifestyles are very dependent on this system. And so Charlie, Frank and Mac come up with one plan to get her out of her showerless slump by having her try to perform stand-up, while Dennis decides he's going to fix her by fixing her up, though his "selects" show he doesn't have a high opinion of his twin. Dennis' idea, which is paired with abuse and suggestions that he's dependent on controlling his sister to make himself feel better, is in line with his standard behavior in the series.
But the comedy storyline and Dee's rise to success with her self-abusive cracks ("I'm Sweet Dee and the joke's on me!") acts as a reflection of the kind of surreal escalation the series likes to embrace as well as a tease about and a welcome refutation of the thought that the show will ever go soft. Dennis sincerely pleads with Dee to be taken to L.A. and she kicks him in the face; Dee makes herself sick preparing to go on Conan and it all turns out to be an impossible, elaborate hoax on the part of Charlie, Frank and Mac. It wasn't a kind gesture, it was an awesomely, complicatedly cruel one. There's no success or escape to be had, and no comfort, and there may never be a moment in which the show pulls back from being too mean -- and it's impressive that, after this many years, the gang has stuck to their guns in not only not hugging things out, but not holding back.