Don’t call it a comeback.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” hasn’t seen a consistent dip in quality for longer than we can remember, but every season, it feels as though the TV world takes Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Frank (Danny DeVito) a little bit for granted. Perhaps because it comes out at the beginning of the year, seven months before the Emmy nominations hit and a good 11 months prior to the “best of the year” lists. Or maybe it’s just because it’s been on so long that people want to believe they know what’s coming. That they “get it.”
Yet the gang is as eager to disprove the notion as they are proud to embrace the purity of their characters’ perturbed nature. Like the goofy baby brother eager to join the big kids table, “Sunny” throws big ideas at the wall each and every season. They take big swings (like “Being Frank” last season) without abandoning the heart of the show (the bar, the conflict, the Philadelphia spirit). Some episodes stick while others slowly slide to the floor, and if enough half-hour blocks make us laugh hard enough, then “Sunny” had a good season.
If that’s the metric, then Season 12 is already one of the greats. In fact, Season 12 seems more determined than usual to throw that metric under the bus for good.
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Take the premiere episode, “The Gang Turns Black.” [Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Season 12 premiere.] Utilizing the Season 11 addition of “Old Man/Black Man/Old Black Man,” the gang gathers to watch a movie of his choosing — “The Wiz” — and thus the conversation inevitably turns from whether a “black version” of “The Wizard of Oz” was really necessary to whether there’s still a difference between white and black citizens among America’s lower class.
Then zap! A lightning strike magically switches the gang’s bodies with African Americans of a similar class. Notably, Dennis is much larger, Frank is much younger and Charlie is much, much younger — a child, in fact — but otherwise they’re close in age to their white selves. A debate then emerges as to whether or not they’re living out “The Wiz,” “Freaky Friday,” or “Quantum Leap,” and the gang splits off into groups to investigate.
Wait. Did I mention they were singing? They’ve been singing the whole time! Well, not the whole time, but the gang uncontrollably bursts into song in order to progress the narrative (making the episode already a step up from other musicals, like, say, “Chicago”), providing a light, easy-going tone for the gang’s adventure as African-Americans.
A series of entertaining and illuminating events follows, including Mac, Dennis, and Charlie getting arrested for breaking into Dennis’ car and Dee and Frank running into a “leaping” Scott Blacula– er, Bacula. But the episode — as so many often do — peaks with Charlie: first, during his arrest, when he tries to explain what happened. Keep in mind, as Charlie did not, that the cops see him as a young boy hanging out with two middle-aged men. So when he sings, “He’s just some guy who banged my mother, like my friend and the other,” it’s not exactly easy for the cops to release him back into their custody. (His final line in the scene deserves special mention: “I guess I’m just another black kid who doesn’t know his dad. Guess we got that in common, huh kid? …unless he knows his dad. Oh shit, that was racist.”)
More shocking, though, is Charlie’s final act; an act that reveals the true lesson of this haunting parable. Showing off the train the detectives gave him during their interview, Charlie is brutally shot by trigger-happy beat cops who saw a black kid holding something shiny and immediately thought, “Gun!” As he lies in a pool of his own blood, the stark difference between black and white becomes as clear as night and day to the gang.
But the true heartbreak isn’t Charlie’s gory death: It’s what comes next. Like so many body switching tales, it turns out everything we just saw was a dream; a dream had by the “Old Black Man.” So, chronologically, the Old Black Man fell asleep listening to a bunch of white people argue there was no difference between poor white people and poor black people, dreamt of them learning their lesson, and awoke to a world in which they never did — and likely never will. It’s a fitting analogy for the modern plight of perspective, where too many angry white people refuse or are unable to put themselves in the shoes of those less fortunate, and an excellent capper for “Sunny” considering the show’s long-running satiric attack on its subjects.
Yet the exquisite ending is just the beginning of what’s shaping up to be a notable season for all the right reasons. We won’t spoil the upcoming episodes here, but here’s a small sample of what’s on the way.
- “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy” (Episode 3) – an evisceration of multi-cam comedies like “Fuller House,” breaking down the manipulative manner in which laugh tracks and sitcom production tricks can be used to fool an audience into laughing, no matter what.
- “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer” (Episode 5) – a full-on parody of true crime docu-series like “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” with the most diabolical “Sunny” character of them all at its center.
- “Hero or Hate Crime?” (Episode 6) – a legal battle presented as a mystery that features one of the series’ biggest (and most anticipated) twists yet.
And these are just the episodes that a) we’ve seen (through Episode 6), and b) break from classic “Sunny” set-ups. “The Gang Goes to a Water Park” (Episode 2) and “Wolf Cola: A Public Relations Nightmare” (Episode 4) are no less for working within the series’ tried-and-true formula.
Hopefully the above tease (in addition to the premiere episode) dissuades you from setting Season 12 aside. Rarely do comedies last as long as this one has, and rarer still do they continue to challenge themselves as well as their viewers. Judge it however you like, but the gang has made it impossible to ignore “Sunny” in 2017.
“The Gang Turns Black” – A-
Season 12 – A
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FXX.