[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Season 13 premiere, Episode 1, “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again.”]
One would think growing up is a good thing, at least when it comes to work, romance, and self-esteem, but that’s clearly not the case if you’re part of the gang at Paddy’s Pub — or those watching them. The Season 13 premiere, “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again,” goes out of its way to prove why the long-inept but endlessly happy five-some can only stay that way if Dennis Reynolds remains their leader. Without him, they might actually become better people.
Good thing he’s back.
In what amounts to the series’ 135th episode, writer David Hornsby and producers Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton pointedly took their time finding a rhythm. The Season 13 premiere amounts to a lesson in comedy dynamics, and begins by introducing Dennis’ would-be replacement: Cindy, played by Mindy Kaling, is the new bar manager, and she’s really hit the ground running. Her scheme for bringing liberal customers into Paddy’s worked, and now she’s got a plan to lure in conservatives’ dollars, as well — to “make Paddy’s great again,” as the title card reads.
But before she can enact her first step, her supporting staff starts to slip. Mac (McElhenney) tries to put his new fit body to work, but no one cares. Charlie (Day) gets distracted by repeated calls from The Waitress, and Dee (Kaitlin Olsen) is too easily sucked into their issues. Cindy still keeps things together, but then the wild card hits: Dennis is back… in the form of a sex doll Mac ordered online.
Soon, the doll starts “talking” to the gang. Though Cindy (and the audience) can’t hear anything, just the presence of a Dennis surrogate is enough to send Mac into a shame spiral (Dennis calls him fat), turn Frank into a nervous wreck (Dennis isn’t impressed with his tuba skills), and make Dee lose all her confidence. (Dennis calls her a bird.) It doesn’t matter that Dennis isn’t actually doing these things, just like Dennis doesn’t actually sleep with The Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) so much as The Waitress bangs a sex doll; the gang is thrown into turmoil by the very implication that Dennis might not approve of Cindy’s plan.
Eventually, they realize the error in their ways. Spurred on by a disappointing trip to the strip club (as if such an evening could ever be less than inspirational), the gang agrees Cindy is a better version of Dennis. “She’s smart, she’s funny,” Frank says. “She’s an asshole, but in all the right ways.” “She’s just the right amount of asshole,” Dee says. “She’s kind of like Dennis, but only way better.”
This, it should be noted, is an accurate statement. Cindy is better… but that’s part of the problem. This pitch-black satire needs a devilish central figure who’s not oblivious (Mac), inept (Charlie), a pushover (Dee), or adrift (Frank); it needs someone who’s gleefully sadistic, and Dennis fits the oh-so-creepy bill. “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” pretty much blames everything that’s gone wrong over the years on Dennis (at least when it comes to their random scheming), making him integral to continued shenanigans and instrumental to the audience investing in them.
Even though Cindy isn’t a good person, she’s not a bad enough person to fill in for Dennis. She takes advantage of people’s politics to make money and wants to shutter a competitive business. Dennis used welfare checks to fuel his crack addiction and used an apartment fire to burn his enemies alive. After 13 seasons, the gang has gone through a lot, and it needs characters who can believably live up to the debased levels of their ongoing debaucherous acts. Dennis is on a short list of evil men who can fill this void, someone who can push the rest of the gang to creative new extremes without being affected by their outcomes.
With that in mind, notice how tired the episode feels until its hilarious kicker. As Frank says at the strip club, it’s all a little forced. The plot device of beating another bar has been done before, and Mac getting jacked isn’t all that comedically different than when he gained a ton of weight. (To emphasize the redundancy of Mac’s transformation, this time, they don’t even care he’s changed.) It’s not that the producers purposefully made a bad episode of television to prove a point, but they did make a dysfunctional episode of television to illustrate why they need each member of the original gang to keep making the show they want to make. And that becomes clear as a sunny day the second Dennis shows up in the flesh.
Just as the gang prepares to embrace Cindy as their new leader, she calls them out for “talking to something that’s never going to talk back to you.” Then, from offscreen, the familiar prodding tone of Dennis Reynolds says, “Or will it?” Frank immediately tries to shoot his son, fearing the doll actually came to life. Charlie and Mac stop him, Dennis dismisses his replacement, and things get back to normal.
It’s not that the show couldn’t work without Dennis, so much as it would be difficult to swap in anyone who could reasonably replace the gang’s most depraved member. Similarly, pulling him from the ensemble requires a tricky restructuring that the series may not be prepared to take on; the following three episodes of Season 13 proceed, business as usual. The gang plays an escape room that highlights the many flaws in gender-driven decision-making. The gang takes an anti-sexual harassment seminar after Paddy’s is put on a list of unsafe bars. The only episode that’s a bit of departure — and the only one not to feature Dennis — is when Dee reenacts the Wade Boggs airplane episode with an all-female cast, shrewdly poking holes in the shallowest aspects of female movie reboots.
But “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot” doesn’t stand out because Dennis is absent; it stands out on its own terms, just as all the great “Sunny” episodes do. It works as an episode, but it’s not sustainable sans the entire gang. There’s certainly a way to continue the show without one character, but why retool a well-oiled machine? Season 13 proves McElhenney, Day, and Howerton aren’t out of ideas; the formula they’ve established still works beautifully, and allows them to stretch as far as their creativity demands. Could “Sunny” work without Dennis? Sure, but it would be a different show. And even after 135 episodes, the gang isn’t ready to start over anytime soon.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Season 13 premieres Wednesday, September 5 at 10 p.m. on FXX.