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Review: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “The Gang Inflates” and “Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang” | Season 16, Episodes 1 & 2
Can the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia gang sustain their comic balancing act into an unprecedented 16th year?
Welcome to Episodic Medium’s coverage of the sixteenth (!) season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which debuted with two episodes tonight on FXX. As always, the first review is free, but subsequent reviews will be exclusively for paid subscribers. For more information, check out our full summer schedule and our About Page.
“Board up that new room and the noisy toilet, forgive Mac and Dennis’ loan, give Dee her apartment back, and return everything to the status quo.”
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is back for its record-extending 16th season. That’s a hell of a streak for a show that’s core premise and characters not only haven’t but absolutely cannot evolve in any meaningful way. Whether or not the young Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day were aware of it or not, the three young creators saddled themselves with a daunting degree of difficulty back in 2005 in crafting a show around—as has become shorthand for It’s Always Sunny—the five worst people in the world.
A 16-year run featuring five people unwilling and/or constitutionally unable to change, grow or evolve—especially one that traffics in the brashest, crudest, and most deliberately provocative of humor—sounds interminable. And, in lesser hands, it no doubt would be. The true tightrope act that is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is one of exquisite restraint in the face of unparalleled knockabout boorishness, an act that’s only become more impressive as the five absurdly talented actors behind it seem poised to outgrow it with every year.
Glenn Howerton left the show at the end of Season 12 to star in A.P. Bio before Dennis Reynolds suddenly reappeared at Paddy’s Pub with little explanation. (“Well, I’m back for now,” Dennis tells the surprised Gang after unexpectedly showing up at the close of the Season 13 premiere.) Howerton is also currently receiving some of the best reviews of his career for BlackBerry. Charlie Day has pursued a movie career with some success, and is currently promoting his directorial debut, Fool’s Paradise. Kaitlin Olson branched out, starring in her own Fox sitcom while still playing Sweet Dee. (Oh, The Mick, we hardly knew ye.) Rob McElhenney’s been perhaps busiest of all, creating and starring in Mythic Quest and buying and running a professional Welsh football team with pal Ryan Reynolds, complete with an attendant reality TV series, Welcome to Wrexham. (Old pro Danny DeVito just does his thing.)
The understandable message from all this outside-of-Philly activity is that, as successfully as It’s Always Sunny mines its insular little world for bottomlessly inventive and adventurous dark comedy, the people behind it need more, creatively. Even within the show, each character has undergone the sort of major personal traumas that would have signaled their cathartic exit from the Gang’s codependent squalor if not for the fact that Dennis, Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Frank’s collective and individual neuroses, obsessions, and willful blind spots keep them yoked inexorably together.
Dennis’ Season 12 explosion upon temporarily exiting the fetid clubhouse that is Paddy’s echoed Howerton’s strangled actor’s frustration. Charlie’s deeply disillusioning pilgrimage to meet his birth father in Ireland last season ended with the Gang’s designated whipping boy and rat-murderer delivering the sort of heartbroken (and heartbreaking) cry to the heavens that, on any other series, would lead to profound growth. Mac ultimately coming to grips both with his homosexuality and the fact that his terrifyingly judgmental convict father Luther would never, ever love him seemed destined to shake It’s Always Sunny to its foundations. Even DeVito’s grunting, old school-hedonistic Frank, in the eye-opening POV Season 11 episode “Being Frank,” was shown to be a borderline dementia patient, his desperate attempts to hide his encroaching senility from the Gang concluded in a bout of childlike delight as heart-wrenching as it was illuminating. Only Kaitlin Olson’s Dee has yet to have her own format-breaking episode, which may be part of the joke that the guys overlook Dee as a matter of course, but is still a matter for discussion.
All of this is to say that “The Gang Inflates,” the Season 16 premiere of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is an ordinary day in the life of the Gang. And that’s not a bad thing. In the year and a half of our time since the end of Season 15, nothing has changed, and I mean nothing. The guys are seen hanging out at Paddy’s, shooting the shit and giving the first rumblings of the roiling conflicts that will set the story in motion. Dee is absent, in the sense that she’s glued her hand to her apartment door in protest of her in-progress eviction by her unknown, money-grubbing landlord, with the running joke of the guys hanging up on Dee’s increasingly frantic calls for help in turn reintroducing Sweet Dee’s true spot in the Gang’s brutal pecking order. That Frank launches into a surprisingly cogent rundown of economic policy in response to Mac and Dennis’ complaints about rising prices signals how Frank’s lifelong mastery of predatory greed is one of the last things to leave him. Charlie drops in a reference to the 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for color, and we’re off.
“The Gang Inflates” indeed sets out in several disparate directions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Gang routinely fractures along ever-shifting fault lines, the week’s overriding conflicts sparking rapidly kindled and reckless enthusiasms. (The Gang routinely employs the self-aware phrase “getting hot” to refer to their collective penchant for hair-trigger obsession.) Here, Dennis and Mac pick up on their half-understood (at best) talk of “inflation,” as Mac greets Dennis at their apartment with a collection of inflatable furniture purchased to replace the elderly sofa they’d apparently been renting to the tune of $20,000 over the course of it’s 15-year lifespan. Even for Mac, it’s a little obtuse (“Ok, went real literal with it,” muses Dennis), especially since he further picked up on Frank’s reference to his and Dennis’ financial “nut” by purchasing an alarmingly huge and low-priced can of fancy mixed nuts that he shovels into his gob throughout the episode.
So that’s story one, as Dennis hatches a scheme to lure investor Frank into an inflation-beating inflatable sofa scheme. In story two, Frank, after looking for a place to store his latest trash-picked treasure in his and Charlie’s squalid, tiny apartment, uncovers the fact that the overstuffed “storage room” is actually the apartment’s never-used bathroom, complete with a working toilet. (Famously, Charlie and Frank whiz in cans and drop their solids in a communal bathroom down the hall.) As far as groundbreaking series developments go, this is potentially big, answering the question of how, even in the show’s hellhole Philadelphia, a landlord could get away with renting Charlie a toilet-less apartment for 15 years. Couple that with the fact that the never-opened door behind Charlie’s hot plate is revealed to contain a spacious (if equally filthy) empty bedroom, and it’s the sort of grubby world-building a season premiere can work with.
And so it’s a significantly expanded base for Mac, Dennis, and the harried Dee to gather. (Dee, still sporting a hacked off segment of door glued to her hand, tells Charlie airily, “It’s a piece of door, move past it” on her way in.) If this all sounds a bit ramshackle, that’s because it is. As noted, It’s Always Sunny routinely sends its five numbskulls off in wildly different directions, split into teams based on that week’s source of “heat.” The most deftly plotted episodes ultimately weave those threads together in unexpectedly satisfying patterns, but, here, it’s enough to watch five very funny performers put their well-understood characters through their paces.
Dee gets the least to do. (Again, it’s left to be seen whether the show will ever turn the joke of Dee’s irrelevance to the rest of the Gang into Kaitlin Olson’s own tour de force episode.) Gluing her hand to three separate surfaces throughout the episode is a slyly funny way to continue the theme of Dee’s half-understood enthusiasm to at least ape the action of people who care about anything but themselves. (The implication being that Dee’s heard that young activists glue themselves to stuff and therefore glues herself to stuff in order to get her own way.) There’s a great reveal later when Dee is shown to have adhered herself to Dennis and Mac’s apartment wall, for reasons only she could possibly explain.
Frank and Charlie’s conflict is the most fraught and potentially fruitful, as Frank’s desire to have more room to stretch out in their shared squalor strikes at Charlie’s terror of abandonment. (And the twisted father/not-quite-son interdependence they’ve built.) Charlie Day can work up a head of manic steam better than anyone on TV, and Charlie’s misplaced rage over Frank’s embrace of their new room sees him ranting about the distance it now takes to answer the door, complaining about “blowing out our shoes” and needing a butler to traverse the extra ten or so feet.
Mac and Dennis’ inflatable furniture scheme gets third place in the conceptual rewards sweepstakes, even though Rob McElhenney’s voice work as Mac increasingly succumbs to the debilitating allergy brought on by that enormous tin of what Dennis refers to as that “bulk tin of low-end economy nuts” renders Mac all but unintelligible. The fact that Frank is exploiting the guys’ weakness concerning the economics of rented furniture to soak them for a lifetime of interest on their hare-brained blow-up sofa idea is just Frank being Frank. And that’s how Charlie, spotting a chance to return things to the way they were, sets in motion “The Gang Inflates”’ final, so-stupid-it’s-still-stupid twist. (Insert Benoit Blanc GIF here.)
With Dennis and Mac in their nut-strewn inflatable couch bed (Mac barely able to breathe), Dee glued to the wall, and Charlie unstably perched on yet another inflatable chair, Charlie pitches a plan to put everything back the way it was. There are some de rigueur gross-out misunderstandings in Charlie’s explanation of how their collective “nuts” could “pool together” so that “everyone gets a taste,” but that’s not enough to dissuade Mac, Dee, and Dennis from buying into Charlie’s last-ditch investment idea.
I suppose it counts as foreshadowing that Charlie’s offhand early reference to the Turtles pays off in his purchase of the very last crate of 1991-vintage TMNT pudding pies. And that Frank, returning to Paddy’s to gloat, is immediately bound by his allegiance to predatory capitalism to bid against himself to obtain Charlie’s hoard of rancid, dusty, gorge-rising, outdated junk food. That Charlie’s one wish in leveraging his, Dee’s, Mac’s, and Dennis’ meager cash is to literally return everything exactly to first positions is a telling restatement of It’s Always Sunny’s entire raison d’être.
Charlie became panicked and furious at the thought of change, even if that change meant an empirically better life for him and Frank. Having Frank over the barrel as he did with his cardboard box stuffed with suspect pudding pies opened up any number of opportunities for economic advancement for everyone involved (Frank’s seemingly boundless wealth serving as the series’ reliable plot lubricant), but Charlie just wants Mac and Dennis back to square one, and Dee back in her old place. (Frank, naturally, turns out to be the scumbag landlord who raised her rent and evicted her.) Frank himself, humbled by his need to emerge economically victorious, accedes to Charlie’s reset with no little admiration—even a little relief. As much as Frank’s lizard-brain demands he prove his avaricious acumen, he admires his protege for getting one up on him as much as he, too, relishes sharing a fold-out couch with the feral manchild who he once imagined to be his unwanted, inadequately aborted son.
And thus Season 16 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia begins with a chaotic and very funny exercise in narrative futility. Sure, Mac winds up looking like the Toxic Avenger thanks to him polishing off those suspect nuts, but that’s nothing that an ER visit and some Benadryl can’t fix. The Gang will get around to it at some point.
“This is so distasteful.”
“Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang” is an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia title that makes promises. And while Danny DeVito’s trigger-happy Frank does wind up winging everyone in the Gang—including himself—by the end, this second episode of Season 16 is a letdown.
For the second episode in a row, “Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang” spins everyone off in separate misadventures. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as everyone involved in front of and behind the camera is so uniformly excellent at digging into the Gang’s awfulness and yanking out nuggets of disreputably hilarious fool’s gold. But there are times when the comic chaos builds upon itself to create something unexpectedly symmetrical and others where all the shouting, scurrying, and occasional act of self-mutilation just tumbles over the finish line in a big, shapeless heap. And yes, this would be an example of the latter.
The episode begins with siblings Dee and Dennis wining and dining Frank in one of their periodic attempts to secure their place in their not-father’s will. Frank, having brought his own tin of extra-salty anchovies (which he abruptly attempts to smash open with his ever-present revolver) is onto their game, however, brushing aside Dennis’ offer of “another Buttered Nipple” and sneering about his intention to outlive his suspect progeny. Then, demonstrating the comic principle that is “Frank Reynolds’ carelessly manhandled gun,” accidentally clips both Dee and Dennis in the face with an errant shot.
Understandably hot by the time they storm back into Paddy’s, the quickly bandaged pair find Mac and Charlie musing upon their own family legacies, which, naturally for Charlie, involves an overflowing jar of Kelly family teeth. With Dee and Dennis quickly admitting that Frank’s money is the only thing they remotely care about, the sibs hit upon a plan to get Frank’s gun away from him, lest he kill himself “before he gets old and senile enough” to write them back into his will.
And we’re off, as this tangential theme of family legacies splits the Gang in twain. Dee and Dennis hatch a plot to give Frank “one last great day” before they swipe his pistol away forever. (“You give that dog the best day of his life and then you turn out the lights,” muses Dennis, ominously.) Meanwhile, Mac and Charlie head over to their moms’ shared house in search of the Kelly family tooth jug and some letters from Mac’s grandfather to his father, Luther, sent during WWII. (Sandy Martin’s monosyllabically chain-smoking Mrs. Mac manages to grunt out that said letters currently reside with Mac’s heretofore-unmentioned uncle, Donald McDonald.)
Now, I love me some Mrs. Mac and Mrs. Kelly (played, as ever, by Pee-Wee Herman’s “most beautiful woman in the world,” Lynne Marie Stewart), their wildly mismatched dispositions yet horrifyingly illuminating their sons’ myriad personality issues. Still, there’s a shrill and unpleasant edge to these extended interactions that far overstay their welcome, what with Mrs. Mac burning the frozen-in-terror Mac with her cigarette on their eventual road trip, and Mrs. Kelly shrieking in agony as she surreptitiously tries to yank out her own teeth lest her beloved Charlie find out how she’s given the tooth jar away to Charlie’s sisters. Charlie’s klaxon refrain, “Now moms screaming! Now moms screaming!” as he smashes the wall-mounted telephone in manic rhythm is some prime Charlie madness, although Mrs. Kelly’s tearful, bloody-mouthed apology and Charlie’s immediate forgiveness turn the spectacle deeply upsetting. And not in a funny or illuminating way.
Oh, that’s right, Charlie has sisters, their introduction here a shock even to lifelong friend Mac, and emblematic of this episode’s sloppy series of familial reveals. Piled into Mrs. Mac’s station wagon (Mrs. Kelly worriedly driving so Mrs. Mac can “concentrate on her smoking”), we’re off to see characters we had no idea existed, and whose ultimate contributions to “Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang” vary wildly. Mac’s visit to his uncle’s house is the most revealing, as we find out that Donald (played by an unrecognizable Gregory Scott Cummins, who also plays the lizard-like, terrifying Luther) is a soft and sensitive gay man, whose immaculate suburban home and gentle, giving demeanor should give Mac a glimpse of the different and better life possible for a gay member of the McDonald clan.
Sadly, Mac’s fixation with his worthless father blinds him to the love and acceptance he’s being offered by the lonely, definitely not predatory Donald (Charlie’s pedophile Uncle Jack looming in contrast). With the incredulous Charlie bemused and exhausted by Mac’s blinkered brush-off to the kind older male figure who even offers up a long-desired game of catch, Mac can only edge toward the door. “This is everything you’ve ever wanted,” Charlie fruitlessly says in an aside to the single-minded Mac, as the tearful Donald admits it’s silly that he’s held onto letters from his own horrible father that weren’t even addressed to him. “I guess I just wanted a connection with my dad,” Donald says ruefully, while Mac suggests everyone head out to the car.
Charlie’s family pilgrimage is far less interesting (or funny), with his adult sisters Bunny and Candy, played by real-life sibs Olivia and Isabella Cohen, revealed as a pair of shrilly bigot loudmouths (“Shut up, fag!,” they bark at Charlie), whose New Jersey-lavish lifestyle stems from the topless ASMR videos they make while sticking their hands in the (thankfully unseen) Kelly tooth jar. While there, Mrs. Mac—who’s been “smashing” toilets all the way there—emerges from the sisters’ bathroom, having used Mac’s cherished letters in place of absent toilet paper. And that’s that.
Dee and Dennis’ journey to take Frank’s ordinance is equally unfruitful, a confused tonal and narrative mashup of Frank-as-animal and confusing priorities. Vowing to give Frank that one last good day before he’s rendered gun-less, the siblings’ motivations feel unfocused and, worse yet, not very funny. Frank pausing to piss on multiple fire hydrants, scratch his suspiciously itchy flesh with the barrel of his gun, and scarf down hamburgers despite their tendency to give him “the runs” (“That’s why we put that towel down for you, buddy,” humors Dee) are right in line with the show’s intermittent conception of Frank as a rutting, atavistic goblin-man, but they’re never the best part of the show. (Plus, if you’re going to drop Frank off under his beloved bridge for one last bullet-riddled playtime, you can’t deprive us of a visit from Chad Coleman’s Z.)
Taking Frank to the beach only muddles the mission further, as Frank (immediately firing shots into the “sexual, polluted, sack of shit” ocean) tells Dee and Dennis that he’s ready for them to shoot him down. (As long as they kick some sand over his inevitable post-death bowel movement.) The turn that Dee and Dennis just want the gun and not to mercy-kill Frank is a shock to Frank and an understandable confusion to us, as the episode never successfully calibrates just how dark Dee and Dennis are prepared to get. There’s a funny bit when Dennis marvels at the fact that no one on the crowded beach reacted to Frank’s wild gunshots (“I’m not. It’s the Jersey Shore, but good god, man,” responds Dee), and Frank solemnly commends the duo for not killing him in front of Charlie. (“That’s a class move.”) But, like much of this second episode (and Frank’s aim), the whole storyline is scattershot.
Any sense of unified theme falls flat, too, once everyone winds up inevitably back at Paddy’s. (Frank needlessly shoots his way through the unlocked door, having once more turned on his greedy kids.) Charlie yanks his own teeth out (with alarming ease) to start a new Kelly legacy, while Frank, slamming his pistol down on the bar, finally fulfills the title’s promise, clipping himself, Mac, and Charlie with a wild ricochet through the thankfully empty bar. For an episode whose title suggested some irresistible Sunny-style comic chaos, Dennis lame, episode-concluding kicker (“Well there you have it Frank, you’ve officially shot everyone in the bar!”) closes everything out with a perfunctory wheeze.
The Gang’s capacity to pick up stray jargon and parrot it inappropriately is one of Sunny’s overlooked delights. Here Charlie, doing research on Frank’s latest scam, stumbles upon the blockchain, immediately inserting the term “crypto” into sentences where “secret” would be more at home. As Frank marvels at Charlie’s final gambit, he can’t help but pick it up too, telling Charlie, “Nice work. And you kept it crypto.”
Another bit of the Gang’s insular slang pops up when Frank is looting the apartment of one of his delinquent tenants (Frank scoops up a clothes iron), only to find himself (and Dee) looking down the barrel of a shotgun. “Oh, he’s hot,” Frank says of the enraged tenant, who does, indeed, squeeze off a shot in Frank and Dee’s direction.
Dennis’ inability to concede his ignorance on any topic sees him responding to Charlie’s own shockingly astute explanation of Frank’s plan with a halting, “Ah, a classic inflation interest… play.”
Just going to say—those TMNT pies were a staple treat when I was in college. What? They were delicious!
The interlude with Dennis, Charlie, and Mac attempting to hawk their inflatable wares outside a local furniture store is breezy to the point of irrelevance. Even as the actual breeze sends on blow-up divan fatally into the path of an oncoming car.
Gregory Scott Cummins is so unrecognizable as the inoffensive Donald that it was genuinely unnerving once I recognized him. It’s a truly interesting performance, the actor’s innate intensity and Luther’s true legacy of adder-eyed evil suggesting darker shades to the character that never emerge.
“I think we do a pretty good job of pretending you’re not an animal,” complains Dee to Frank’s dismissive response to her and Dennis’ request for money.
Lynne Marie Stewart’s singular depiction of Charlie’s deeply messed up but outwardly doting mom remains one of It’s Always Sunny’s most harrowing characters. Here, moaning “I made a mistake!,” while blood pours out of her mangled mouth is just too dark even for a Kelly family gathering.
Rob McElhenney’s frozen, watchful rictus when Mrs. Mac’s warning hand goes up is some funny, deeply upsetting stuff.
And we’re underway for Season 16! Big thanks to Myles and Episodic Medium for allowing me to continue my It’s Always Sunny journey over from The A.V. Club, and for all of you for reading. It’s nice to be sharing a home with my friends again.