It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” 
B+

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” 

B+

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

“Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” 

Season 8, Episode 6

The Gang Recycles Their Trash” was originally slated to be the season eight premiere of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but FX nixed it—understandably, because it’s an extremely weird episode. But as the season progresses, the reasoning behind using “Recycles” as the premiere makes more and more sense—it’s almost a thesis statement for the season. Or, if you think of it like a mix tape (does anyone make mix tapes anymore?), having it as the premiere would have been a bit like putting a Girl Talk track as the first song on a compilation of remixes and covers—it’s a signal, an over-the-top example of what the rest of the songs have in common.

The question, though: If you’ve figured out you’re listening to a covers-and-remixes tape, do you enjoy David Lee Roth’s “I’m Just A Gigolo” any more than if it had just come on the radio? If you’re watching the eighth season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and are aware that it’s aiming for the TV equivalent of a covers-and-remixes compilation, do you enjoy a recycling-heavy episode like “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” more than if it had been part of, say, the sixth season? 

I can understand why some people are finding this season lame or lazy. But I also can’t help but admire Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Glenn Howerton for trying something so blatantly weird and experimental. I can’t think of another show that’s dedicated a whole season to this specific a theme, much less one with so much faith in its audience—the whole conceit doesn’t work unless viewers both get the callbacks from the previous seven seasons and get more out of the postmodern aspects than just assuming the writers are Jonah Lehrer-ing themselves.

But though I haven’t quite made up my mind on whether this season works or not, I definitely don’t think it’s the result of laziness. There’s too many little deliberate “WE SWEAR WE’RE DOING THIS ON PURPOSE, JUST ROLL WITH IT” touches. Here, “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” roughly parallels the plot of a season one episode (the original pilot) titled… “Charlie Has Cancer.” And at the end, when Charlie’s mom is asked to explain her faking her illness—the same way Charlie faked cancer to try to land the Waitress—she actually says “I learned it all from watching you!” Not to mention Dee and Frank literally digging up graves to find cash.

And… sometimes corpses. My favorite version of Frank is about halfway through his devolution—in the early stages of going feral, but still together enough to scheme and manipulate better than most of the Gang. I was a little concerned the devolution had gone a bit too far at the beginning of this episode—“My mind is as sharp as a… uh… thumbtack, that’s it!” sounded like a line from a phoned-in Daffy Duck cartoon. Demented Frank is great; Frank with dementia cuts off so many comedic possibilities, and is kind of depressing besides. Thankfully, the end of the episode revealed him to be faking, and while manipulating your children into digging up their dead mother’s grave probably shouldn’t qualify a person as “together,” Frank’s definitely still got it.

That last exhumation scene also had a couple of the episode’s really interesting Dennis moments as he breaks down weeping under the stress of too many feelings. Dennis has been exhibiting more and more signs of being a sociopath/psychopath (in the “complete lack of empathy” definition), and we get occasional glimpses into his weird inner workings, like in “Mac Fights Gay Marriage” when Dennis lets it slip that he does not, in general, have feelings.

I’d kind of hoped Dennis was going to open up to the therapist last week and expose some more of his crazy, dark interior, but knew it wasn’t going to happen—her degree was from La Salle, for Christ’s sake, and even if it wasn’t, Dennis would never regard himself as anything less than the equal of any therapist or psychiatrist he’s dragged in front of.

But since the authority figures in this episode are all, to a degree, based on faith, one of the few areas in which he doesn’t regard himself as an expert, Dennis shows them some of the first signs that he’s at all troubled by his lack of emotions. Whether his self-examination was triggered by Charlie’s righteous anger when Dennis couldn't even convincingly fake concern about his mom or whether Dr. Jinx’s prescription of bass licks paired with a creepily intense stare actually worked, Dennis did not seem to like what he found. And so even though he believes that Dee’s psychic, P. Diddy’s homeopathic doctor, and Catholicism are equals in fraud, Dennis is still serious when he asks Dr. Jinx if he’s got a mister of green stuff that might cause him to have feelings, and he also seems to be genuinely attempting to fake it till he makes it at church. (Watch his lips not quite line up with the hymn as Mac happily belts “On Eagles’ Wings.”)

But though Dennis’ sermon about faith may have all been bullshit (“Do you feel it! Do you feel the spirit! Do you feel the invisible things around you that don’t really exist—OH! It doesn’t matter!”), there’s a frantic desperation to it that’s not entirely part of the act. Neither is the look of dead-eyed despair that slides over Dennis’ face as he tells Mac he didn’t mean any of it (a particularly nice piece of acting from Glenn Howerton). Dunno whether this is a one-off subplot or part of some greater, nine-season “Dennis is a Psychopath” arc, but I really liked it, and hope we’ll get some more.

Stray observations:

  • Even though Charlie’s in the title card, the situation sidelines him to mostly running around and looking legitimately upset. Exceptions: Charlie as the outsider to Catholicism—smacking the collection basket, being rigidly uncomfortable with the Passing of the Peace, and calling bullshit on transubstantiation: “You’re telling me that you believe that Christ comes back to life every Sunday in the form of a bowl of crackers?” Also, mouthing along with the memorized speech he wrote for his mom: “Give me money. Money me. Money now. Me a money needing a lot now.”
  • “I’m getting a Faaaa… I’m getting a Baaaa… I’m getting a Daaaa—” You’d think that if Dee’s psychic was getting paid off by Frank all along, he’d at least have gotten enough inside information to make his act more convincing.
  • “Dude, the church doesn’t give money; it takes it, all right? That’s the way it works. And then you go to heaven. Now kneel.”
  • Do Beef and Beers happen/have a different name outside of the Philly area? It’s a highly specific fundraiser, generally a white working-class thing, where you pay $20-$50 bucks for all-you-can-consume “cheap beef and watered-down beer,” as Dennis puts it, with the money almost always going to help a single person or family—catastrophic medical bills, a college fund for a deceased friend’s children, etc.
  •  “Dr. Jinx—a man with a band… named after himself.”
  • I continue to be a big fan of the subtle sound effects that the show sometimes uses—“whoosh whoosh” for Mac’s karate moves last week, here a very quiet sizzle when Dr. Jinx sprays Mac’s “Sailor’s Rot” with pesticide.