Well, that was weird. Interesting! But weird.
So“The Gang Recycles Their Trash” is a concept episode—a pastiche of recycled material from past episodes, primarily “The Gang Solves The Gas Crisis,” “The Gang Runs For Office,” “The Gang Sells Out,” and “The Gang Finds A Dumpster Baby,” though there are quick references to so, so many more. It's like a bizarre deconstruction of a clip show.
It's laid on especially thick in the cold open. To help get the concept across, Dee repeatedly claims déjà vu as she, Mac, and Dennis have to walk single file through Paddy's back alley because a strike has left Philly claustrophobically clogged with trash. Dennis complains about the sad, throwaway culture; Mac agrees as he throws his empty Big Soda cup onto the piles of refuse. Dee looks puzzled. “I think that you guys have done something like that before.” “Shut up, bird!” says Mac, to which Dennis lets out an uncommonly Mac-like cackle.
She's half right — Mac did toss a Big Soda cup in a similar context in the opening of “Dumpster Baby,” while agreeing to go see An Inconvenient Truth with Dennis. But “sad, throwaway culture” was a Charlie line, in reference to nursing homes in “The Gang Finds A Dead Guy,” and “bird” is from “Who Got Dee Pregnant?” (Even a tangential reference to the ostrich from that episode, the best joke the show has ever done, makes me happy.) Inside Paddy's, there's some “ass-blasting” dialogue taken almost verbatim from “The Gang Runs For Office” and a plan to solve the trash crisis, a la “The Gang Solves The Gas Crisis.” That's five different callbacks before we hit the title card.
I'm going to leave most of the line-by-line sourcing of most of the rest of the episode to the commentariat—this review would end up being 4,000 words long, and what I would like to spend my space discussing is... the hell?
To the credit of whomever came up with the idea, it's definitely not boring. (At least, to people familiar enough with the previous 80-odd episodes to pick up on the concept—it was probably pretty mystifying otherwise.) I like puzzles and TV that demands my full attention, and both of those buttons were pushed by the second layer of the conceit, which I've been having a really hard time putting into words in a way that's not confusing. But here's a stab at it: In the recycled bits in "Trash," the character re-enacting the bit isn't necessarily the same one who'd been in that spot in the original. And when this would happen, the actor sometimes would play the original character in the situation instead of the one they usually are. Charlie Day playing Dee, Glenn Howerton playing Mac, Danny DeVito playing Charlie, etc.
Maybe an example is better, like the scene where Dee and Frank take the gay suit out to a strip club—a really close echo of when Dennis and Frank did the same thing with the same suit in “Sells Out.” (They do at least take him to a gay strip club this time.) This is the scene where I noticed it for the first time. At first I wondered why Dee was acting so un-Dee-like. She sounds just like... Dennis? ...Oh. Huh. So there's another super-obscure level of crazy to play with. Why? Who knows, but I suspect the reasoning is akin to Charlie's when he's being the Wild Card. (From "Gas Crisis.")
But it just wasn't pulled off very well—the strip-club scene halfway through is the first time it becomes even close to clear. Why? Is Kaitlin Olsen just very good at channeling Dennis' smugness about knowing the Taxonomy of the Gays? Were the setup and dialogue in the original scene particularly distinctive? Are the other actors not good at impersonations? Or have the characters converged so much that the difference between one and the other is negligible?
Whatever combination of those it was, I didn't notice Glenn Howerton trying to do a Mac-cackle (...Mackle?) in the opening until the second time through, when I was looking for it. I just thought Dennis was being manic. Same with Charlie Day behind the bar at the end of the episode channeling Dee in her early Voice Of Reason days—it seemed out of character, but Always Sunny has never focused too hard on its character consistency. Maybe it worked better for superfans (care to comment, superfans?), but I found the impressions to be interesting, but pretty confusing.
So let's get analytical here — trying to interpret postmodern wackiness was so not a thing I was expecting to do with the eighth season of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but I'm always down to interpret postmodern wackiness. Especially when the writers practically beg you to by using the words “trash” and “recycling” so many times and in so many contexts that the dialogue starts to feel like a sestina.
“Is all this our trash?” asks Mac in the opening. “We generate a ton of it,” replies Dennis. Since the episode is called “The Gang Recycles Their Trash” and “recycles” clearly applies on two different levels, it's interesting to watch with the idea that the heaping piles of trash are Le Direct Metaphor for seven seasons' worth of built-up material that are probably making the writers feel as claustrophobic and hemmed in as the Gang is in a bar so full of crap that they can barely move.
There's some more things that point to “Trash” as an expression of frustration by the writers (like last week's premiere, it's from the Day-Howerton-McElhenney team). The big solve-the-trash-crisis plot is laid out in the beginning as a stripped-down archetype: somebody comes up with a flawed plan that gets even more flawed as everyone involved applies self-interested “tweaks” until everything turns into chaos. (The closest relative here is obviously “Gas Crisis,” but that Mad Libs frame could be used to describe most episodes.)
Further, there's the strange 20 seconds of silence as the Gang sits at the bar debating their next step near the end of the episode. Their plans have turned out the same way they always do, despite their early-on promise that they're going to be different this time. The silence is so awkward and so long that it surely has to be there for a reason. The trash is gone at this point. The silence seems so significant that you start to wonder if this is marking a turning point, for either the characters or the show.
Then: “So... rugs?”
- Dee also wore that yellow Pat Summitt pantsuit as a basketball coach in “The Gang Gives Back.”
- Sometimes a really complicated conceit pays off—it's extremely funny when Frank and Dee look up from their Taxonomy of the Gays conversation and seeming surprised that the Corporate Rep has not silently gotten up and left as he did in “Sells Out.”
- “With his fancy language, and his expensive podiums!”
- I was happy to at least see some non-white faces in this episode, even if one of them was Dee in brownface. (Martina Martinez was like nails on a chalkboard for me in “America's Next Top Paddy's Billboard Model Contest.”) I don't even want to get into any Girls shit, it's just the observation that, visually, any Philly crowd scene that's mostly white people just doesn't look accurate to me as someone who lives here. (And I'm aware it's supposed to be set in South Philly, but that's no longer the Italian-American enclave it was in the Rocky days.)
- Local trivia! Rob McElhenney would have been a kid when Philly’s municipal workers went on a 20-day strike in July 1986, during which about 20,000 tons of trash rotted in the sun. Awesomely enough, the L.A. Times article on it closes with two guys being wildly successful at pretty much exactly Frank’s plan. So maybe it really would have worked if everyone has stuck to it.
- I am still not entirely sure whether I liked the episode, but because it made me think, I shall give it a B.
- So, what'd I leave out? (I left out a lot.)