Episode 3: “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t find crass humor that funny.”
Of all the format-breaking stunt episodes It’s Always Sunny has perpetrated in its now 15 years on the air, none are as consistently disappointing as the flashback. “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink” isn’t “Frank’s Brother” abysmal, but it’s perhaps more worrisome in how flippantly it punishes us for giving a damn about the show’s world. Plus, it’s not even very funny. The episode’s would-be revelatory look back at the Gang’s origins instead functions as a big, red warning light about diminishing, late-run returns of the sort that the long-sustaining Sunny has never really warranted before.
There’s nobody more tiresome than a continuity nerd, but “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink” flaunts its “who gives a crap?” attitude so brazenly, that I’ll take the bait. The sale of the venerable South Philly Skate is the excuse given for this episode-long excursion into the Gang’s 1998 past, as presented by episode writers Rob Rosell & David Hornsby (who should know much, much better). It’s the thinnest of premises, which, along with the actors’ deliberately age-inappropriate, decades-old appearances, wouldn’t matter if the rest of the episode weren’t so carelessly lazy.
I can accept that the never-before-mentioned roller rink was the Gang’s go-to hangout before they managed to purchase Philly’s least reputable bar, I guess. And Charlie being a smooth-skating, blissfully competent second in command to rink owner Smokey could be chalked up to Charlie’s long history of revealing oddball capabilities amidst his riot of disadvantages and manias. Mac being a skeezy weed dealer (complete with bandwagon-jumping late-90s Hornets gear) is iffier, considering Mac’s inherent unwillingness to court actual physical danger. Sure, he’s revealed to sort of suck at it (his oft-flashed waistband pistol is revealed to merely be a hilt he found in the trash), but Mac’s shown as proficient enough at his trade to contribute a sizable wad of cash toward the Gang’s eventual plan to buy the rink, which, yeah, I’m not buying.
Dennis and Frank’s relationship comes across as at least consistent with what we know of them, in that Frank’s a womanizing cad whose mentorship of Dennis is clearly a barely engaged grooming process whereby Dennis will eventually take the fall for Frank’s many financial misdeeds. (Oh, and that a misunderstanding winds up forcing Dennis to watch his father have hurried but graphic intercourse with a sex worker.) Still, 1998 Dennis is way too stiff and straight. We know Dennis Reynolds’ history of self-aggrandizement, narcissism, and hinted-at psychopathic tendencies to buy this buttoned-down square version. Even with some 23 years of accumulated awfulness yet to come, this is not the Dennis Reynolds we know.
And that brings us to Sweet Dee, who truly and bafflingly lives up to her it-turns-out un-ironic nickname in this travesty of mischaracterization. Dee was never sweet. Formative dysfunction and whatever genetic disposition to wretchedness never gave Dee Reynolds much of a chance, but this solicitous, prim, and vulgarity-averse Dee is simply a lazily slapped-together caricature in service of a bad joke. That Dee ultimately becomes our Dee thanks to a bonk of the noggin (after Charlie, also unrecognizably kind and thoughtful in this iteration, loosens her skates’ nuts to help her excel) is the sort of apathetically off-kilter plotting that makes longtime fans throw up our hands. It’s like watching Community’s fourth season, except that, here, the show isn’t being fobbed off onto some network-chosen outsiders. Rosell and Hornsby are Sunny veterans, and that makes “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink”’s sloppy indifference dispiriting as hell.
And, yeah, I’m being that pedantic person investing too much effort into deconstructing a sitcom. But, for one thing, that’s my job. And for another, a careless, airily lackadaisical episode like “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink” suggests a creative exhaustion Sunny’s never truly courted. Dee Reynolds once made Rickety Cricket eat a dog turd in high school. Dee Reynolds was never the overly-peppy preppy looking out for the feelings of her roller-dancing team and politely hell-bent on following her acting dreams while admonishing the guys about making off-color jokes. Dee switched to acting after flunking out of her psychology studies at UPenn, where she memorably got committed after setting her roommate on fire that one time. This sucks.
The Gang is. Other shows have pulled this old personality switcheroo flashback gag (the straitlaced college-aged Reverend Jim’s first taste of drugs comes to mind). But we don’t want there to be a single inciting incident that made the Gang who they are overnight. The Gang, as warped and twisted in the forge of bad parenting, societal forces, religion, and straight-up self-destructiveness as they have been, are The Gang. The premise of the show demands that, depends on it. If we’re occasionally filled in on how Dennis being preyed upon by a rapacious school librarian, or Charlie’s horrific childhood of neglect and abuse contributed to the people they’ve become, that’s fine, as long as the show stays true to its central, inviolable conceit.
The Gang represents the five-tentacled, squirmy, unremittingly selfish soul of us. They are us writ large, and in the filthy scrawl of a bathroom graffiti tag. It’s Always Sunny has admirably—I’d say miraculously—maintained its comic integrity for 14-plus seasons by never, ever letting us forget that the Gang is never—and was never—capable of substantive change. Sunny derives its power from drilling deep into that inky, fetid heart of humanity and showing us how five Philly ding-dongs somehow sucked in more than their share of our collective terribleness as a species. Bonk on the head, my ass, is what I’m saying.
There are a few laughs in “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink.” These are funny people, who’ve lived in their characters’ skins a long, long time. The on-the-nose running gag about 1998 Mac smugly predicting that new tech like cell phones and the internet represent passing fads does lead to the melancholy joke of Dennis, Mac, and Charlie standing in present-day Paddy’s, the only place or thing in their lives that never progressed. “I got a lot of things wrong,” Mac notes, as the sight of The Gang’s unrealized ambitions in pooling their money to purchase Paddy’s (South Philly Skate was never for sale, as it turns out) plays out with what is the episode’s only twist to strike a familiar chord.
Is “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink” the worst episode in Sunny’s legendarily consistent run? That’s a tough one. It’s not as aggressively, futilely unpleasant as “Frank’s Brother,” while fellow flashback episode “The Gang Cracks The Liberty Bell” is merely as irrelevant a sideshow as a centuries-long game of telephone can be. But even those uncharacteristic missteps didn’t feel like the work of It’s Always Sunny imposters, and creatively spent ones at that. So, yes, this was the worst Sunny episode ever.
Episode grade: D-Plus.
Episode 4: “The Gang Replaces Dee With A Monkey”
“I was in character before, but I’m me now.”
This is more like it. Sure, this fourth episode has its shakier elements, and there aren’t many Sunny outings where the A and B stories are so tenuously connected, but at least “The Gang Replaces Dee With A Monkey” is recognizable in its go-for-broke outrageousness. And, it must be said, the Gang does, in fact, replace Sweet Dee with an actual monkey. So, props for that.
The inciting incident this time (such as it is) comes when the guys overhear Dee ranting in desperate unhappiness and panic before storming out of Paddy’s, and assume that she’s finally going through menopause. (It’s a leap, but the distraught Dee is complaining about everything being unaccountably too hot, so at least Frank’s logical leap has a smidge of evidence.) With the guys taking the time to simply note in passing how little they like having Dee around (“I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way because, you know, I slept with Dee that one time,” admits Charlie, “but, like, I’m like sick of looking at her”), we discover that Dee’s merely been going Method all week in preparation for a big acting audition.
Thus set in motion, the plot splits in twain, as is Sunny’s way. Dee, thwarted once again by a beleaguered local talent scout (Jack Plotnick) who’s been subjected to Dee’s delusional acting dreams over the years, hits upon the scam of opening her own acting school. Meanwhile, the guys, positing that Dee’s apparent entry into inconvenient middle age will further cramp their style, start brainstorming replacements. Always a reliable forecast for showers of self-incriminating and delightfully dim ideas, their process eventually results in Frank showing up with a live monkey in tow.
Where did Frank get a monkey? Don’t worry about it. (Eventually we learn that, like all of Philly’s primate detritus, the animal eventually found its way under the bridge where Frank and Charlie hang out.) And while Dennis is initially exasperated in reminding Frank that their offhand mockery that Dee’s job could be done by a monkey was just an insulting figure of speech, he and the rest of the guys are gradually won over by their new employee’s facility with pouring suspiciously delicious drafts.
Now, the comedy concept of introducing an actual monkey into Paddy’s daily routine is, I’m going to term it, “broad.” But the seamless manner in which the guys all just accept this new wrinkle into their daily routine makes it work, dammit. The way that they all respond with an offhand “Thank you, monkey,” to each deftly refilled beer speaks volumes as to how willingly we’ve been conditioned to accept that The Gang’s collective, self-obsessed madness can incorporate anything that furthers their weekly desires. Here, it’s a monkey, sure, but it pours a mean beer, doesn’t talk back, and, as Frank notes avariciously, “You don’t have to pay a monkey shit.”
Besides, the guys all get tellingly hammered pretty quickly and start contemplating their need for a vacation from the Paddy’s grind. Overcoming Charlie’s typically blinkered view of the world (how can both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh be in Pennsylvania, anyway?), the guys all take turns putting their heads together on the ideal getaway. After all, they solved that whole monkey problem in no time.
It’s in these hangout bull sessions that Sunny really sparks for me, each member’s personas lashing out with weird little revelatory details for the others to seize upon in bewildered contempt. In the initial Dee/monkey debate, Mac goes off on a tangent about women’s various distasteful odors as evidence of the need for change, leaving Dennis to note in passing, “Yeah, he’s got an agenda.” And here, Charlie’s response when asked to free-associate places for the Gang to go (“Yellow,” he scrawls on a bar napkin, explaining, “I panicked”), is absurdly echoed by Mac’s own napkin reading “Purple.” There’s nobody funnier than Glenn Howerton when Dennis, confronted with a stupid idea the entire rest of the Gang supports, explodes in outrage. (“Go where!? Purple? That’s not a place,” he exclaims in vein-throbbing indignation.)
As for Dee, her hastily assembled acting class (no personal checks, no refunds) is equally well suited to Kaitlin Olson’s gifts for unsettling monomania. Spurred on by the casting guy’s insult that only Dee’s acting teacher has benefitted in any way from all Dee’s years of intermittent hard work, Dee sees her new role as unquestioned, rule-bestowing, money-reaping guru as her true destiny. Noting how one student’s desperate need for guidance and affirmation lends Dee unimagined power over others gives Dee a moment of chillingly hilarious epiphany.
“I can control you,” Dee realizes, Olson making Dee’s burgeoning awareness of an acting teacher’s cult-like sway one of her little masterpieces of cynical, quicksilver self-delusion and malign glee. Toying with her vulnerable student/prey to test out the extent of her power, Dee soon has unfortunate would-be actress Kiki glassy-eyed with slavish confusion.
I believe in you.
Maybe. I’m not going to tell you right now. But yes!
Clinching the young woman in an embrace, Olson lands the final line with a smile of dawning, evil satisfaction so eloquent in its comic fearsomeness that it makes you forget all about that monkey. No mean feat, that.
There are, as noted, a few clinkers in the mix here. Frank brings up supposed former owners of the monkey (or his descendants) in Fatty Arbuckle and Kitty Dukakis to explain why the disreputable creature wound up under that bridge, which is a cheap, scattershot joke that doesn’t land. And just sending Dee off on a solo adventure only to slam her back into Paddy’s for the wrap-up isn’t especially elegant.
Still, the denouement is the sort of over-the-top conceit that Sunny can pull off like no other show, as the guys, awakening blearily from what turns out were the monkey-bartender’s half-whiskey beers, realizing that not only have they been robbed, but that the monkey took the opportunity to, as Frank puts it bluntly, “[fuck] our mouths.” (He was warned about that possibility by the monkey’s former owner, in fairness to the monkey.)
Still, the Gang is nothing if not resilient in the face of a shit-covered bar and some violent monkey-crime, and a monkey-scratched Dennis attempts to salvage something from the experience by consulting the white board the guys had been using to free-associate some vacation destination traits. With Dee emerging to throw her recent success in the guys faces (she abandoned her acting students immediately upon receiving a call from the Irish-accented director desperate to cast her as “obnoxious American MILF number one”), the two disparate threads finally come together.
Crossing out their initial workshopped drunken proposal of a guys’ jaunt to “monkey beer island of green and fight” with the more accurate “whiskey beer island of green and fight,” the guys, inspired by Dee’s news of her movie shoot across the pond, finally sees the light. Pack your bags, Gang, we’re headed to Ireland.
Episode grade B-Plus.
- If we’re to accept this origin story (which I am not admitting to), Mac initially put up four grand in weed-dealing money to purchase Paddy’s, Dennis chipped in Frank’s five grand in contemptuous severance money, while assistant skate manager Charlie had managed to scrape together just over $57,000. (He does check those vending machine slots for stray quarters.)
- Mac and Dennis continually string Charlie along as to his share of the bar by distracting him with the promise of meat sandwiches.
- And let us never talk of “The Gang Buys A Roller Rink” again.
- Dee is actually really good in her audition. Granted, she’s asked to play a maddened, paranoid weirdo at the end of her rope, but she sort of nails it.
- Sweet Dee’s advice to her students is terrible in a particularly revealing way. Explaining that listening to your fellow performers only gets in the way, and that writers are stupid dorks, Dee’s guidance is for a pair of scene partners to play everything as scene-stealingly huge as possible. (“I want to see your performances from the fuckin’ moon!”)
- She also has some choice advice about the casting couch, noting that the inherent power imbalance of means that “People in power will try to bang you.” She then plots to bang her hunkiest student.
- Power corrupts absolutely, especially when you’re pretty corrupt to start with, as Dee switches into diva mode immediately upon realizing that the telephoning director wants her for a role. “Too slow—don’t start over,” she barks.
- Comedy loves a slow thinker, and, in Charlie, Mac, and Frank’s vain attempts to look like they know what Dennis is talking about, nobody’s slower or funnier than three guys who’ve just been slipped a mickey by a monkey.
- Dennis: “It is a little disappointing that a team of primates could do our job for us, but I’m gonna blow past it.”