Episode 1: “2020: A Year In Review”
“Do I want a bunch of eggheads who spend all day learning about shit influencing how I think about things?”
After more than two full years away, it’s hard not to tear up a little when It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s unprecedented 15th season kicks off with a familiar soundtrack clang-clang and some deceptively pleasant strings. Of course, the tears might be due to what Charlie’s been doing to those raccoons who’ve taken over Paddy’s basement during those ecosystem-destabilizing years, but we’ll get to that.
And, no, I’m pretty sure these are happy tears. After all, Sunny has endured and overcome plenty to get to this point. The Gang has, too, even if Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Danny DeVito themselves haven’t spent their COVID lockdowns running bootleg hair dye scams, disrupting a presidential election, or tanning raccoons in order to supply seditious rioters with distinctive outerwear. (That we know of.)
Still, it’s heartening to see the Gang (both fictional and real-life versions) back and doing their thing after so long. Especially (for the actors) taking into account the predatory, potentially series-imperiling effects of advancing age, lucrative and successful outside projects, and the weekly prospect of doing some truly reprehensible things for our entertainment. Again, nice to be back in Paddy’s.
That said, the “what we did on our pandemic vacation” structure of “2020: A Year In Review” hardly feels like the gracefully filthy reentry into the It’s Always Sunny world fans might have been anticipating. Instead, the Gang’s anthology of off-years shenanigans feels rushed and a little obvious, each story in the episode’s three-part structure leaning heavily into the events surrounding a single joke, and leaving precious little time for nuance.
And, yes, I said “nuance.” Sunny’s broadest comedy outrages are couched in character, and how the Gang’s uniformly yet uniquely awfulnesses coalesce into that episode’s plot. Here, we get frustratingly fleeting glimpses of just how a quintet of Philadelphia’s least responsible businesspeople spent their sketchily acquired COVID stimulus loans in three separate tales, all presided over by an understandably aghast government inspector. (The very funny Brian Huskey, here relegated to asking variations of, “Are you really telling me that you [insert terrible, possibly treasonous act]?”)
For example, Dennis and Mac’s Punch, Inc. started as a way for Mac to sublimate his bouncer’s need to “choke out jabronis” (with Paddy’s apparently shuttered for much of the pandemic), morphed into a country-pop duo, and finally wound up as a poll-watching/voter bullying organization. That’s three different plot moves inside of one of three separate short stories here, and it simply doesn’t allow for anything but incident.
Indeed, the best part of their segment is when Mac and Dennis—kitted out in full, government subsidized tactical gear to harass voters outside the local polling place—immediately get sidetracked in a debate over which Philly athlete is best. In trotting out their can’t-miss quiz to vet true Philadelphia voters, Mac picks Rocky Balboa over Dennis’ Donovan McNabb, with Dennis countering that, as a non-fictional human being, McNabb has the decided edge. (Mac’s assertion that the “celebrity five-nine” Stallone could theoretically have taken the Eagles to the playoffs against the weak NFC East of the early 1980s is the sort of desperate, on-the-fly tortured logic Mac depends on.)
Frank’s Imports and Exports similarly scammed the taxpayers, this time on the back of Frank’s Chinese motor oil hair dye scheme for salon-deprived men of a certain age. The weakest of the bunch, this segment functions as one long (-seeming) Rudy Giuliani joke, with Frank revealed as the purveyor of the knockoff hair coloring that memorably streaked Giuliani’s face throughout Donald Trump’s farcically traitorous attempt to overturn an American election. Complete with a labored Goodfellas pastiche (narration, “Gimme Shelter,” and all), it’s the most egregious example in the episode of stretching a joke until it plops to earth.
Sunny’s stabs at social satire are best and most illuminating when they’re rooted in the Gang’s all-consuming self-interest. Here, though, as with Dee and Charlie’s bubbled-together concern, Garments and Varmints, the joke is just one big setup to a painfully predictable reveal. (That their raccoon-pelt outerwear became the signature costume of the now-convicted rioting nutcase known as the QAnon Shaman.) Along the way, Dee and Charlie’s squabbles over their business’ direction provide a few laughs—Charlie apologizes to Huskey’s inspector for adopting abusive language toward his partner in flashback, noting, “that’s sort of Dennis’ thing.” Plus Dee, adding to her reel of disastrous, advertising-based character work, gets to play both halves of a quarantined married couple, with her stressed-out wife gladly accepting her husband’s gift of a novelty COVID mask reading “Bitch muffler.”
“2020: The Year In Review” functions best as simply a reintroduction. The Gang is back, they’re still the pits (Dee asserts that she and Charlie, as Paddy’s essential workers, represent, “the last tit on the hog before the asshole,” to no one’s edification), and they spent the last two years of enforced isolation and economic uncertainty plying three disparate but predictably reprehensible trades in wastefully destructive nonsense.
What works less well is the entire episode’s winking sendups of some very easy targets. Not to tar Sunny with the Saturday Night Live brush, but these are sketch ideas, and hardly imaginative ones. That some of the outgoing Trump administration’s most laughably seditious bullshit had some Philly (or at least Pennsylvania) connections had me anticipating just how Sunny would incorporate such hometown farce into the Gang’s world. Here, however, the way that everybody keeps referring to their candidate (unqualified, narcissistic, mentally ill, but “electrifying” onstage) without mentioning him by name sees the episode creak along until the reveal we all saw coming a mile away. (They all voted for Kanye.)
As the gag finally splats to Paddy’s floor, I’m with Huskey’s straight man, who explodes in long-stifled outrage, “There is no way that you were all involved in every major event of the last year!” (“Because you’re not Forrest Gump!,” Huskey’s functionary responds to Dennis’ objection, before promising that the IRS will be calling.) The episode tries like hell to turn the Gang into Gumps, however, inserting Frank into Giuliani’s embarrassed Four Seasons Landscaping crowd, and Charlie and Dee confusedly sporting their Kanye for President gear at the periphery of the Capitol riot. (Dennis and Mac’s unfortunate placement of seas of “vote here” boxes is seen capturing actual ballots and not their intended Rocky vs. McNabb votes.)
It’s an uncharacteristically wheezy first episode out of the gate that leaves It’s Always Sunny looking distressingly ordinary. Of course both the 2020 election and a global pandemic were going to bring out the worst in the Gang. But the Gang’s worst is usually a whole lot better than this.
Episode grade: C-plus.
Episode 2: “The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7"
“This is gonna be tough to cut around.”
“Do we really need another Lethal Weapon?,” is a question that’s come up a lot recently. What with outspoken bigot, wife-beater and apparently not-that-cancelled original series star Mel Gibson getting second chance number eight or so in helming the upcoming, real-life Lethal Weapon 5. Well, the Gang is nothing if not industrious in their own self-obsessed, fame-grubbing, racially questionable way, and so Season 15's second episode sees Dee, Charlie, Mac, Dennis, and Frank collectively decide that now is, indeed, the time for .Lethal Weapon 5.
Incited by Frank’s ire that the local library has pulled the Gang’s first two deeply unofficial franchise entries from its shelves, Dennis notes that he’s pretty shocked the library took the films in the first place. But, with Frank grumbling out every free speech cliché in his old school book, the Gang ultimately decides that, despite all the regrettable creative choices they made (over and over again) in the past, the only solution is to make yet another film—and to do it right this time.
“Right,” in this case, is the driving comic idea of the episode (apart from the reintroduction of some recurring characters and one very mangled prop birthday cake), as the Gang grapples with the changing face of Hollywood with regard to everything from blackface, to cancellation, to whether or not Frank really needs to perform actual onscreen hardcore penetration this time out. (Producer Frank allows himself to be bargained down to a hand job, and under a blanket at that.)
With Dennis leading the Gang’s pre-production meeting, the episode walks perilously close to uncharacteristic comic obviousness. Once more, I’d argue that Sunny is most effective when its lessons emerge less directly than Mac outright stating, “Hollywood has a very clear moral code on mistakes—you get one.” Dennis, in response, notes that Mac’s examples of Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Roman Polanski, show the exact opposite of that, adding, “And I would actually argue that all these things that we’re talking about, they weren’t so much mistakes as they were violent sexual crimes.”
As Mac continues to publicly express contrition for his (and Dee’s, and Frank’s) multiple infractions in black- and red-face, he pauses momentously, before explaining that he’s waiting for applause for his selfless act of not slathering himself in shoe polish in order to play Roger Murtaugh this time out. “You don’t get praise for telling people you’re not racist,” Dee scoffs, with Mac responding in baffled irritation, “Then why am I doing it?”
The Gang aren’t strangers to professing allegiance to at least the trappings of human decency—it’s just that they traditionally do so either to make someone else in the Gang feel bad, or to try and prop themselves up as that episode’s superior moral voice to win an argument. The running joke on Sunny isn’t that those moral qualms are themselves a joke, but that the truly awful (aka The Gang) will twist them into a cloak of self-righteousness for selfish reasons.
Here, Mac wants credit for not doing blackface this time, merely getting to direct Lethal Weapon 7. Dennis gets to preach to the others that their casting choices (for Murtaugh and the poor sex worker brought in to give Frank’s villain his contractual handy) are drawn from the only Black people they’ve ever really interacted with. “All the people of color that we know are people of the bridges and the streets,” proclaims Dennis, performatively, “They’re pimps and they’re prostitutes, and that says a lot more about us than it does about them.”
It’s funny enough—I especially like when Dennis’ lofty pretensions see him incorporating rhetorical flourishes like “of the bridges and tunnels.” But simply having the Gang spell out the points the episode is striving to make (this one credited to Keyonna Taylor and Katie McElhenney) in big, impossible-to-miss letters and inviting us to laugh that the Gang misses them gets tired. There’s too much ironic speechifying, long after we’ve gotten the gag.
Still, the resulting trainwreck that is Lethal Weapon 7 has some very funny moving parts. Mac and Dennis’ plan to address previous audiences’ confusion about the series’ mis en scene emerges with first Dee then Charlie’s Riggs essentially doing a solo version of “The Californians” to explain precisely why he’s late to Murtaugh’s daughter’s birthday party. It also continues the Gang’s conviction that Martin Riggs should have Gibson’s Australian accent, which always makes me laugh. (Especially as Charlie desperately gabbles out Spanish-language L.A. street names in Aussie dialect.)
Recasting Murtaugh with onetime antagonist Pepper Jack might be illustrative of Dennis’ rant on the Gang’s very limited experience talking to anyone not white, but the returning Marcius Harris is, frankly, pretty hilarious in the role. Pepper Jack, while admonishing the flaccid Frank that he has to pay whether he “nuts” or not under the ministrations of one of Pepper Jack’s “hos,” is nonetheless deeply committed to his big break, Harris making the would-be thespian’s commitment a tangible thing, even as Pepper Jack can’t help but address Murtaugh’s daughter (a doll), “little baby ho.”
If Harris’ return (from all the way back in Season 3) is a referendum on It’s Always Sunny’s own history of using non-white characters as occasional comic straight men for the Gang’s insular bigotry (Harris was originally credited merely as “Pimp”), Harris makes Pepper Jack work as a character, and not just a callback. (Even though we see Dennis’ cherished Fraggle Rock thermos, still in Pepper Jack’s loving possession.) The same goes for the other, more frequent recurring guest star, Geoffrey Owens.
Here reprising his role as the one Black actor in Philly the Gang turns to to impersonate whatever Black celebrity fits into that week’s scheme (here, he’s Don Cheadle), Owens ably swoops in to provide the gravelly gravitas to the Danny Glover half of the Lethal Weapon team. (Pepper Jack shifts to Riggs, awkwardly explaining that Riggs’ history of baroque personal tragedy accounts for Pepper Jack’s own intimidating brusqueness.) Owens makes the most of this opportunity, too, improbably imbuing Roger Murtaugh’s emotional speeches to his plastic baby girl with genuine emotion. (Even when tapping the blankly staring doll’s heart to make his point.)
Partly, Owens casting serves to remind us that Sunny knew Owens had the stuff even when the actor was infamously struggling to find roles. (“He’s a real actor!,” marvels Mac after Owens’ first take.) But Owens’ participation brings about the episode’s final twist. The Gang, stymied by the knot of performative, paternalistic woke-ness they’ve adopted (sprung from Dennis’ realization that aping millennials’ strident rhetoric is their only hope to avoid only having sex with people their own age), couches their creative block in an offer of full creative control for Owens. OWens, in turn, transforms Lethal Weapon 7 into a crowd-wowing “exploration not of what is gained by learning, but of what is lost by staying ignorant.”
The Gang, looking around at the paying audience’s actual, unprompted applause for Owens’ repurposed documentary, is pissed that their Don Cheadle’s “cautionary tale” dared to, you know, actually use that creative freedom to criticize them. “Where does he get off telling our story without even including us at all?,” Mac sputters, underlining the episode’s message once more for the people in the back.
It’s a fitting way for the episode to land what had been a shaky enterprise in on-the-nose comic storytelling, but these first two episodes both hint that the Gang could use some new scenery. On to Ireland, I guess.
Episode grade: B-minus.
- Mac’s questions for determining true Philly residence include, “Why do we hate Chris Chelios?,” and “Who is Uncle Eddie Savitz?” (Google that figure at your peril). I would have flunked both, but, luckily, Mac and Dennis find out that polling places have actual security to keep roleplaying fascist ding-dongs away from the voters.
- Nice to see Artemis again, even if her Persian ancestry isn’t enough for Mac and Dennis to feel superior for belatedly hiring her as Lethal Weapon 7's Assistant Director.
- In addition to Allen, Cosby, and Polanski, Frank brings up the time that Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando sexually abused Last Tango In Paris costar Maria Schneider onscreen. “Marlon Brando got to jam butter up his costar’s orifice against her will, and got nominated for an Oscar!,” Frank protests. Naturally, he’s just bringing that up to assert the need for hardcore sex in his scene.
- Creatively stymied, the Gang tries out a wealthy white “Karen” (calling the cops on Riggs and Murtaugh for being in “her” public park) as the film’s villain, since, as Dennis puts it, “One of the last socially acceptable groups to villainize are entitled white women.” Ultimately they decide Dee’s “Karen White” is just too scary. (Or, as Artemis pronounces, “a little bit cunty.”)
- Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s reviews of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Season 15. My name’s Dennis. The other Dennis. I’m the nice one, I swear.