“I know we’re supposed to be cool with this because that’s where society’s headed, but I’m not there!”
The Gang is us, a fact that, in the best and most illuminating Sunny episodes, chills the spine. It’s easy (and 14 seasons’ worth of fun) to point and laugh at the five worst people in the world when they—just to pluck out one example from tonight’s episode, “Dee Day”—dress up as an array of ethnically horrifying caricatures, including Mac’s “Asian” buck teeth and Frank slathered in “Latina” shoe polish. (At least Dennis goes Method in maintaining his Irish brogue offstage—if you’re going to be offensive, at least commit.) But mocking the Gang’s self-obsessed antics as they scrabble around at the very bottom of the humanity barrel is to let ourselves off the hook. The Gang is us—they’re just impossibly terrible at disguising the frailties most of us work so hard to overcome, or at least disguise. Selfishness, venality, prejudice, disloyalty, envy, sloth (pretty much all the Seven Deadlies down the line)—the Gang loses its battles against them just as we all do. Their failures are just more nakedly, often hilariously public.
“Dee Day,” written by Megan Ganz (a stellar addition to Sunny since 2017), shows how even the worst, most dysfunctional microcosm of America (let’s call it “Paddy’s”), has rules. It may look like chaos at Paddy’s, what with the leprechaun fights, hostage-takings, and occasional wedding massacre, but the Gang knows that true chaos will inevitably rob them of even this one, lone refuge for the five of them from a larger world that wisely sees them coming and runs the other way. Some of the best Sunny conceits reveal the intricate, tangled, Pepe Silvia-style webs of intricate codes, rules, schemes, and tacit or overt agreements that bind these five dangerously loose cannons together. And “Dee Day” brings back the fact that the Gang are each assigned one day per year when the others have to stop being horrible to the member in question, and do literally anything they say.
It’s actually sort of brilliant in practice, the accretion of a pressure release hatch in the shell surrounding Gang’s constantly roiling, toxic ecosystem that allows each of the five to endure the other 364 days of abuse, disregard, and mockery. Naturally, the Gang being the Gang, we’ve seen how even such an ingeniously evolved system can fail, as Mac managed to squander his designated day thanks to the untimely arrival of his in-every-way cooler country cousin (and his inability to shake free of his long-established rats’ nest of neuroses). But this is Dee’s time, and, in a delightfully twisty and lockstep-funny 23 hours (23 minutes in episode time), Sweet Day seizes Dee Day, and the guys, right by the balls.
Things start off with a misdirect in the cold open, as the guys are all limbering up for the big caper whose expectedly ludicrous details are parceled out judiciously throughout the episode to come. It definitely involves, at the outset, Charlie stealing back into the school where he was briefly employed, making a phony phone call to a valet, and some strenuous, Dennis-led pre-scam calisthenics. (“You have the tendon dexterity of a sow,” Dennis scolds Mac.) However, the guys have to scramble after Dee bursts in, airhorn and cuckoo clock in hand, and informs them that this is, in fact, her day. “Oh, you forgot—that makes it so much better!,” Dee gloats as she starts the timer and restates the rules. (No complaining, no abuse, and no refusal of any order, punishable by a blast from the airhorn and another Dee Day tacked on.) She does give the guys the last few seconds to bark out as many insults as they can manage, although, put on the spot, they can only really manage to call her a bird in anguished desperation. (It doesn’t help that nobody’s thought to ready the scream pillow.)
But the rules are the rules, even when it comes to Dee. Sweet Dee is at the bottom of the Gang’s pecking order (sorry about the bird thing, Dee), simply because she’s the one woman on their Lord Of The Flies dungheap, her status as the guys’ offhand punching bag trumping all other concerns when the chips are truly down. It’s true that Dee sometimes sometimes winds up closer to the top of a particular week’s rotating wheel of pain, but the guys are always quick to punch her back down if she ever tries to remind them of that. Of course, Dee is the worst, because they’re all the worst. That part of her Dee Day tortures is to force the guys to dress up in that parade of her most appallingly offensive alter egos is only a joke on them (include Dennis and Charlie who must dutifully make out like “two souls desperate to taste the juices of passion”) because the disguises that originally spring from Dee’s mind are so goddamned horrifying.
That’s the way Sunny keeps refreshing itself though. The Gang is us, sweatily battling (and failing) to keep their individual dignity and scabby selfhood in the face of a world seemingly designed to grind them in its gears. If the whole Gang flies off in separate directions at once, the machine of an episode can come apart in A shrill cacophony. But if the insanity expertly pivots around one member of the Gang, the resultant thrills can whirr like an especially grubby but well-maintained carnival ride.
So here, Dee orchestrates what seems just like a series of petty tortures—on the surface. She makes the guys at least pretend to listen to an extended diatribe about their toxic masculinity. (We fade out to listen to the guys’ inner thoughts, although we do hear Dee complaining about having to listen to her male colleagues’ “pointless monologues,” something that Ganz seems to relish tossing in there.) There’s the whole pageant of caricatures—another example of Sunny masquerading as a much dumber show than it is to land some huge, deceptively illuminating laughs. There’s . . . birdwatching? I mean, forcing the guys to dress in matching safari outfits to plod around on of Philadelphia’s grubbier public parks is humiliating for the guys, sure, but Dee Day seems a little bit underwhelming as far as a vehicle for Dee’s revenge goes.
At least until Dee’s trap is sprung. Or, rather, her series of Jigsaw-worthy traps, that not only show up the guys for the over-elaborately complicated scammers they are (their plan, it turns out, was to rig a City Council vote allowing public urination through impersonation, sabotage, seduction, and, a little light B&E), but also guarantees herself yet another Dee Day once she reveals that she’s stolen the guys clock-fiddling gambit so that they let loose their pent-up rage and ridicule with an hour left to go on Dee Day. (See how I mentioned her 23-hour master plan earlier in this review? That’s some Dee-worthy plotting right there.)
Again, it’s not so much that Dee is the winner that’s so satisfying, it’s that she’s the winner this time around. The wheel will spin, and she will find herself the butt of the guys abuse, disrespect, and offhand, pervasive sexism soon enough. But it wasn’t on Dee Day, and it won’t be on Dee Day 2 tomorrow. And, sure, Dee’s victory comes at the expense of one innocent city councilwoman’s car tires (Dee, cutting through the clutter, just slashed them during the night so the councilwoman would miss the vote), and because Dee wants to be able to squirt on the sidewalk whenever her “teeny-tiny little bladder” tells her to, because Dee is the worst. But today (and tomorrow), Dee is the top of the bottom, and, on Sunny, that counts as glory.
- One of the best quiet gags is the background revelation that there are two completely oblivious customers at the bar during Dee’s elaborately ridiculous play. Just another day at Paddy’s.
- Again, there’s always the danger that someone flipping channels will see, for example, Frank in brownface and Mac lisping through giant, glued-on buck teeth, and think, quite understandably, that It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is engaging in exactly the sort of racist yahoo humor it’s satirizing. And it’s always a ticklish thing when the show dips into that particular wardrobe chest. Still, Sunny works on the high wire, comedically speaking, and—with the caveat that this is a white guy saying so—they pull off the trick once again here.
- The running joke about Mac being so desperate for Dennis’ approval continues to prod around the edges of just what this newly out Mac’s deal is. He does betray his long-standing desires for Dennis, mistaking Charlie’s obsession with the candy he just knows is in Dennis’ pockets and blurting that he’s the one who wants what’s in Dennis’ pants. But, as he says to Frank as they unsuccessfully attempt to ad-lib their part in the guys’ rapidly unraveling plan, “I, too, am trying to be a better man.” What that means isn’t clear, although that he and Frank are plotting to steal a public servant’s house keys while dolled up in offensively stereotypical ethic garb suggests it’s a work in progress.
- As for Frank, “working on his prejudices” (according to Mac), is at east not saying out loud that the Asian-garbed Mac would make a better candidate for a fake auto accident.
- Frank also gets ahold of some bad clams, so you know Danny DeVito is down for some Chekhov’s clam-barf.
- Even Dee’s surface-level revenge on Dennis is pretty effective, though, as she forces him to remove every bit of careful manscaping (Dennis uses concealer, jaw tape, chest padding, and “hair paint” to make himself into the man he wants the world to see) before taking him to a trendy bar. Turns out that, stripped of his metrosexual armor, Dennis looks like he has tuberculosis.
- “I got sick off clams once.” Dennis’ seduction game is also way, way off without his makeup.
- “That’s what his soul looks like,” pronounces Charlie once Dennis is out of earshot.
- Both Charlie’s childlike candy obsession and Mac’s Mac-like inability to grasp Dennis’ plan punch through the complicated plot with strategically deployed huge laughs.
- Charlie, incompetently attempting to distract the school nurse, finally just throws up the Hail Mary, “Hey, can I use your phone and pretend to be you?” He cannot.
- Dennis’ own Hail Mary is to fake taking a dump, seduce the congresswoman real quick, sneak out “while she’s cleaning up,” and then mess with her clocks. Sadly for him, the congresswoman, coincidentally drinking at the same bar where the makeup-less Dennis slouches in shame, is not swayed by his serial killer-esque pitch, “We don’t have a lot of time, so can I have your house key?”