A Rickety Structure Collides With Some Solid Laughs On 'It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia'
Like any good comedy—TV or otherwise—It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is built on a foundation of three things: its structure, its characters, and its jokes. When the gears are spinning at full speed and everything is running smoothly, as it did in last week’s superlative episode, Sunny shines. Its structure gives a solid background for its well-sketched and deeply understood characters to run wild; and the jokes fly thick and fast, crucially spinning out organically from the characters and their interactions with each other and the world that exists outside of their cruel bubble.
They can’t all be glorious winners though, and after last week’s episode ended I was filled with a low-level anxiety for how the Gang could possibly follow up such an instantly classic entry. Episode seven—another Howerton/McElhenny/Day-penned number—does not live up to ‘Hero Or Hate Crime’. Its chief drawback is one slightly weakened leg of the tripod: while there are some laugh-out-loud moments here, born from character, the structure just does not quite hold up. That is to say: this is not a bad episode. It just isn’t as good as the last, excellent, one.
As happens so many times on Sunny, ‘PTSDee’ sees the Gang split up into factions. This time the separate cells are demarcated right from the outset. Briefly, at the start of this week’s entry we have:
1. Mac and Frank, smack bang in the middle of a VR gaming addiction, wandering around Paddy’s with eye-and-hand-covering gear, playing a game called ‘Fallujah’ and just starting to feel the effects of what is assumed to be PTSD.
2. Dee, entering, and suggestively hinting to Dennis and Charlie:
‘Hey, uh, have any of you seen my guy yet?’
To which Dennis:
‘Oh, what is this now? What do you want to tell us? Just tell us.’
Apparently, as she tells it, Dee hooked up with a hot stripper/soldier guy, who is now en route to the bar, in need of seeing her again after their super intense and meaningful night. The guys, without missing a beat, surmise that the guy is coming to the bar not due to a burning Dee-desire, but rather because Dee swiped his watch and/or wallet to make sure that he’d come back and talk to her again. Sure enough, pretty soon Mike the stripper/soldier shows up and asks about his watch (Dee: ‘Just diving straight into that, huh?’) Dee’s subsequent discovery that Mike considers sleeping with her to have been a rock bottom—a wake-up call from his life of stripping and anonymous sex and video game addiction—becomes the main, albeit slightly stealthy, driver of the episode. Oh, and Mike also has an estranged daughter. That’ll be important later.
3. Dennis and Charlie, who start out bemused by Mac and Frank, pretty quickly (at almost whiplash-pace, really) pivot into stripping thanks to Dennis’ diabolical nexus of neuroses, catalysed by the soon-to-be Mike-shaped opening in the male stripping world. Charlie, bless his innocent-yet-darkly-twisted heart, goes along for the ride, readily agreeing to be Dennis’ ‘boy’ (duties mostly including checking Dennis’ back for any unsightly moles or hairs or bumps and zits, as well as carrying his bag of lotions and oils.)
Seeing all of those pieces get set up in such a way makes for an unfortunately direct and unflattering comparison to ‘Hero Or Hate Crime’. That episode used its cold open to position the characters in relation to each other, it introduced an external agent (the piano), and then it set everything in motion with an inciting incident (Frank’s offensive warning). Beautifully simple, it was pulled off deftly with elegant skill and used to power everything that came after, with nary an ounce of wasted flesh. I use the proviso of unflattering comparison again, but in ‘PTSDee’ everything feels much more ragged, disjointed. There are segments throughout that feel as if they don’t really go anywhere or contribute much. The veterans’ PTSD support group that Frank drags Mac to in an effort to help him get over killing innocents in the game and that Dee brings Mike along to in an effort to prove to him that she is his helpful and steady ‘rock’ rather than his rock bottom feels like it was written in a few minutes to plug a gap, rather than like the essential interstitial cogs that Sunny usually incorporates. The rhythm feels off and the unloading of the Gang’s nonsense onto an unwitting group of outsiders, usually such an inspired treat, seems here forced. Similarly, Mac and Frank’s VR outings work to remind us of Mac’s daddy issues, as well as his attraction to Dennis, via his vivid nightmares, but other than that they are relatively devoid of laughs or depth (though the revelation that the two are suffering not from PTSD but actually sleep deprivation that calls back to the Gang’s alcohol withdrawal in season nine’s ‘The Gang Gets Quarantined’ got a laugh from me—as did their rapid bailing on the whole thing when they realise that the other members of the Gang are probably up to something more interesting). Dennis and Charlie’s first foray into the world of stripping also seems underdeveloped. Ending up at the door of a party populated entirely by older women, a few gags land and some character beats resonate, but really it feels too nakedly in service of setting up their part in the finale (specifically Dennis’ frustrated stripper persona transformation from ‘Dad’ to ‘Bad Dad’ and Charlie’s strange, strange evolution into ‘Boy’).
Luckily then, that finale is pretty dynamite. It’s not quite the inspired madness that ends The Gang Goes To The Water Park, but ‘PTSDee’ does deliver another strong example of the frenzied horror that often makes up the climax of the episodes of this show.
Because hell hath no fury like a bird scorned.
Dee’s plot, humming away relatively quietly in the background behind the other two more outlandish strands, explodes in the final few minutes in a vengeful flurry of man-thongs and father-and-Chekhov’s estranged daughter-anus probing. That’s right: in an effort to get back at Mike for calling her his rock bottom Dee pretends to be a supportive rock, all the while orchestrating a Paddy’s-based strip show for a sorority that culminates in Mike unwittingly grinding on, and thrusting at, his estranged daughter. Dee then flips the lights on, and everyone hastily retreats in abject horror as they realise what has just happened. Dee’s vengeance complete, the Gang decide to round things off by drinking their feelings away (‘stuff it down with brown’). That is some dark shit. It is also—between Dennis and Charlie’s demented father/son aborted strip show and the welcome return of Cricket as the Dallas Buyers Club-looking-McConaughey MC—goddamn hilarious. Special credit goes to the sorority girl and her perfect line reading of ‘What is this?!’ in reaction to the game of imaginary catch that Dennis ‘Daddy’ Reynolds and Charlie ‘Son’ Kelly use to start their strip show.
So, then: not a perfect episode. But a damn funny one at times nonetheless.
Dee: ‘Gross?! If you guys started dating a stripper you’d be bragging about it for days. I meet myself a Channing Tatum and suddenly it’s gross?’
Charlie: ‘A what? A charming taint-man? What words is she trying to say?’
Dennis: ‘She’s talking about Channing Tatum. He’s an actor.’
Charlie: ‘What do I know him in?’
Dennis: ‘Well, he plays G.I. Joe.’
Charlie: ‘Oh! G.I. Joe’s the shit. Well then, say G.I. Joe. Don’t make up a name.’
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