So here’s the thing: I’ve never seen Making A Murderer or The Jinx. Two documentaries that set the world afire in recent years—one covered with almighty gusto by this very site—but both that I allowed to quietly slide past my trawling net of media consumption. Not because I’m averse to documentaries, far from it, but purely due to the sheer saturation levels of content out there right now. I just didn’t have the time for them. That being said, popular culture has a way of seeping outwards in such a way that even if one might not have direct experience of the source material a certain familiarity with some of its touchstones is sometimes almost inevitable. As such, though I lack an involved knowledge of the aforementioned shows, the references being trotted out in this week’s episode of It’s Always Sunny—Charlie as Brendan Dassey from Murderer, Frank going all Robert Durst—didn’t fly over my head.
I say all this as a way of providing context for a statement that I don’t use very often: this was not a very good episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Episode five of Sunny’s (mostly excellent thus far) twelfth season opens with a voiceover of a recorded phone call and some shaky-cam crime scene footage. It’s Dennis on the phone to 911, panicked, talking about a dead…cat? Woman? He’s not sure. The footage cuts to Dennis, in a chair being mic’ed up, looking at an off-camera interviewer. He speaks. ‘Alright, let’s get started.’ Smash to title card.
‘Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer’
So straight away we know: Maureen Ponderosa is dead, and this will be a faux documentary episode, Making A Murderer-style, with Dennis Reynolds—fan-presumed serial killer—in the hot seat. The basic premise is that Maureen—Dennis’ ex-wife, and now ex-woman (she’s transitioned into a cat)—has been found dead in an alleyway, her neck broken. Dennis was once a suspect, but he eventually got cleared. Now, an indeterminate amount of time later, a documentary has been made about the case, seemingly seeking to cast doubt on his innocence.
Sunny has been quite ambitious this season. Opening with one of the most daring and accomplished concept episodes that any show has attempted in recent memory, it has since then also given us a savage deconstruction of multi-camera sitcoms, as well as a tearing down of the vacuous world that is the 24-hour news cycle/social media axis. The latter two, while not as successful as the season premiere, have still managed to ground their critiques and conceits in their characters, and as such have provided great laughs, as well as an expansion of the show’s twisted universe. When compared to what has come before it, ‘Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer’ can’t help but fall somewhat flat.
Yes, the format being played with here is the kind of mass market documentary that has recently been all the rage—and Sunny loves nothing if not poking fun at the zeitgeist—but instead of this being a fully realised concept episode (something along the lines of, say, Community’s ‘Basic Intergluteal Numismatics’ [aka. ‘The Ass Crack Bandit episode’]) where the framing device encompasses the entire running time, here it’s revealed in the final minutes that actually it was just Mac and Charlie behind the whole thing. The camera zooms out from the dynamite revelatory conclusion of the ‘documentary’ we have just watched, and we find the duo giving Dennis the trademark Sunny stare.
A brief bit of dismissive banter and a flickering attention span later, it’s all over. Now, logistical issues aside—such as ‘how is the whole episode not intercut with bits of Fight Milk and Dee on fire?’—something about the whole thing doesn’t quite work. Perhaps it’s because Sunny, usually such a character-driven show, here provides no real insights or new observations into the Gang. This problem is chiefly expressed in the fact that it makes no real attempt to provide any actual motivation for why Charlie and Mac might be going to such lengths to do this to Dennis. Some sort of vindictive quest (‘Who is this versus?’) was my guess when the reveal occurred, but instead the two just seem to be enamoured with the documentary format and its recent explosion in popularity (as well as its sometimes questionable methods)—and that’s it. When the two got fired up last week about Fight Milk taking off, that made sense: a long-gestating and floundering passion project had found a new life. Here we’re given the bare bones of a new potential obsession of theirs, but it just feels too slight, too insubstantial. The entirety of the episode leading up to the reveal wasn’t particularly strong even if taken by itself, but I think it could have been redeemed a little bit more had Mac and Charlie’s stewarding of the whole nonsense been more fully fleshed out.
On the other hand, if the show had committed fully to the concept and ran with it, providing no wraparound whatsoever, Community-style, it would have felt too unlike Sunny, so I think this was in some ways a no-win situation. Community could get away with fully fleshed-out conceptual episodes more often because that universe only ever had the flimsiest connection to the real world as we understand it, whereas Sunny works so well because it feels like the Gang stalk the streets of the world that we inhabit. It’s a slightly heightened version at times, sure, and once in a while it can turn into a musical, but fundamentally it’s the one we know.
All that said, ‘Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer’ was not an outright bad twenty minutes of television. This is still It’s Always Sunny after all, and they don’t make bad television (*glances sideways at ‘Frank’s Brother’*). Even in a weaker episode like this we still got treated to Dee muscling her way in to the reenactment to ‘play’ Maureen.
We still got a shot of an old Paddy’s patron reacting to Dee as a cat.
We still got the first appearance this season of Bill ‘Pondy’ Ponderosa. Pondy’s the coolest.
And we still got Dennis Reynolds staring into a camera for two hours, unblinking, terrifying a grizzled, veteran detective.
So no, not outright bad.
But we could really use a more grounded episode now, guys. One that maybe revolves around a minor quibble that quickly leads to diabolical escalation.
And maybe Cricket getting horrifically injured if you’re feeling generous.