Let’s cut right to it. A few weeks ago, when the twelfth season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia premiered, I said:
When I ponder the question: Are we living in the era of Peak TV?, I answer, ‘You’re goddamn right, you jabronis!’ and as evidence I present the existence of a comedy: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—probably the greatest show on television.
I was being only mildly flippant. Even taking into account my obvious love for it, I think there is a serious case to be made for Sunny as one of the great TV shows of all time. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but all art should be judged by how it succeeds on its own terms, and relative to its own goals. And if this, the improbable twelfth season of Sunny, has shown us anything, it’s that by god does this show succeed, on its own terms and nobody else’s. This latest episode only proves that all the more.
‘The Gang Tends Bar’
11:00am, Valentine’s Day.
Paddy’s Pub, Philadelphia.
Something is afoot in our favourite dive bar of eternal horrors. As the camera pans across the unwashed, hallowed space, two things draw our attention more than anything else:
1) The argument currently raging between Frank and Charlie. Any time there is a period of turmoil in the best relationship on television, it’s worth paying attention to exactly what it’s about, and how it’ll play out.
2) The bar is…busy? Like, there are actual customers in there! A number of them. And it’s not the usual barflies sat stooped in sunken shadows either. What’s going on?
It’s Valentine’s Day is what’s going on, and, as Dennis so succinctly puts it: ‘All these people are in here today because they don’t have people who love them and who get them shit on Valentine’s Day.’ He’s eager to take advantage of it too. Make an effort at running the bar like a proper business.
As for the Frank and Charlie fracas, well—how best to put it? It seems to revolve around someone (or something—this is The Gruesome Twosome after all) called Jerry. Within seconds we find out: yep, it’s a something! A tapeworm, specifically. Living in Frank. And it’s already—according to the duo’s twisted universe—anthropomorphized. Cue Charlie: “If Jerry jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Frank, stuffing himself with food to sustain Jerry but not missing a beat: “Which bridge?”
To which Dennis, frustrated: “Can we not do this? Can we not talk about rats or sewers or worms today?” Dennis has tried to keep things “respectable” in the past, without much success, often flying off the handle in response to all the weird shit the Gang chronically lets loose. In an ongoing effort to psychoanalyse the Golden God, we might see that rage as often coming from a ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’-type place, born out of the uphill struggle to convince himself that there are other things that he would rather be doing—instead of dancing joyfully in the rain of the Gang’s flying shit—and that there are ‘better’ places and crowds to which he actually belongs. But here? He really does seem eager to just…tend bar. Just to do his job. Certainly at first.
The other part of the cold open treads more familiar ground than intestinal parasites (which have, surprisingly, not shown up before on the show): there’s chanting (multiple chanting in fact), some disdain for Dee and her ensuing rage at the Gang’s adoption of a funnier “New Dee”, and there’s someone barging into the bar with news, news, glorious news (this time Mac, about a crate he’s found out back, which everyone gets incredibly excited about. Except Dennis).
As someone who has expressed a few times that despite my admiration for some of the daring and experimental paths walked this season I have been craving a “classic Sunny” style episode that would revolve around the bar, these familiar beats were immediately reassuring. But reassurance is one thing. I also wouldn’t want the show to rest on its laurels and get lazy. Localising the episode in the bar is great; but to keep it fresh and innovative within that setting does require, after almost 12 seasons, a nuanced touch. By using some familiar touchstones to ground us and then launching off into a layered exploration of the individuals that make up the Gang—as well as their group dynamic—this Megan Ganz-penned entry delivers exactly that. It’s also funny as fuck, with everyone getting a chance to shine.
Everything turns around Dennis this week. His odd fixation on running the bar as a proper business calls back to the early seasons of the show when he could often be seen as the relatively sane and well-balanced—if still obviously arrogant and narcissistic—member of the group. Of course it wasn’t long before this illusion slipped, we got a glimpse behind the mask, and the depths of his psychosis and rage were revealed. Eventually we even heard him admitting that he’s basically forgotten what it’s like to have feelings. So to see him acting the straight man here has two effects: at first we don’t believe it, and we expect a typical explosion of anger and a revelation of an ulterior motive.
Then, of course, the Gang carries on, not being able to help themselves in doing anything other than just tending bar competently, and Dennis—though venting occasionally—still doesn’t really explode. We begin to ponder: has he turned a corner? Could it be that he has willed himself to be that controlled character he always fancied himself to be? The uncertainty creates a tension that vibrates underneath the proceedings. As the Gang continues to be their worst selves, we can’t help but wonder to what end will this push Dennis? Will he explode and rain invective down upon everyone once again? Will he be forced to get his tools? Or will he just leave?
It’s interesting that as the show has progressed I have found myself considering Dennis the de facto protagonist of this otherwise ensemble production. I am not quite sure why this is the case yet, as his transformation into a (probable) serial killer isn’t the only compelling arc on the show—Mac’s struggle with his sexuality hits several honest and engaging beats. It’s true that I often consider him the funniest, but I am not sure that is the extent of it. Oh well. A question for another day I suppose.
It should be said that the Gang do sort of try to actually do their jobs at first. Dennis is behind the bar. Mac checks IDs on the door. Charlie sweeps up. Dee brings a couple a drink, and Frank cooks the books in the back. They may not be doing it perfectly, but it does actually almost resemble the theoretical way that someone might run an establishment that people go to to have a drink. Of course, it doesn’t last long.
Dee is churlish with the patrons, then gets herself whisky shots. Frank spends five minutes or so cooking the books and then proclaims that job—which he shouldn’t even be doing in the first place—is “done.” Mac checks a seemingly arbitrary number of IDs at the door before also declaring the work “done.” All the while a steady stream of people continue to arrive, IDs-unchecked, with Mac still pushing for Dennis to go check out the crate with him that he found in the back instead. And Charlie? Charlie cannot stay focused on any Charlie work. Not while that bastard Jerry the tapeworm slowly siphons off Frank’s attention away from him. On top of this, in a series of wonderfully revealing moments about these people’s attitudes to work, every time Dennis asks someone to do a small job to keep things running, each member of the Gang’s response is to tell him to “trick (person X) into doing it,” person X being dependent on the twisted hierarchy this pack has established over the years.
In the face of such unraveling, how is a man supposed to keep his cool and run a bar? I mean, Cricket shows up for chrissakes.
To smoke some PCP in the bathroom.
Incidentally this is almost immediately followed by what might be my favorite exchange of the night, one that had me roaring with laughter. Dennis rushes to the Cricket-celebrating Gang—who, by the way, shunned him when he was a priest, but cheer his arrival now that he’s a hollowed-out husk of a creature—to try and steer them back on course. In an effort to divert them from exploring the ‘mystery’ of the crate they keep talking about, he says that maybe they could use that enthusiasm to ‘solve’ the mystery of the “yuck puddle.”
Dennis: What the hell is that thing? You know, why won’t it dry up? Why won’t it harden?!
Charlie (biting a little bit): It shifts. I’ve seen it shift.
Dennis: He’s seen it shift! Listen, we shouldn’t have an amorphous shifting blob in the bar.
[If Amorphous Shifting Blob isn’t my band’s new name by next week you know I’ve given up.]
The coda to this, when Mac and Charlie are tackling the blob, is equally fantastic:
Mac: Why isn’t it getting any smaller?
Charlie: Can I be honest with you? I think this thing’s alive. It definitely feeds. I’ve found bones in there, man.
Dennis’s gambit pays off. For a short while. What it actually leads to eventually, however, is the two separate factions—Mac and Charlie and Frank and Dee—each coming to the realization that Dennis’ insistences to do their jobs is actually code for everyone being open about their feelings and communicating this clearly and mutually. Hilariously, both groups immediately splinter when one person takes charge of the message, jumps to conclusions, and then steamrolls all over the other before dashing off, heedless to anyone else’s existence.
The final few minutes of “The Gang Tends Bar” are sublime. Not only do they deliver another great entry into the hall of Sunny’s chaotic climaxes, but also they feed into it a substantial amount of actual, poignant emotion. It just so happens that the vector for that emotion is a dark-web-purchased RPG (with not even any rockets packaged with it). It turns out that Dennis’s dogged determination to tend bar properly had nothing to do with a desire to be professional, or to escape the maelstrom of madness that the Gang represents. It was all coming from a much, much simpler place: he felt bitter and sad at being left out of the Gang’s usual Valentine’s Day gift-giving.
Glenn Howerton really is the MVP in scenes like this. He manages to make us feel real empathy and tenderness for a character who we have seen act like an absolute monster time and time again. But when he finds out that the crate that Mac has been repeatedly asking him to go see actually contained a present for him? And that that present was his most-wished for possession? Well, his face goes through the most wonderful series of expressions, dredging up from Dennis’ very core emotions that we—and he himself—didn’t think he was capable of feeling anymore.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, everyone: the show where the most touching, genuinely affecting moment might well be that a possible serial killer psychopath is actually capable of feeling joy and love.
And all it takes is a little rocket propelled grenade now and then.
Hilarious, tight, true to its characters—I asked for a bar-based episode, and the Gang delivered in spades.
Oh, and, one final thing.
Charlie and Dee.
They’ve definitely been hooking up haven’t they?