The people speak in hushed tones of ‘Peak TV’. We are living in the Golden Age of Television, they say. And they are right. The sheer amount and level of quality that has appeared since The Sopranos ushered this era in is a quite staggering embarrassment of riches. The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, Game Of Thrones—‘nuff said, right?
There is a blind spot here though; and it’s a similar one to what we see at the Academy Awards—that is: if it’s designed to make you laugh, it’s not worthy of serious accolade. Comedy doesn’t belong in the halls of prestige. The guardians of our culture have deemed it so.
Well fuck the halls of prestige, and fuck the guardians of our culture, because 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, and one that has just debuted its twelfth season.
‘The Gang Turns Black’
For long-time Sunny fans with a rabid enough love of its history, seeing that title announced in the run up to this season was enough to bring a warm glow to our hollowed out souls—calling back as it did to the title of the very first episode of the show: ‘The Gang Gets Racist.’ That episode remains, to this reviewer’s mind, one of the all-time great openers for any series. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but it’s funny as all hell, and on top of that it functions as a near-perfect statement of intent: here, watch these horrible people, who you can nevertheless still somehow relate to, in some vague, distant, uncomfortable way. Laugh at them as they make horrible decisions based on selfish and misguided impulses. By the end of each episode they will have learned nothing, and— more often than not—they’ll have suffered for it. In the 12 years it’s been on air, Sunny has taken that basic premise, and it has expanded upon it; it has built a compelling world populated by colorfully twisted yet disturbingly lovable individuals upon it; and occasionally it has taken an unrelated genre (raunchy ski movie, musical) and riffed upon it with it. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia also has this quite unique quality of making you squirm in anticipated pleasure to see how societal norms, boundaries, and rules are going to be danced around, and likely trampled upon. Other shows flirt with transgression, Sunny lives it.
‘The Gang Turns Black’ is a wonderfully illustrative example of all of these things. At the start of the episode, we find the gang gathered round the TV in Dee’s apartment on a stormy night, and straight away we notice an example of Sunny’s standout-and-yet-often-unremarked-upon devotion to formal brilliance:
There are six of them huddled there! Old
Black Man is back! The joy I felt upon seeing Will Garret returning in the role speaks a lot to how a lesser show would have just used him as a one-joke-delivery device: Here’s a funny joke at Dee’s expense, now let’s move on (‘move past it’) and forget about it. Sunny is not that show. Sunny lives for continuity; so here is Garret, nestled comfortably with the gang as they settle down to watch The Wiz—the urban-reimagined musical adventure based on The Wizard Of Oz, featuring an entirely African-American cast. Holy foreshadowing, Batman!
What follows after a typically excellent cold open laying down some of the thematic groundwork (racism, Black Lives Matter, White America’s reactions to both) is a musical episode of It’s Always Sunny—one in which, thanks to some magical, electrical-storm-based shenanigans, the gang all—well, turn black. Or at least that’s what everyone else sees, and what mirrors reveal. To each other, and to us, the rest of the time it’s just our regular gang. Their reactions to their sudden race switching, as well as their varying tactics for dealing with it, are the crux of the episode. Pretty soon after the inciting switch, the group splits into two factions in an attempt to resolve the issue. The methodology for this split lies, as usual, upon very flimsy ground: different tangents of pop culture; with Dee and Frank pursuing a Quantum Leap-style scenario to find a resolution (though Frank never really understands what’s going on); and Dennis, Mac, and Charlie following a more generic, Freaky Friday-style body-swap movie template, reasoning that the way to fix everything is to find the corresponding group of people who have ended up with their bodies so that they can all switch back. Somehow. Along the way, they will encounter structural prejudice, police violence, and Frank’s bridge friends—all the while occasionally breaking into songs that explain what’s going on, and each trying to offer their competing interpretation of their immediate situation, as well as the bigger picture.
So then: vital, sensitive, relevant themes being tackled via a group of ignorant, pompous, and narcissistic assholes who—through some magical trickery— collide with a reality that had up until now only existed at a safe arms’ length remove from them. You can accuse Sunny of a lot of things. A lack of ambition is not one of those things.
The fundamental secret to Sunny’s success over so many seasons is that the show has always stayed true to its characters. These are awful, awful people, but the show makes sure we know them; and we love seeing exactly how their different flavours of awful will make them respond to any particular scenario. As it happens, turning black brings out their defining traits. Dennis, true to form, tries to maintain an aura of intellectual and moral superiority, all the while occasionally revealing his vast reservoirs of rage—as well as his white, privileged cluelessness (his roundabout references in the opening to ‘all lives’ mattering smacks not only of his nonsense, but of a depressing amount of the real world’s). Mac, mostly slow on the uptake and with a sometimes-endearing earnestness, finds his ignorance and reactionary instincts crashing up against obstacles he cannot really comprehend (the wallet/credit sequence in this episode is a classic case study of this, as he scrambles to find some semblance of meaning based on his limited computing power). Dee rallies her bluster, directness, and selfishness in an effort to try and find a quick way through the predicament with minimal effort on her part—while, like her brother, also attempting to maintain some degree of moral superiority (grab Frank, go to the bridge, solve Old
Black Man’s—and thus her—predicament). Frank, mostly befuddled by the whole thing, revels in the little visceral thrills he can farm along the way—chiefly perhaps finally having an excuse to use the ‘n’ word (Dee: Why are you looking for an excuse?). Finally Charlie, who, as usual, provides the most nuanced, layered, and deeply disturbing and unhinged filter through which to see the whole thing (the interrogation scene where he describes in song his living situation with Frank to the police, and that genuinely heart wrenching, painfully relevant final moment before the denounement, are maybe the best scenes in the entire episode).
By never losing sight of its characters and their unique, twisted perspectives the show has been able to tackle themes that most stories would cover purely exploitatively, or in an overly preachy manner, if at all. If the theme is to be racism, then let it be shown as it is: awful, violent, and tangled up in fear and ignorance. In It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s world racism in America is reflected in a set of ignorant, privileged asshole mirrors, standing stark and naked for all to see, undeniable. In their attempts to absolve themselves or plead benign intention—anything to avoid directly confronting the issue—the gang reveal a whole slew of ugly truths about racial politics in America. The viewer, observing them from the outside, might be tempted to consider themselves enlightened compared to the gang; and yet, thanks of the deftly written observations and mini-arcs peppered throughout, sure footing can never quite be found. This isn’t comfort viewing. This isn’t The Help.
None of this would work nearly as well, though, if the episode as a whole wasn’t so goddamn funny. Sunny is a comedy after all. It is also one of the few shows that actually makes me laugh out loud, and it does so often. This episode was no exception. The gang’s repeated befuddlement at suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a musical was pushed just far enough in the meta direction to be funny without overstaying its welcome. Expressing it in song via a genuinely catchy and funny ‘What are the rules?’ repeated refrain, the gang, while never fully comfortable, does embrace the format somewhat as time goes on. Dennis, however—chronic control freak that he is—never can quite let go, and his repeated frustration with the musical format he now finds himself hemmed in by leads to a bounty of quick lines in between songs. There is a moment early on where he slips up, however, and embraces things, and is then immediately disturbed by it, that made me laugh so much it hurt:
Between that, Frank’s almost total disregard for choreography, ‘I mean we did have a black president before the orange one’, and their constant misreading and misunderstanding of the racial dynamics at play, I was laughing almost without a break during ‘The Gang Turns Black’. That’s no surprise, seeing as the episode was written—like a lot of the greatest ones—by the central trio. These guys are veterans at this now, and their understanding of the form shines through. The jokes come from entirely different disciplines too: visual gags, satirical barbs, character-based lines—nearly all of which land with aplomb and feel of a piece. Though not an intentional gag, Rob McElhenny’s chronic breaking has now reached near-Jerry Seinfeld-in-Seinfeld levels, although it manages to remain more endearing.
As a bonus and as hinted at further above, the season 12 premiere has also finally taken us Under The Bridge! The never-not-welcome Z (Chad Coleman) provides Dee and Frank with some vital, hilariously delivered intel relatively early on in the episode when the latter two take a detour via Frank and Charlie’s oft-mentioned but never before visited hangout. The slow, steady world building of this show! Game Of Thrones eat your goddamned heart out, you bitch. Under The Bridge: already more compelling than Dorne.
‘The Gang Turn Black’ marks the return of a truly vile and venal collection of human beings to our screen. But through them we see the world as it is, not how we’d like it to be. And when, on top of that, they make us laugh as much as they did here—well, that’s something to be bloody thankful for. Roll on the rest of Season 12. If this episode is any indication, it’s gonna be exactly what we need in 2017.
(Also: great guest appearance? Or the greatest guest appearance?!)