And we’re back.
Just like that, we’re back.
It’s been 18 months. 18 whole months since we last kept company with the most depraved, odious, and downright repugnant ensemble group that television has ever thrown at us. And I’ve missed them every single day.
You remember how we left The Gang, right? Dennis-less. Yes indeed: In the finale of season 12 of It’s Always Sunny, Dennis Reynolds—sociopath, probable serial killer, and de facto Gang leader—just straight up left to live with his recently discovered son and his mother in North Dakota. It was a hell of a shocking move. Fans were left wondering and speculating as to how the show would look once it returned, whether or not Glenn Howerton would be returning as Dennis, if so in what capacity, and just in general how The Gang, being such a finely tuned and developed group dynamic by which the show lives and dies, would fare without possibly their most dominant personality around to put them down them and boss them around.
The season 13 premiere solves the problem of no Dennis by, well, bringing him back. First in one form, and then another.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
‘The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again’
We open with that familiar title card that announces to us, as always, the place (Paddy’s Pub. It’s always Paddy’s Pub), as well as the time and date. But there’s a disturbance in the Paddy’s force. An unfamiliar voice. The title card disappears and we see it’s Mindy Kaling! Kaling’s involvement in this season had been announced by FXX a little while back, but I had personally forgotten that she’d be featured, and in effect replacing Glenn Howerton here, to some unspecified degree. Mindy plays Cindy, a new addition to The Gang, as well as to Mac’s apartment. Cindy is driven, organised, and totally up for slotting into this finely(?) oiled scheme machine. So she takes the lead on Making Paddy’s Great Again by coming up with a plan to destroy Murphy’s, the much more successful bar nearby.
It must be an incredibly intimidating task, trying to replace someone on a show with such as fleshed out and lived in group like on Sunny, but Kaling does a great job. Her sincerity in really wanting to stick it to Murphy’s, and her verve for really doing a number on everyone in the way, is a delight. But as good as she is in it, the episode doesn’t dance around the core issue. Dennis’ absence is keenly felt, both by us and by The Gang. Despite Cindy’s best efforts, they just can’t quite work up the conviction to go through with the scheme. Not like they usually would anyway, with Dennis. He’d likely stand up on a chair in a restaurant with the grace of a falcon and he’d give a great speech about how they’d be in and out like a demon’s whisper.
I could write essays about the ins and outs of The Gang members’ relationships to each other, but the salient point here is this: Dennis is a colossal influence on these people. He knows it, too, and gets off on it. Naturally, being the terribly insecure and needy and deluded narcissist that he is, he needs The Gang too. But there is no doubt that a long time ago he set up shop in each of their heads, and he spread his malicious tentacles far and wide. The shadow of Dennis is felt everywhere in the season 13 opener, even before Mac brings that dead-eyed, blowjob-mouthed abomination out of the box.
One of the main gags this episode, and likely this season, is Mac’s dramatic physical transformation. It isn’t the first time that Rob McElhenney has changed Mac’s body shape for laughs. Season 7’s Fat Mac was meant as a commentary on how sitcom stars often balloon in size as their paychecks increase and their indolence does along with it. McElhenney asked all the other cast members to go along as he was planning the change, but they refused. This turned out to be an excellent character move, as after Mac gained so much weight and then subsequently lost it incredibly quickly again it was revealed that the rapid weight loss was due to Dennis slyly feeding Mac ‘size pills’—actually diet pills, Mexican ephedra to be precise—because he found Fat Mac so disgusting. Dennis’ relationship with Mac, ostensibly his best friend, is complicated. Mac looks up to Dennis and desperately wants to impress him (and has long-simmering crush on him); Dennis treats Mac with contempt and disgust, and yet also has an undeniable love for him. Ripped Mac is a result of Mac’s insecurity and desire to please and impress not just Dennis, but the other members of The Gang too—a fact which is emphasised pointedly and delivered hilariously by McElhenney’s delivery of ‘You guys like me, right?’ in this episode. The thing is, though: Mac doesn’t know why he transformed himself the way he did. He keeps saying that it could be used as part of Cindy’s scheme, but as the others constantly remind him, this makes zero sense. Mac’s ignorance as to the reasons behind his transformation are emblematic of his character as a whole: Repressed, naive, and befuddled.
It’s not just Mac who has to squirm underneath the shadow of a not-even-physically-present Dennis. As they try to fulfill their roles in Cindy’s plan, each member of The Gang comes up against the mental blocks and internal parasites of doubt and fear that The Golden God has planted in them. Dee has to try look pretty; Frank has to learn how to play the tuba; and Charlie has to make some fake wine bottle labels with Mac. But as hard as they try and briefly look like they might succeed, each one succumbs to their insecurities in the face of the proxy Dennis that Mac had brought into their midst. And no discussion about this episode can go on without a mention of its greatest feature.
You wanted us to bring Dennis back, so you wondered if we would. But you didn’t stop to think if we should. pic.twitter.com/hMHvzSX81p— Glenn Howerton (@GlennHowerton) September 4, 2018
Sex Doll Dennis is horrifying, hilarious, and definitely full of Mac’s loads. Mac of course claims that it’s just for company, but the frank and immediate way the rest of The Gang suss out that he’s banging that thing—and Mac’s incredibly weak rebuttals of this theory—is a an absolute joy. Sex Doll Dennis serves also as a great illustration of the control that Real Dennis has over The Gang. It makes them laugh in a toadying manner; it rubbishes their efforts; and it sleeps with The Waitress. Charlie had only just achieved his dream of winning over his stalking victim when suddenly here comes Sex Doll Dennis, ruining in inanimate ‘life’ what he often took so much pleasure in ruining when he was actually around. Charlie, of course, sets to viciously beating Sex Doll Dennis about the head, in a glorious display of his barely contained oceanic reserves of rage.
And then, in no time, boom. In a quick camera cut and reveal, Real Dennis is there. Grimacing and asserting himself and in short order dismissing Cindy with The Gang’s Stockholm Syndrome-esque backing. Heading into this season I knew Dennis would be back, but I was certain it would take a few episodes at least. So this sudden apparition had me all giddy with shock and glee. I make no secret of Dennis being my favourite character (in this show, and in most of TV), but the few short minutes that Glenn Howerton has to work with right at the end of this episode are a prime, distilled showcase for why I will continue to hold to this preference.
At this point, Sunny is almost like psychological field notes. It has developed this extremely unhealthy group dynamic to such a degree that watching all the members interact is one hell of a potent experience. It should be uncomfortable—and it is—but thankfully it looks like season 13 will be just as funny as ever. There are great callbacks here—the duster, Mac’s Famous Mac And Cheese, Steve Winwood (probably my biggest laugh of the episode)—that remind us how rich and ridiculous a universe this is. There are wonderful moments of madness too—random tuba noises, ‘Why did you need bleach?’, marching ass-tuba! Finally and most importantly, there is plenty of the type of character-based humour that makes this show one of the all-time great TV comedies: The stuff that really sings, because these people are awful, ridiculous, and they continue to interact in the most delightfully horrible ways. The show knows them so well. Make no mistake: They will be each others’ damnation in the end. But dammit do they need each other. And we need them.
Welcome back you jabronis.
Dennnis’ return, obviously. And how he wastes no time in doing what he does best. He has the episode’s closing line, delivered nonchalantly but with characteristically subtle venom: ‘Hey, Mac, d’you gain a little weight?’ That’ll be a week of sleepless nights for Mac.
A special mention also to Howerton’s finely tuned Dennis speech patterns. Have you noticed how, when he’s not raging or delivering grandstanding monologues, he often speaks in short, staccato bursts. About the doll: ‘By the way. What is that thing? I don’t like it. Why do you have it?’
Interesting side note: This episode was written by Rickety Cricket (and Sunny executive producer) himself, David Hornsby. Here’s a neat graph from Reddit illustrating the amount of credits each principal writer has on the show:
Header Image Source: FXX