We’re four episodes into the 13th season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and while critical reception has been very good, there’s been resistance among a certain faction of fans who are claiming that the show’s gotten too political and too feminist.
Always Sunny has always been political, and anyone who claims otherwise can’t have been watching too closely. But regardless of expectations, I have a feeling the season’s uniting episode will be, ironically enough, “Time’s Up for the Gang.”
It’s a spiritual sequel to last year’s “Hero Or Hate Crime?” in which the gang discuss very bluntly, openly, and (most importantly) poorly an issue they used to treat cavalierly but which has since become off-limits. Last year it was offensive language. This year it’s sexual misconduct. And the show does it very well.
The majority of the episode’s run is relatively standard (but very funny) fare. After a stilted first few episodes, Always Sunny seems to be back in its stride — the characters feel more natural, more themselves. More… well… awful, as they completely derail a seminar on sexual misconduct that they’ve been ordered to attend for reasons they can’t comprehend. There’s a nice slow build as each member of the gang inadvertently attracts scrutiny, panicking to the score’s egg timer countdown and succumbing to the too-hot “climate” of the hotel conference room.
A lot of keywords are bandied about and grossly misunderstood, Frank expresses the very worst of Good Old Boy business practices, and Mac screams “I got your cunt” at Dee in a sequence that’s somehow been playing uncensored in promotional material for well over a month. It’s great.
The real payoff comes at the end, however, when the gang completely hijack the seminar — first in a frenzied argument over how and when exactly Charlie got molested, and then in a sublime finish as canonical probable-rapist Dennis delivers a chillingly thorough lecture on the Time’s Up movement… from the point of view of the accused.
It’s a masterful move — a way to acknowledge the gang’s bad behavior, even to call them out on specifics, without going full woke. Because the gang is not woke, and to make them suddenly too conscientious would probably ring untrue. It would tip over the edge into full-on moralizing, and it would likely lose those anti-progressive fans once and for all.
Instead, it approaches the topic from an oblique angle, letting Dennis monologue in top D.E.N.N.I.S. System professorial form. And it brings up a compelling aspect of his character. Dennis is not a good person. He is not woke. But he is very aware of the climate he lives in — aware to an almost pathological degree. It’s the side of him that’s led many a fan to deduce that he’s a serial killer, and that has apparently internalized a state-by-state catalog of sexual misconduct laws.
It’s an odd, but wholly logical revelation. And it’s used to great effect here as, without compromising his creepiness (if anything, it’s amplified) the show manages to use Dennis as a mouthpiece for good.
Dennis doesn’t so much call out the gang for their indiscretions (they’ve already done that for themselves through the course of the episode), as he calls out their reasons for thinking they’re not in the wrong. From his perspective, it’s a matter of practicality, but for the audience, it’s a solid point and one that’s brought up too rarely. People don’t do bad things because they’re bad — they do them because they’ve rationalized their behavior, and they’ve convinced themselves the rules don’t apply to them.
And so Dennis, arguably one of tv’s scarier monsters, makes a resounding and downright conscientious pronouncement. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, gay, a woman, or a hopeless romantic — you’re still capable of doing wrong, and you don’t deserve the pass you’ve given yourself.
The pronouncement works so well, of course, because of its delivery… and its deliverer. Dennis has always had a fraught history with women, with power, and with the concept of consent. By making him the dispatcher of its positive message, while at the same time revealing new depths of his depravity, the show carefully offsets its own progressiveness with its characters’ very worst inclinations, a delicate balancing act it’s been performing for years.
And that means the show’s throwing Dennis under the bus a little bit, using his outrageous creepiness to call attention to and help us move past the rest of the gang’s misdeeds.
Last season saw something of a move to humanize Dennis, insisting that he does, in fact, have feelings, showing him connect with multiple people (a preteen con artist protege, as well as his own son), and proving, in the sensationally-named “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer,” that actions and intentions can be taken out of context and may, in the end, not actually signal something more dubious.
Even this year, Dennis’ edges seemed to be getting softened. Sketchy as his sex dungeon in “The Gang Escapes” may have been, it did reveal that he’s been engaging with willing volunteers and using safe words. Based on other reviews and reactions, I seem to be in the minority with my interpretation, but considering where he’s come from, I see that as a big step forward for Dennis.
But this slide into unequivocal sleaze, while it may hinder Dennis’ path to redemption, is well worth it. Because it’s the perfect counterbalance to a weighty topic, the dildo bike to Mac’s sincere coming out. Dennis may be putting the gang on blast for all the wrong reasons, but he is still putting them on blast.
And of course, he’s inadvertently putting himself on blast, too. While the gang is awed by his meticulous web of non-implication, we’re free to be horrified by it. That icy stare on the line “Their phones did” is peak Dennis, and it opens up a whole new avenue of darkness for his character.
After all that hemming and hawing about Glenn Howerton’s absence, it’s clear more than ever what a blessing it is to have him back. It’s hard to imagine this episode in any shape or form without him.
While the episode’s thesis is on point, it does have one interesting and unexpected side effect: the flat-out denial of any sexual relationships within the gang.
So much for CharDee. And so much for MacDennis. Because in one fell swoop, Always Sunny has sunk a thousand ships. Or at least two. Dee and Charlie have not been having the secret romance that many (including me) suspected, and Dennis has flat out told Mac that he’s never going to return his affections, to the palpable anguish of many a fan.
Is this the show’s comment on a different kind of impropriety — the unflinching audience insistence that characters become romantically involved, often in the face of their own sexual orientation? Who knows. It seems like an unusually harsh stance for this show to take, especially when it’s so deliberately fanned the fires of speculation.
Maybe it’s just another level of edge-sharpening for the episode, a disavowal of emotion so all that’s left is bitter truths and bitterer comedy. If that’s the case, I’m all for it.
Anyone who thinks feminism and especially politics are recent additions to Always Sunny probably hasn’t been paying much attention. (The very first episode is about racism and homophobia). But I have a feeling even most of those fans will find peace with “Time’s Up for the Gang”… even though it’s about sexual misconduct… with a progressive message… written by a woman… who has her own Time’s Up story.
Are a lot of those fans going to miss the point of the episode? Early polling suggests yes. Even so, Megan Ganz has written a takedown of five beloved characters, and she’s made it crowd-pleasing and funny. That’s a hell of a feat.
“Time’s Up for the Gang” is a great return to form for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a fabulous outing that engages with sensitive material through the seemingly insensitive satire it does so well. At worst, the gang have learned the wrong lessons from their seminar. At best, they’ve learned nothing at all. But the show has said everything it needed to say, and it’s said it with the sharpest, funniest episode of the season yet.