A Rocky, But Promising Start for ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Season 13

The new season delivers big in some ways but holds back in several others.

Spoilers for ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Season 13 Episode 1 below.

After a year and a half hiatus, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is finally back! And so (and I held off publishing until now so that I could say this) is Dennis!

Two months ago I wrote a piece on the Creeping Progressiveness of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in which I posited that Glenn Howerton had left the show in part because of the trickiness of continuing with the character in the time of the #MeToo movement. Well now that piece is obsolete, but I don’t even mind. I’m just happy to have Dennis back.

When I published that essay, I was surprised at the remarkably low amount of pushback I received. For the most part, it seems, fans of the show are aware that it’s a satire, and the creative forces behind it are nothing like the characters.

There was a certain amount of rumbling, however, about the current “SJW state of comedy,” as there always will be. And this premiere seems to be a direct answer to that brand of detractor fan.

The episode opens like one of these fans’ worst nightmares — Dennis has been replaced by Mindy Kaling, who’s in the middle of a lecture on how she, as a woman of color, finally feels welcome in Paddy’s Pub. Some necessary changes have been made, and now the bar is a more welcoming, more liberal, safer space.

It’s everything the critics of the show’s progressiveness could have feared.

It does feel a little too on the nose to be true, however, and in the very next scene, it’s revealed that the gang is milking their new liberal customers for all they’re worth… until it turns out that the real targets are the conservatives. Who does the show actually hate? Whose side is Mindy — sorry, Cindy  — on, anyway?

She’s on the gang’s side, that’s who. Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Frank can’t even keep track of what their political leanings are supposed to be, but they do know that with Cindy on board, they’re doing better than ever. No matter who they’re duping, the gang’s increased diversity (or maybe just having someone who can keep a plan in their head) has led to untold success. It’s a nice message to fans — Cindy isn’t for or against anybody. She’s just good at what she does.

But success has never been the name of the game with Always Sunny. Unless the show was planning on turning over several new leaves, this was destined never to last.

And, of course, it doesn’t.

Because Dennis manages to influence the gang even when he’s not there, speaking to them through Mac’s horrifyingly uncanny new sex doll. It’s a nice touch that this downfall stems directly from Mac’s new openness about his sexuality, one of last season’s actual progressive steps forward. The war isn’t simply between progressiveness and a lack thereof — it’s murkier than that.

But it’s not that murky. While the safe space of Cindy’s opening monologue may be a ruse, in spirit it’s a real place, and it’s what’s at stake in the gang’s ability to move on from the way things once were. As soon as Sex Doll Dennis gets in their heads, everything goes south. Mac thinks he’s fat, Dee thinks she’s ugly, the Waitress starts drinking, Charlie loses her, and Frank… well, Frank can’t play the tuba. Frank’s never had problems with confidence, so maybe it’s fair that he’s the least affected by the change in group dynamic.

In the end, the episode has one major thesis — the remaining gang has to choose between getting over Dennis by embracing a new way of life, and keeping things the way they are, even if it’s not necessarily healthy.

The choice is more or less made for them.

Because after all that turmoil, Dennis is back, and we don’t even know why. (Realistically, he’s probably back because he found a way to work around his A.P. Bio filming schedule). But within the universe of the show, his return looks like it’ll be getting the same treatment as Mac’s season 7 weight gain — virtually unacknowledged and wordlessly incorporated until much later in the season. Because there has to be an explanation. The fact that it hasn’t been addressed yet leads me to believe it’ll be a good one, and possibly the subject of an entire episode.

For now, however, we’re simply back to the status quo. Or are we?

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 13

At a TCA panel last month, Rob McElhenney said of the new season that “We wanted to try something, for lack of a better term, heartwarming.” He may have been speaking specifically about his character Mac’s newfound acceptance of his sexuality, but there is a certain amount of unprecedented heart in the first four episodes that have been released to critics. Episode 2 in particular features a small tweak to Dennis’ m.o. that, while slight, softens his edges in a crucial way. It also sports a moment of happy camaraderie that I’m not sure the show has ever seen before.

In other words, the gang may not be reverting to their old ways completely. Dennis is back (and honestly, what wouldn’t we have traded for that?), but in spirit, the show has taken a slight turn. Now in their 40s/70s, the characters are growing up just a little. Even McElhenney — and by extension, Mac — is getting rid of his iconic terrible tattoos.

Just as the trailer promised, this season seems to be taking a more head-on approach to social issues. Always Sunny has never shied away from societal questions, and in its most recent seasons it’s engaged much more directly with them, devoting entire episodes to racism, gun control, hate speech, and sexual misconduct. But this season’s episodes, or at least its first four, seem to be even more aware of their surroundings, with one eye on the hard-to-ignore social and political climate of 2018.

And honestly, it works. The weaker of the episodes are the first two, the ones that have the least social consciousness. The next two — an all-ladies reboot of the excellent season 10 episode “The Gang Beats Boggs,” and a mandatory seminar on sexual misconduct — are very self-aware and agenda-driven, but they’re also much more satisfying and better put together.

It’s the fourth episode that bolsters my hopes for the rest of the season.

Centered around a seminar for workplace sexual misconduct, it’s the clear standout in terms of creativity, clarity, and humor. It’s also, I believe, the most in the spirit of the show’s particular style of satire — a positive message delivered accidentally by the worst people. It feels like a spiritual sequel to last year’s excellent “Hero Or Hate Crime?,” in which the show calls the gang out for the problematic behavior upon which they’ve built their brand. Without getting into specifics, it’s not hard to extrapolate some of the issues that might come up, especially with Dennis back. The way it’s handled, though, and the way it’s ultimately resolved, is unexpected and unusual and in excellent keeping with the gang’s despicable nature, even as the show takes steps forward. It’s proof that the gang isn’t about to grow up or learn too much, and it’s a bit of a relief.

But is it just as good? That’s a tricky question. Last season saw its marked shift to outspoken progressivism with “The Gang Turns Black” and “Hero or Hate Crime?” — Two episodes that dealt with racism and language in extraordinarily creative ways. It also boasted “The Gang Tends Bar,” its warmest episode to date. In my ranking of the first twelve seasons’ episodes, those three each earned a spot in the top ten. A certain amount of weight in that ranking came from the fact that these episodes were subtly changing the direction of the show while demonstrating remarkable ingenuity and vitality and, not unimportantly, humor. “The Gang Turns Black” in particular was a brazen and ambitious season 12 premiere that flew in the face of critics who thought the show might be losing steam.

Compared to that and its undeniably strong follow-up, “The Gang Goes to a Water Park,” season 13’s early showings feel a little bit toothless.

But season 12 was not without its duds, either. It has a couple of the lowest spots in my ranking, too. And so does season 11. That’s because as the years have worn on, Always Sunny has gotten undeniably more experimental. It’s taken some brave swings, and not all of them have made contact. But it’s hard not to respect the effort.

I’m a little worried about the first two episodes because I don’t think they take any big risks. I’m heartened by the next two because they do. Always Sunny has been around for so long that it’s earned itself a lot of artistic license, and it’s amassed a wealth of history to reference as it does it. Maybe the third and fourth episodes are so much better because they take advantage of both those things, on top of being more socially aware. Probably it’s a combination of all those elements that just make them feel more complex and fully formed.

On the whole, the season starts out slightly rocky, but the payoff of Dennis’ return ought to be enough to offset that in most fans’ eyes. And the third and fourth episodes pick up considerable steam toward something that’s both more recognizable as classic Always Sunny and excitingly different. If you feel a slight letdown from the premier, I will encourage you to hang on. If you weren’t let down, then continue to enjoy the ride, and rejoice in the fact that Dennis is back.

I, for one, am staying guardedly optimistic.

Liz Baessler: Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)