“That’s what you do when you start getting old. You start reliving the glory days because you can’t think of anything new to do.”
The thing is, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, while geriatric in terms of sitcom longevity, hasn’t run out of new things to do. Or rather, it hasn’t drained the well of hilariously imaginative ways in which to pin its five protagonists down in their squalid Paddy’s nest and watch them squirm. In fact, in defiance of Dennis’ line from “The Gang Does A Clip Show,” Sunny often seems out of ideas the more it drifts away from its core values (or gleeful lack thereof) in an attempt to monkey with its formula.
Sometimes, as in the deliberately polarizing musical fantasy “The Gang Turns Black,” a little experimentation is a good thing, allowing the creators and cast a chance to stretch some different muscles as the show adapts its peerlessly grimy world to a new genre. But while that musical outing ranks right up there with the show’s provocative genre-mashing, button-pushing experiments like “The Nightman Cometh” and both of their seriously unauthorized Lethal Weapon sequels, it also goofs around with the show’s occasional feints toward surrealism. You know, how, in that one, the ending posits that the Gang’s entire, five-headed nightmare existence may just be the tortured fever dream of the occasional recurring character they refer to as Old Black Man (Wil Garrett). Or maybe Scott Bakula. Or how an offhand remark by Frank turned into a season-ending tease that the Gang’s reality is merely the cosmic dreams of a giant space-turtle. Hey, you can’t prove it’s not.
So when “The Gang Does A Clip Show” pivots midway through into an Inception-aping mind-fuck about the Gang’s bored reminiscences (they’re waiting for their cell phones to update) actually transforming the world, it’s not unprecedented or anything. The thing is, it’s also far too big a surrealistic swing for Sunny to take, especially since the structure of the episode leaves it just the last ten minutes or so to pull off a fully realized conceit. The other fantasy gags mentioned above worked to the extent that they did because they were just that, throwaway gags. And while it’s sort of intriguing to imagine that the Gang’s awfulness could only be the product of the fevered hallucinations of a tormented homeless man, or a mythic turtle-god, or Scott Bakula, that’s not what It’s Always Sunny is about. Further, Sunny is still so exceptionally good at doing what it does that “The Gang Does A Clip Show” comes across as a too-long goof, its rickety structure too flimsy to support its late-game conceptual swerve.
In fact, the whole clip show premise is a little played out to start with. For one thing, how many sitcoms actually still do clip shows, those budget-conscious exercises in cynical repackaging that once littered the average show’s 24-episode seasons? For another, anytime the whole clip show conceit is announced, it’s a signal these days that a show is going to play around with the concept rather than whip out a package of greatest hits while the show’s actors spend a quick afternoon sitting around and asking, “Hey, remember when . . ?” Sometimes, the result is sublimely rewarding, as in the seminal “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” or Community’s “clips from episodes we never saw” show “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” both of which mine the hacky concept for insightful metatextual laughs as well as just plain belly laughs. So when It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia announces its first clip show, with a title drawing attention to the fact, it’s guaranteed that episode writers Dannah Phirman and Danielle Schneider have some similarly inventive and subversive plans in mind.
And they do. There are some huge laughs in “The Gang Does A Clip Show,” as the Gang’s aimless half-hour spent waiting for theri software updates segue gradually from the expected greatest hits tour to something weirder. Announcing its presence by replaying Danny DeVito’s legendary, sweat-slicked, bare-assed birth from inside a leather sofa in “A Very Sunny Christmas” in its entirety, the episode starts out in the traditional fashion. Charlie rips out Santa’s throat with his teeth, Charlie cuts the Gang’s breaks and bails out, cackling “Wild card, bitches!,” the guys wrestle in eagle costumes, Dennis explains the implication, Dee and Charlie have ’roid rage, Charlie vomits gouts of fake blood onto an unsuspecting woman’s face, the Gang dances at their high school reunion. If there’s anything sly about this initial salvo of old-school clips, it’s how, robbed of context, they make Sunny look like a lesser show than it is. These are the scenes someone told you about while trying to get you to watch It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, leaving you unimpressed and smiling politely.
As Dennis, cast as the episode’s voice of reason, pleads with the rest of the Gang to cut it out, since, like the aforementioned Sunny fan, they’re mangling the show by singling out only the loudest and crudest highlights. Especially since, as he notes, they’re getting them wrong. Retelling his big, self-important exit speech from last season’s finale, Dennis points out that Charlie and Dee keep screwing up the moment by inserting their own goofy antics into his big scene. The episode’s first big laugh sees memory Charlie delightedly stealing Dennis’ dramatic flip of Paddy’s light switch, while his version of Dennis dances happily in the background. Gradually, the Gang seems to have formed a telepathic link in their memories, with even Dennis losing the thread once Dee confuses Seinfeld reruns with their own replaying memories, with the Gang recast as the Seinfeld characters from “The Contest.” (Since it’s five-to-four in terms of cast, Mac and Dennis are both Jerry, while Frank is George, Dee is Elaine, and Charlie, bursting in the door, is Kramer, naturally.)
As the Gang’s confusion increases, so does the clips’ chaos, as Dennis reminds them that they did, in fact have their own, Seinfeld-inspired contest, involving incessant masturbation, bloodied skin, and Dee’s “obliterated” vagina. Except that Dennis notes that the doctor in their collective memory was somehow the imaginary doctor Dennis cast in his heroic convenience store fantasy from “The Gang Saves The Day.” Then Charlie is shocked to see the Waitress enter Paddy’s—with Charlie, and their new baby. As Dennis posits, the act of remembering something creates an entirely new reality, one where the Gang’s individual impulses and desires seep in to deform things in the desired direction. This, as they discover when Mac claims he isn’t Dennis’ roommate, turns out to be Dennis’ overarching reality since, as he says, who would want to live with someone who “spends three hours a day on a dildo bike.”
So we’re back in turtle-dream territory again, as Dennis, whipping out a handy top identical to Leonardo DiCaprio’s reality-testing token from Inception, sets the top aspin on top of the bar. Naturally, the Gang is too impatient to wait and see if the thing ever stops spinning. (“Well, it’s a quality top,” explains Dennis.) Plus their phones have finished updating, so, as the episode ends, they, noses buried in their screens, don’t notice the other Charlie poking his head in Paddy’s door.
It’s the sort of ending that would (and, you know, may) inspire wild internet theories of Pepe Silvia scope and intensity if it weren’t just another playful flight of fancy. Unlike those other aforementioned throwaway gags, though, this reality-warping goof both overstays and understays its welcome. Too central to the episode to be waved away and too rushed to develop into something its own (not that we want it to), the whole Inception angle just doesn’t register as anything other than a half-realized stunt. It doesn’t help that, just as we’re registering what the episode is turning into, Dennis comes right out and compares their predicament to Inception. Plus, heading off jokes about being out of ideas (like Mac’s “At least we’re not being lazy right? We’re coming up with new stuff!”) are rarely worth the effort, even if they’re funnier than they are here. It’s Always Sunny has never been lazy about its comedy except, ironically, when it seeks to try out something new.
- One quietly intriguing inclusion in the episode’s roster of guaranteed laugh-getter moments is a decidedly uncomfortable scene between Charlie and Andrew Friedman’s ever-creepy Uncle Jack. Putting such a deliberately unsettling moment suggests that Charlie’s imagination is the one doing the driving at that point.
- Pitching her long history of racial caricatures as subject for the group’s reminiscences, Dee is rebuffed over her stretch-eyed “Taiwan Tammy” by Dennis, who claims, “We’ve decided that isn’t funny anymore.”
- At one point, Charlie remembers directing The Nightman Cometh in the gibberish fake Chinese he spoke under the influence of the “magic pills” in “Flowers For Charlie.”
- Frank’s altered memories give him flowing locks and freakishly long legs.
- Charlie explains the presence of a second Charlie watching him in the past by explaining, “That’s how everybody remembers.”