Kaitlin Olson as Sweet Dee (Photo: Byron Cohen/FXX)
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It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is such a finely calibrated comedy engine that, when it goes wrong, you can just hear the mismatched, ill-assembled parts clunking like actual monkey wrenches. “PTSDee” has some laughs, and a lot of pieces that should be pleasing to fans, but, in operation, the episode jerks gracelessly to its finish. For all its darkly comic disreputability, a good episode of It’s Always Sunny lands with an improbably unified gracefulness. “PTSDee” lurches.

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The traditional Sunny plot breaks the Gang into factions, but, here, the three parallel storylines barely intersect. The episode opens with Mac and Frank playing a virtual reality video game called Fallujah, a conceit that gives Rob McElhenney and Danny DeVito an opportunity to dress up both in army fatigues (in the game scenes), and goofy VR gear (wheeling around frantically inside Paddy’s). Apart from the fact that Mac’s attempts to resuscitate a little virtual Iraqi boy (that Frank thoughtlessly shoots) looks a whole lot like he’s committing a sex act, however, the whole VR idea is a lot of flailing for not much return. (Other than Charlie’s assessment, “They’ve just been wanderin’ around the bar, blowin’ kids, whetever it is they’re doin’,” which Charlie Day pitches with just the right touch off seen-it-all offhandedness.)

The episode then seems to be about Dee, who’s self-satisfied cockiness about her latest hookup (“Whatever it is you wanna tell us, just tell us,” snaps Dennis, impatiently) turns immediately to humiliation. The hunky stripper, Mike (Carter MacIntyre) that she slept with (and whose watch she swiped, so he’d call her again) shakily reveals that sleeping with Dee represents his “rock-bottom,” and that all the stripping and meaningless sex with random women whose names he can’t even remember (Dee, in this case) have left him a shaken, broken man. “But don’t take it personally,” he tells Dee. Dee, humiliated in front of Dennis and Charlie (who had predicted her stolen watch move), sets out to save face by fixing Mike’s life—and reminding him that the fact that he’s lost contact with his estranged daughter has to be worse than the whole “sleeping with Sweet Dee” thing, right?

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This sets off the third plot, where Dennis, up on his high horse on both the video game and “Dee banging a male stripper into depression” fronts, decides to become a stripper himself. His rationale seeks to tie the prongs of Dennis’ assault on societal decay together, as he rants, “Dee can’t handle a little rejection. Mac’s banged up over a goddamned video game. This stripper guy is traumatized because he gets to take his clothes off in front of a bunch of horny ladies, and then he has sex with one disgusting bird?” So Dennis decides to become a male stripper to, well—that’s where things get disappointingly hazy. Sure, both Dennis’ pretensions to alpha-male superiority and his susceptibility to ego-driven whim are infamous, but Charlie lampshades the fact that Dennis’ leap into stripping is even more random than usual. (“I’ll do it!” “Do what?” “Strip.” “I didn’t realize you were talking about that.”)

Splitting the Gang up isn’t a problem. Even the fact that none of these three stories interact in any meaningful way wouldn’t cripple the episode, if any of them were better realized or funnier. Instead, “PTSDee” settles for callbacks much of the time. The show’s continuity is vital in understanding and deepening these characters, but, here, the references come off more like a checklist than anything revelatory. Charlie and Dennis both run down their storied (and horrifying) pasts when discussing Dennis’ stripping venture. (Charlie “has his back,” which, to Dennis, means oiling, shaving, and policing his back for unsightly blemishes.) Charlie deflects Dennis’ reference to Charlie’s mom being “basically a prostitute,” while Dennis does the same when Charlie brings up the fact that Dennis’ version of having awesome underage sex with his hot high school librarian was actually statutory rape by the matronly Ms. Klinsky, who, as Dee has recalled, looked like Rick Moranis.

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Mac’s sexuality, memorably confronted last week, is left hanging (so to speak), as we’re back to jokes about Mac making inadvertent double entendre (it really does look like he’s blowing that kid). Mac’s daddy issues also return in his sleep-deprived Fallujah dreams, where he envisions himself accidentally shooting his father (Gregory Scott Cummins as Luther) right before Mac was about to get that “I love you, son” he’s always dreamed of. (He also has a sex dream about watching Dennis work on his stripper moves.) Oh, and Frank reveals he shot some workers at that Vietnam sweatshop he once ran. (“I don’t feel nothin’ about it,” he tells the PTSD support group he drags Mac to so they can get back to playing Fallujah.)

As for Dee, her efforts to get Mike’s life back on track seem just as random, with the one final big twist being the episode’s sole, Sunny-level piece of ingenuity. Before then, she shows up at the same veterans’ PTSD support group as Frank and Mac, their button-pushing inappropriateness at being there (and Frank loudly explaining that he just want’s Mac to stop seeing the women and children he shoots as “real people”) neither bold nor unique enough to even rise to the level of cringe comedy. Mike and Mac, to their credit, recognize that invading the group for their variously selfish reasons (Dee thinks Mike’s “soldier guy” stripping persona means he’s actually in the military) is messed up. But “messed up” for its own sake is not what Sunny traditionally aspires to.

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In fact, there’s an element of imposter syndrome all through “PTSDee,” as if it were the work of a dedicated Sunny fan attempting to emulate the show. (That it was written by Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, and Charlie Day makes its sloppiness even more baffling.) Dennis’ stripper sojourn is toothless and broad, as he and Charlie accept a booking at a party of mature women, which messes up Dennis’ “Daddy” stage persona. (According to Dennis, young women all want to sleep with their fathers.) Granted, Charlie’s still Charlie, hilariously. When Dennis asks, “Who do girls wanna have sex with more than anyone else?,“ Charlie’s enthusiastic guess, “Jugglers!” was my one out-loud laugh of the episode.

But the through-line from Dennis getting freaked out by a party full of hungry middle-aged ladies (he Freudian-slips by calling them “librarians”), to deciding that he needs to reassert his dominance with a “war on women” is just as hazy as his stripper plan. (As are Mac and Charlie’s enthusiastic decision to join in.) Adopting a bare-chested/leather-duster look, Dennis accepts Dee’s poorly accented offer of a secret strip show at Paddy’s as “Bad Dad.” (Charlie, complete with propeller-beanie and cheese-flavored all-day sucker, joins in as Bad Dad’s little boy, leading to a very crowd-displeasing playlet set to “Cat’s In The Cradle.”)

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In the end, it’s Dee who wins the day, as her plan all along wasn’t to help Mike, but to utterly crush him for calling her his “rock bottom” by arranging for him to shake his moneymaker right in the face of his estranged daughter. (“Your cock was in my face! My finger touched your asshole!,” she young woman shrieks, understandably.) But Dee’s revenge isn’t set up sufficiently in her character. We’ve seen Dee get dumped on harder than this without setting out to ruin two people’s lives forever. In an episode named for her, Dee’s PTSD just isn’t established. In the aftermath, Dennis, with the respect of the truly horrible recognizing his own, marvels, “That was, like, the darkest thing that you’ve ever done. You know what that was. That was your rock bottom.” The thing is, it isn’t. On It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, it’s not enough just to be horrible.

Stray observations

  • David Hornsby returns as Rickety Cricket for the first time this season. He apparently bathes in the leaky urinal at Paddy’s, and accepts the gig as the McConaughey-esque stripper emcee, only to horrify the assembled ladies with tales of his copious scars.
  • Cricket’s newest scar: “Took out the kidney, from the front. A Chinaman. And he did not know to do it.”
  • Dennis muses that, in Cricket, they got less the Magic Mike McConaughey, and more the Dallas Buyers Club version.
  • Charlie interprets Dee’s description of Mike as her own Channing Tatum as “Charming Taint-man,” but peps up once Dennis tells him Tatum was G.I. Joe. “Oh, say G.I. Joe, don’t make up a name.”
  • The idea that Dennis was being fooled by Dee’s horrible accent on the phone was looking grim, but the joke pivoted nicely when Dennis just called her by her name. “Who else does accents so poorly?”

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