It’s worrisome that season eleven of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia hasn’t truly committed. While this has been a funny half-season of television by any standard, it has also not lived up to the complexly lofty standards of dark comedy the show has set for itself. In the first five episodes, we’ve gotten a sequel to a fan-favorite episode, a crowd-pleasing episode filled with callbacks, a ski movie goof, and, last week, a more traditional episode, shakily executed. And now, with “Mac & Dennis Move To The Suburbs,” Sunny spins two characters off into their own story for most of the show. They go entertainingly mad there, sure, but the fact that Sunny isn’t delving as deeply into the Gang‘s gloriously tangled web of co-dependent awfulness is a cause for concern.
I’ve written at length about the fact that what makes It’s Always Sunny unique is how inventively it gazes into the Gang’s heart of darkness. Any touchy or controversial issue that, on a lesser show, would be introduced for shock value or cheap laughs becomes transformed when filtered through these characters’ retrograde sensibilities. So when, for example, the Gang engages in what’s essentially a long dead baby joke, it’s their five-layer awfulness in response to the idea of defrauding the IRS by having a funeral for Dee’s made up child (and subsequently spilling a rotting dog carcass out of the casket) that turns the unabashedly grubby and distasteful proceedings into something like escalating, inevitable comic brilliance. So the death of poor, adorable Dennis Junior tonight is an instructive contrast.
The episode begins by circling back to the fact that Dennis and Mac are still squatting in Dee’s apartment, having burned their longtime, rent-controlled pad to the ground at the end of last season. Naturally, they’re the worst roommates in the world—Mac appears to sleep on a pile of blankets on the floor, and they’ve introduced parasites into Dee’s life. Accused of having ringworm by Dee, Mac triumphantly comes back with “And now your place is infested with it!” Touché. After Dennis’ online searches determine that the Philly housing market isn’t sufficient to their needs (“We need two bathrooms, minimum!”) they decide to head an hour outside the city, finding a cozy furnished house on a peaceful cul-de-sac, complete with small-talking neighbor Wally (Steve Witting), a pool, and all the peace and quiet the show’s grimy Philadelphia can’t provide.
They destroy the joint, of course, the combined stresses of all that quiet (which renders every noise an intolerable irritant), an hour commute, and only each other for company driving them to destructive insanity in record time. And while Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton bring Mac and Dennis’ snowballing craziness to entertaining life, “Mac & Dennis Move To The Suburbs” suffers from the same problem—removed from Philly, Paddy’s, and the rest of the Gang, their inevitable disintegration just isn’t distinct enough.
It’s funny that, despite their supposed prison being an idyllic suburban home, the two start to develop a Shelley Duvall-Jack Nicholson Shining dynamic right away, and that the place is immediately riddled with drywall holes, snarled wires, and garbage, their constitutional inability to live like humans following them around like Pigpen’s dust cloud. (One of the biggest laughs is the revelation that, in a matter of weeks, they’ve filled their garage with heaping trash and air fresheners to fight the stench. As opposed to, you know, taking their refuse out to the sidewalk for convenient trash collection. By episode’s end, the house is littered with hanging pine air deodorizers like that room in Seven.) Episode director Todd Biermann makes good use of tinkling piano, Dutch angles, and exaggerated sound effects to play up the guys’ growing irritability at their spacious new surroundings. But a montage of their mounting squalor and mania set to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is just the sort of on-the-nose cue the show traditionally avoids. As with the ski movie episode a few weeks ago, removing these characters from their usual environs renders them too indistinct. The fate of the Gang is the fate of the show as a whole—they can’t survive for long anywhere but in the horrid little world they’ve made for themselves. Here, Mac and Dennis can’t even last a month in the ‘burbs (in order to win a bet with Frank), while “Mac & Dennis Move To The Suburbs” feels thin at 21 minutes.
Which isn’t to say the episode’s a failure. McElhenney makes Mac’s loneliness—as Dennis consigns him to the housewife role rather than endure an hour of Mac’s Creed mix during the commute—both humorously sad and ultimately horrifying. It’s always illuminating how each member of the Gang shifts his or her role according to how the group invariably splits up. Here, Mac’s subservience to Dennis (who immediately takes on the domineering husband role) sees him displaying the childish need for approval (and a stable family life) that’s one of Mac’s most affecting traits. This being Sunny, however, no good trait remains unalloyed with unthinkable insanity. Therefore, Mac’s pride in pleasing Dennis with “Mac’s famous mac ‘n’ cheese” curdles into the horrific when it’s revealed that Dennis Junior, the adorable dog Dennis (Senior) bought to keep Mac company has not only died but is the source of the secret “meat chunks” used to spice up Mac’s signature (and only) dish. It’s some Titus Andronicus-style revenge for Mac to think up, and it doesn’t entirely work—Mac loves the dog, and while any animal placed in the care of the Gang is in serious jeopardy, the little guy’s quick death (he presumably starves to death during the montage) comes off as glib, rather than audaciously dark.
As for Dennis, the episode-long ascent to the heights of malevolent insanity at the merest thwarting of his will is predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty glorious nonetheless. His and Mac’s stony, incredulous initial stare-down of the friendly Wally soon turns to outright hostility, with Dennis eventually whipping his travel mug at the guy before—in response to one more comment about the weather—he launches into another pitch-perfect Dennis Reynolds tirade, delivered while menacingly stripping to the nude:
Hot, huh. Yeah. It is super hot. It’s getting really hot around here. So hot, Wally, but you don’t really know what hot is, do you? Hot’s a storm. You ever been in a storm, Wally? I mean, a real storm. Not a thunderstorm, but a storm of fists raining down on your head. Blasting you in the face. Pummeling you in the stomach, hitting you in the chest so hard you think your heart’s gonna stop. You ever been in a storm like that, Wally? [Dennis, at this point, completely naked, screams in the horrified Wally’s face in unfathomable rage.]
It’s some sort of fugue state in the end (Mac asks who he’s talking to), but it’s prime Dennis all the same. It’s never truer than in an off episode what an asset the show’s decade of careful character-building is to Sunny, as Dennis’ rants, both at Wally, his sister (“Dee, I will slap you in the teeth”), and the suburban commuters (“Use your signal, you cow!”) deliver laughs born of Howerton’s construction of Dennis’ frightening need to imagine himself the ultimate master of every situation.
But, in the end, I’m with Mac and Dennis when they obsess over what Frank and Charlie (absent for all but a few minutes here) are up to back at Paddy’s. (“Charlie and Frank are doing something with Russian hats now.” “What is it?” “I don’t know, I couldn’t follow it at all.”) It’s Always Sunny needs to get back to basics and show it’s capable of the sort of old school classic episode it’s been able to turn out so consistently. These stunts are wearing thin—in the end, I really just want to know what’s up with those hats.
- Mac confirms that his disgusting, ancient dog, Poppins, is finally dead. It’s probably for the best. For a variety of reasons. (RIP, Dennis Junior.)
- The funniest moment for me was Dennis’ non-reaction to coming home and seeing Mac digging up the front lawn. “What’s that?” “Dog grave.” “Huh.”
- “You should move into the empty apartment in our place.” “The one where the family was murdered?” “Brutally murdered.”
- Mac, super-subtly attempting to draw Dennis aside so they can discuss Frank’s bet: “Excuse me. I have to piss. Out of my penis.”
- After Dee accuses Mac and Dennis of being like a couple of locusts, Mac responds, “Well, it’s biblical, so it’s a compliment.”
- Mac ends up inadvertently quoting back Dennis’ beloved Bryan Adams, exclaiming, “Everything I do, I do for you” in their final confrontation.
- “News flash, asshole! I’ve been hearing it the entire goddamn time!” “Then why didn’t you say something?” “Because I hate you!”
- While the initial wager isn’t particularly well-integrated into the plot, the episode’s finale makes good use of it, Frank’s evil glee in revealing that the guys have screwed themselves either way the second time this season Frank’s shown a gift for puppet master duplicity.
- The whole “old man/black man” runner associated with the bet, too, isn’t executed as sharply as Sunny traditionally does such things. (”Don’t call him black man. His name’s not black man, his name’s old man.”) It’s always funny to see the Gang’s pretensions toward political correctness punctured by their innate prejudices. The way that Howerton and McElhenney volley the two terms back and forth in the garage illuminates perfectly how the characters try to weave their way around decencies that they ultimately don’t care about. But the old man himself (played by Wil Garret), who ends up sharing Dee’s new king-sized bed with her, Mac, and Dennis, is an afterthought to the proceedings. (Extra points if he’s still living there next episode, though.)