Glenn Howerton (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

As It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has gone on, the Gang’s insanity has picked up layers. While the show was birthed remarkably itself, the show’s conception as a disreputable hangout comedy has gone deeper, broader, and darker, while valiantly staying on-mission watching what happens when five of the most self-obsessed and awful people in Philly (and therefore the world) feed off each others’ awfulness. Mac’s self-righteous Catholic macho pose was shown to be the result of a toxic stew of criminally bad parenting and repressed sexual urges. Dee‘s perpetual grasping also-ran status stems from a lifetime of sexist belittlement and crushed self-esteem. Charlie’s horrific childhood has left him a stunted man-child whose need for connection is as heartbreaking as it is frighteningly desperate. Frank is Frank, the grunting, rutting id of capitalist excess.

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But is Dennis Reynolds a murderer?

Sunny has delighted in seeding dark hints all through the show’s run that dangle the idea in front of us, like, well, a mouse held by its tail over a hungry cat. We know about “the implication.” We’ve seen the humiliated Dennis scrabbling in his car for the zip ties and duct tape he refers to, ominously, as “his tools.” There are the secret sex tapes, the obsession with others’ skin, his patented, far too elaborate system for bringing unwilling women into his clutches, and that time he envisioned true love as a sculpture of a woman’s severed head, which, he explains, “is supposed to represent the preservation of love forever and ever!” Dennis’ conception of himself as the intellectually and physically superior alpha-male predator has become one of the show’s most potent sources of satire, his occasional lapses into crazy-eyed, malevolent mania set off any time his towering sense of self-regard is thwarted.

But is Dennis Reynolds actually a serial killer?

The title of “Making Dennis Reynolds A Killer” suggests the show is going to delve deeper into the mystery, both of Dennis’ psyche and of what, exactly, Dennis Reynolds does when the rest of the Gang isn’t around. And it does provide some more ammunition to the “Dennis totally is a serial killer” faction, what with the revelation of childhood animal murders, and Dennis’ jittery response to his storied, murky status as a multiple “person of interest.” (“Was I a person of interest? Yeah. I’m an interesting person.”) However, “Making Dennis Reynolds A Killer” leaves the question of Dennis’ homicidal status hanging in the end, as we’re treated, instead, to an episode-long parody of true crime documentary series that focuses on the fate of the late Maureen Ponderosa.

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Kaitlin Olson (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

Yup, poor, completely bananas Maureen (Catherine Reitman, seen mostly in flashback and photos) is dead, found in an alley with a broken neck by a very confused 911 caller. (“It’s… a cat-woman!”) In addition to adding layers to the Gang’s various madnesses, Sunny has necessarily accumulated a lot of ancillary characters/victims over the years. And while some (Rickety Cricket, the Waitress, Charlie and Mac’s moms, the Lawyer, the mighty and repulsive McPoyles) have recurred to fine effect, the Ponderosa clan has always been something of a comedic dead-end. So having the cat-obsessed Maureen (sorry, Bastet, by her chosen feline name) bite it seems like a wise act of euthanasia. (Lance Barber’s perpetually pathetic brother Bill Ponderosa shows up just once, testifying that it was, indeed, super-gross to see a grown woman use a litterbox.) You see, after the dully normal Maureen married Dennis, his rejection sent her spiralling into a vortex of McPoyle-marrying and, tragically, feline body-modification, a conceit that never paid the comic dividends it was intended to. So now, her mysterious (but not really—she just fell off a roof while acting like a cat) death is the inspiration for an episode that’s equal parts Dee in a cat suit, Frank admitting to serving his Vietnamese sweatshop workers truly horrifying soup, satire of lucrative true crime miniseries like Making A Murderer and The Jinx, and moderately deep dive into the mind of one Dennis Reynolds.

The episode does some of those things better than others, with the central gimmick being both expertly executed and a little on-the-nose. Like last week’s on-point critiques of the hysterical 24-hour news cycle and internet trolls, “Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer” takes whacks at its target in too prosaic a summation. It’s not that there’s anything to quibble with Mac and Charlie’s lines about the drawn-out and manipulative nature of the genre:

Charlie, explaining why they withheld the actual surveillance footage that shows Maureen accidentally falling to her death: “People don’t want to see that, because it’s hard evidence. It’s better to actually sit on that evidence until, like, episode 10.”

Mac: “It’s like eating a bag of chips. It’s never actually gonna make you full, and at the end you’re sick. But you wanna go back for more.”

Charlie: “Murder is chips!”

It’s just that It’s Always Sunny does better when it couches its social satire (on gun control, abortion, ”political correctness,” racism, homophobia) deep in the psyches of its characters. Here, the idea that Mac and Charlie created a far-too-competent (for them) approximation of the average acclaimed crime show stretches even Sunny’s reality. (I mean, just last week we saw their persistently amateurish filmmaking in their new commercial for Fight Milk.) But the bigger problem is in how the show’s quest to provide similar verisimilitude robs some of the impact from what promised to be a more in-depth dissection of what makes Dennis tick.

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Which isn’t to say that the Making A Murderer element doesn’t provide a lot of laughs—and not a few chilling glimpses of Dennis’ mind. The razor-edged divide between Dennis’ outward charm and inner darkness makes for the goosebump-raising moment when the Philly detective (Jack McGee) on Maureen’s case leaves the interrogation room and we see Dennis’ glad-handing demeanor immediately switch to a malevolent, direct-to-camera glare. “For two hours, he never moved, he never blinked,” narrates the rattled detective, as Glenn Howerton holds our gaze in the lens. Yeesh.

And Frank’s attempts to implicate Dennis make for the episode’s biggest laughs, as both his interview and his incompetent attempts to get Dennis to confess on tape (“What the hell is this, Frank? We don’t talk on the phone.”) see him accidentally confessing to a whole lot of horrifying stuff related to that sweatshop he ran. Doubling down on its recreation of The Jinx’s most infamous scene, Frank leaves his mic pack on as he flees the interview to go to the can, only to end up confessing his crimes in hilariously elaborate detail to the cabbie he hails on the street outside. (“I’m running away from an interview because I just got busted saying a lot of illegal stuff that I definitely did… Feeding people to people, shit like that.”) The same goes for Charlie’s recreation of Brendan Dassey’s heavily coached confession from Making A Murderer, where Charlie’s mumbling, wrestling-heavy testimony (complete with Wisconsin accent) turns out to be the result of him raiding the supply of cat tranquilizers Dennis keeps in his safe. It’s a clever explanation for the gag, but, again, it puts the gag before the characterizations, which keeps “Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer” too glibly clever. It’s a well-executed gimmick, but a gimmick that takes over the show.

Meanwhile, the faux documentary allows Mac to argue with Dennis why his Borat and Mike Myers-heavy movie mockery is better than Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“It’s a spin on that.” “It’s exactly that.” “ There are no robots.” “So it’s worse?”), and provide his own drama by delivering what he thinks is damning testimony directly to camera. And Dee, in cat contacts and leotard, demands to play Maureen in the reenactment of Maureen’s meeting with Dennis (she winds up with a neck rash from the flea collar), a bit of Dee-esque fame-grubbing the deadpan narrator spotlights with, “To avoid confusion it should be pointed out…”

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In the end, while we find out categorically that Dennis had nothing to do with poor Maureen’s plummet, Howerton gives us plenty more to chew on as far as Dennis’ darkness is concerned. His repeated admissions of childhood crow-strangling are delivered beautifully. (“Well yes, there was a third crow, and a fourth, but who likes crows?”) And though his willingness to let hated ex-wife/cat-lady Maureen lick him (the autopsy finds his hairballs) is a damning twist, he’s getting 15 bucks off his alimony payments for the service, which tracks. (He also asks the cops if he can draw his own blood for the DNA test.) Season 12 has seen It’s Always Sunny exhilaratingly game to stretch itself, and “Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer” is another solid example that, nonetheless, lets its premise run away with it.

Stray observations

  • Mac, pooh-poohing Dennis’ assertion that both Fat Bastard and Austin Powers are played by Mike Myers: “Multiple characters in the same movie? What is he, a wizard?”
  • That’s Perd Hapley himself, Jay Jackson, playing it straight as a Philly news anchor covering Maureen’s death.
  • Dennis’ assertion that Frank was responsible for thousands of worker deaths gets cut off on the tape, but Frank lets slip that the conditions in his sweatshop were definitely, horrifically unhealthy. Do not eat the soup.
  • Doped-up and wrestling-addled, Charlie implicated himself in Maureen’s murder, claiming to have given her “choke slams, back breakers, sharp shooters, cripplecreek ferrys…”

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