Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Season 12 has seen It’s Always Sunny stretch itself. And while the show’s stylistic ambitions have been mostly successful (sometimes transcendently so), “The Gang Tends Bar” shows that there are still tremendous rewards to be reaped from simply going back to the basics. Written by Megan Ganz, the episode shows that an average day at Paddy’s Irish Pub can be a scabrous revelation. It’s just about flawless.

Of course, an average day at Paddy’s involves: Frank and Charlie jealously squabbling over Frank’s friend Jerry, a tapeworm Frank inflicted upon himself; Dee snapping into an immediate, violent rage upon discovering that Paddy’s new regular has also been nicknamed Dee; the yuck puddle; Cricket smoking angel dust in the bathroom; Frank sucking a disgusting-looking clog out of the soda gun line; an anthrax scare; surreptitious poisoning; 80 percent of the Gang becoming obsessed with the mysterious crate left in the alley behind the bar; and Dennis, equally mysteriously, becoming obsessed with everyone actually doing their jobs for once.

First, and before we get into the meat of the episode, a round of applause for the yuck puddle. Whenever we get to see the inner workings of the Gang’s pub clubhouse, it points to the city of Philadelphia having the laxest safety and health inspections in America. Here, what first seems like a passing joke turns into a riotously funny demonstration that Paddy’s is the source and home of all Philly’s grime and ooze and horror. Attempting to clear out the uncharacteristically heavy Valentine’s Day drinking crowd (so they can go inspect that crate), Charlie suggests that he just put a fan in front of the “yuck puddle” so the smell will drive them away. Now, we’ve never heard of this yuck puddle before, and Charlie mentioning it so casually as just another Paddy’s feature is hilarious. But later, Dennis, still maniacally trying to keep the Gang on task, orders Charlie (who else?) to clean up said yuck puddle, and the details drop out in ever-escalating comic detail.

Mac, on the crate: “Oh, but it’s just such a mystery, though!”

Dennis: “What about the mystery of the yuck puddle. What the hell is that thing? Why won’t it dry up? Why won’t it harden?”

Charlie: “It’s shifts. I’ve seen it shift.”

Dennis: “He’s seen it shift! We shouldn’t have an amorphous, shifting blob in the bar!”

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They really shouldn’t. Especially once we see the thing (in the same scabby bathroom where a mysterious, seemingly bottomless sinkhole once opened up). It’s a toxic, sludgy gray-green, and subtle bubbling noises emanate from it as Charlie and Mac try in vain to attack it with a mop.

Mac: “Why isn’t it getting any smaller?”

Charlie: “Can I be honest dude? I think this thing’s alive.”

Mac: “That must be what all the bubbling’s about. It’s trying to communicate.”

Charlie: “It definitely feeds. I’ve found bones in it, man.”

Outstanding.

Meanwhile, the episode is driven by Dennis’ irritable, unexplained quest for a little professionalism, a mystery that the rest of the Gang speculates on with the expected, borderline lunatic logic. The running theory is that Dennis just hates Valentine’s Day because, as Mac puts it, “It’s an entire day dedicated to feelings, something that Dennis doesn’t have.” But then he makes the leap that Dennis’ whole attitude is just a plot to get the Gang to open up and settle their personal problems (or, “mop up the yuck puddle of emotions”). And there are problems, some real, some deeply delusional. Frank and Charlie are really having a tug-of-war over that tapeworm, so to speak, and Mac is convinced that Dennis is now uncomfortable with him since Mac came out of the closet. Responding to Charlie’s assertion that Dennis—and everyone on Earth—has always known, Mac snaps that that’s impossible “because I show no outward signs of being gay, and that’s just the end of the story, okay?” (The seamless way Mac has immediately transformed his newly revealed homosexuality into another form of desperate rationalization for why his friends find him irritating is brilliant.)

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While Frank tries to unclog the soda line with his mouth (the way that clog almost but never finds its way into Frank is squirmily funny), he and Dee also theorize that Dennis couldn’t possibly be actually invested in running Paddy’s like a competent business. After agreeing that Dennis has only gotten more “cranky and irritated” (or “rage-filled and rapey” as Frank chimes in) over the years, Dee, too, makes the intuitive jump that Dennis is trying to teach them all about how Valentine’s Day used to be one of the Gang’s favorite holidays, “until we turned on each other with the hate mail.” See, the Paddy’s suggestion box gradually turned into a “hateful notes covered in hearts” box, culminating, as we find out hilariously, with an anthrax scare that shut it down for good. Already angry that she made Charlie a valentine (which he has not reciprocated), Dee storms off to “unclog the lines” of her relationship with Charlie, although not before Frank offers way, way more information about how he got Jerry in the first place. (Halfway through a tale involving the “dark web,” a stranger’s poop, and a spoon, Dee blurts, “Stop answering questions I’m not asking!”)

When all this misguided enthusiasm for closure comes together, “The Gang Tends Bar” leaps into giddy perfection. First Charlie, cackling like a Bond villain, reveals that the valentine’s chocolates he gives to Frank (which Dee also scarfs down in a jealous rage) contain anti-tapeworm medicine. (Charlie Day’s delivery of “Oh, but I would, Frank! I knew you’d never take the pills willingly, but Jerry, Jerry likes sweet doesn’t he?” is a masterful glimpse into the mad core of Charlie’s love.) Rushing out of the office, the three then drive out most of the customers by ranting about poison. (Dennis attempts to quell people’s fears before Charlie loudly proclaims, “And there’s plenty more poison where that came from!”) Dee runs for the suggestion box, and pulls out the still-unsecured baggie of anthrax, forcing Charlie to respond to her generosity with a song. The joke that Charlie couldn’t think up simple rhymes while making Frank’s valentine comes back hilariously, as he improvises a frightened ditty of love and friendship, rhyming, among other things, “You’re the honey a bee makes” with “You’re the sugar on the pound… carrot.” Sated, Dee puts down the anthrax and appears genuinely moved by Charlie’s gesture—until she mocks him for saying he loved her.

“The Gang Tends Bar” deploys a series of “emotional uncloggings” that allow the actors to sell the hell out of would-be touching moments like this while allowing us to recognize just how insane these five people are. Kaitlin Olson makes Dee being choked up by Charlie’s (forced) declaration unnervingly believable. Charlie and Frank’s estrangement over Jerry is, too. Charlie reveals that he didn’t say Frank was “flabby,” (which led to Frank infesting himself with a poop-borne parasite), but had only mentioned that, in increasingly nauseating detail, “I said you were crabby because you smelled crabby because you’d been eatin’ all those sewer crabs, man!” (And there go the few remaining customers.) Mac’s happy adjustment at being finally out of the closet slams shut with the realization that his homosexuality is yet another blind spot in his own self-image. And when we finally find out Dennis’ reasoning behind the whole “actually do your jobs like rational human beings” kick, it’s the greatest double-whammy of all.

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Dennis responds to everyone’s “no feelings” taunts, ranting, “It’s because you assholes never got me anything. And I have feelings. Of course I have feelings. I have big feelings, okay? And it hurts. Okay? And so that’s why I hate Valentine’s Day, and that’s why I put anthrax in the box.” Sure, it turns out that’s just powdered sugar, but Glenn Howerton makes Dennis’ pain so real that it only makes the absurdity of what happens next fairly explode in empathy dissonance. Mac urges Dennis to open that alley-crate after all, his earnest desire to prove to his friend that the Gang does care about him setting us up for the stomach-dropping shock that Mac has gone on the “deep web” as well—and bought Dennis a rocket launcher.

Mac’s wet-eyed response to Dennis asking how he knew what to get him squeezes in the touching and the terrible in rapid succession: “Because I know you, man. And also, you casually mention RPGs like a weird amount.” With tears in his eyes, Dennis returns the favor, stating, “You figured out the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the entire world and you got it for me. And.. it’s perfect.” It is, yes, a perfect encapsulation of how even the Gang’s unselfish instincts simply come from an alien plane of lunatic morality. Sure, the seller forgot to pack a missile, but the sight of Dennis taking careful, enraptured aim with the seriously dangerous weapon is just right. “The Gang Tends Bar” hilariously reestablishes that, in Paddy’s, love, hate, and insanity are all part of the same inexplicable yuck puddle.

Stray observations

  • After we know Jerry’s true nature, this exchange between Charlie and Frank to open the episode becomes even crazier: “If Jerry jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?” “What bridge?”
  • Dennis, after Charlie proposes dyeing the bar’s beer pink for the holiday: “All these people are in here today because they don’t have people who love them and get them shit on Valentine’s Day. So can we not remind them of that with inky beer?”
  • Jozella Reed plays new Dee (eventually driven away by anthrax), who, even though her name is Dottie, is the guys’ favorite Dee. They even have a chant that Dee struts in to, imagining, wrongly, it’s for her.
  • Mac, trying to figure out Dennis’ angle on the whole “run a bar” thing: “Oh, you’re saying we do like a booze for money type scheme. Who came up with that?” Dennis: “Whoever came up with the idea of a bar!”
  • Frank won’t play Nightcrawlers with Charlie any more because he doesn’t want to offend Jerry.
  • The running gag where everyone thinks how to “trick” someone else into clearing out the soda gun leads to another prime Dennis explosion: “This is the problem. You all think work is tricking people. It not. It’s just your job. So can you please go do it. And all the time that we’ve talked about tricking each other into doing our jobs, we could have made a thousand drinks.”
  • After that one enthusiastic thumbs-up to the male stripper last week, it’s gratifying to see the show commit fully to Mac’s gayness, especially since the episode shows how coming out doesn’t make Mac any less insufferable to be around.
  • “No, you were fat as shit pal, but I loved you that way, Frank.”

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