Danny DeVito (FX)

Call it the curse of Dennis and Mac’s apartment, but, for the second season in a row, a big comic set-piece centered on their shared domicile going up in flames produces a fizzle of a season finale. It’s both puzzling and a shame, as the last two seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia have been remarkably strong for a show closing out its first decade. Hell, they’re two of the strongest seasons in the show’s history, a remarkable feat for any sitcom, never mind one whose continued artistic success depends upon so precarious a comic balancing act.

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This season has seen Sunny truly put the screws to its (I guess you have to call them) protagonists, the pressure of their individual predicaments squeezing each member of the Gang until new depths of their characters ooze right out. One of the most remarkable things about the series is how rigorously it’s held the Gang in stasis as people, while at the same time uncovering unexplored realms of their particular madnesses. Sunny is a place where no one can grow, no one can truly change—if they did, the show would collapse. And yet the creators, actors, and writers have consistently discovered entertaining new ways to have the characters’ obsessions, delusions, and just plain collective awfulness spur startlingly funny, original stories. The Gang is an infinitely productive abyss of comedy, containing squirmy multitudes.

The problem with “Ass Kickers United: Mac And Charlie Join A Cult” isn’t that it’s not funny, because it frequently is. It’s that, in a rush to provide season 10 with a big finish, the episode only skips along the surface of the Gang’s separate manias. Rather than bringing out out new shades of darkness, the episode skims the top of the abyss, with everyone’s antics playing like broader, shorthand versions of behaviors better mined for comedy before.

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Dennis’ growing, Machiavellian evil has been a thing of wonder all season, with Glenn Howerton’s delectably malevolent performance providing some of the best moments of his Sunny career. (His layered long con in last week’s “Frank Retires” was a chilling joy to behold.) Here, however, his similarly far-reaching scheme to turn Mac, Charlie, and guest lunkheads Dax Shepard and Cazzey Louis Cereghino into kettlebell-wielding vassals just doesn’t have that same Dennis Reynolds punch, coming off too cartoonish to be wholly effective. Dennis coming up with the plan for the sole reason of stopping Mac from eating his Thin Mints—only to forget all about it—is a whole different type of evil. The chain of events set off by Charlie and Mac’s enslavement to a shadowy, martial arts and fitness guru named The Master just isn’t funny enough, especially once Dee and Frank team up to exploit the scam to their advantage.

People have commented how little the show has made out of the fact that Mac and Dennis have been essentially squatting at Dee’s all year (after their place burned down in last season’s disastrous Thanksgiving fire), and this season’s finale seeks to rectify that by having Dee hijack Dennis’ cult to get Mac and Dennis the hell out of there. Fair enough, as she and Frank start writing up their own glossy leaflets (The Master must have a running tab at Kinkos) for their own nefarious purposes—or, in Frank’s case, just to see if he can get someone to eat a shit sandwich. Dee wants the cult to fix up Dennis and Mac’s bombed-out shell of an apartment (Kaitlin Olson’s shocked reaction to the extent of the damage is hilarious), while Frank has The Master demand that everyone in the cult bring in a female recruit, because Frank wants some New Age tail. (Sadly for Frank, only one pretty fitness fanatic joins the Ass Kickers, as Mac and Charlie follow the directive by getting their moms to sign up.) The growing number of Ass Kickers is part of the problem, too, with the episode’s running time then split further for gags about Mrs. Mac and Bonnie working out and sharing a soak (as ever, Sandy Martin and Lynne Marie Stewart are gamers) and the obliviously gorgeous Cindy (Brittney Alger) doing Frank’s suggestive exercises and getting sweaty.

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Meanwhile, Shepard—as Jojo, the dumbest Ass Kicker, no mean accomplishment—isn’t used much, but he employs his signature blank deadpan effectively throughout. (Dee, pointing out “the dumb one” of the Ass Kickers indicates “the one eating paint chips.” “These taste like paint,” states Jojo, happily munching away on what you know is Paddy’s lead paint.) Shepard works especially well with Charlie Day here, their shared confessions that they each have swallowed a baby toad at some point in their lives while hooked up to Dee’s version of a Scientology e-meter similarly guileless, and sort of sweet. (“It pains me to think about how scared and confused it was. Wondering why am I not home and why am I in some sort of acid pond?,” says a wet-eyed Charlie.) Plus, Jojo and Charlie’s out-of-nowhere worries about where they have to keep their feet while hooked up to the machine are timed just right to infuriate Dee to no end.

It’s just that—like the previous finale’s parade of returning, under-imagined minor guest stars (sorry Gail The Snail fans)— “Ass Kickers United: Mac And Charlie Join A Cult” brings back jokes better realized elsewhere. Dennis’ manipulation of a relapsed Mac is a perfect example. Mac’s not-so-secret struggle with his sexuality is one of the show’s richest veins of comedy, so the episode has him quit Ass Kickers in a huff after pointing to hot new female member Cindy and asking Charlie, “Is that what you want?” Spotted by Dennis watching tape of a greased up guy working out (and eating Dennis’ Thin Mints!), Mac’s body dysmorphia is putty in Dennis’ hands, just as it’s been in the post-“Fat Mac” days. The jokes are quick and obvious fanservice—not built into he framework of an episode, they come off like a crasser version of It’s Always Sunny.

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When the two Master teams show up at Dennis and Mac’s miraculously refurbished apartment (Jojo and Cereghino’s Tiny are in construction), the resulting conflagration (literally, as Dennis has brought lighter fluid for everyone to prove their allegiance) is too rushed as well. Jojo’s enthusiasm at getting to immolate himself (“Tits! I knew it!”) leads to him actually setting himself on fire, while the Gang flees and, presumably, the apartment burns to the beams once again. That’s dark, but it doesn’t land with the impact of some of the other terrible things the Gang has done. Once again, the perceived need for the big finish dilutes the comic potency the show achieves on a weekly basis. And ending the season as it does, Jojo’s death (even with poor Tiny eating Frank’s poop sandwich thrown in) isn’t the sort of majestically cruel final laugh a truly great season of Sunny deserves.

Episode grade: B-

Season grade B+

(Addendum to season grade: I’ve been thinking about it a lot—is this the best season 10 in sitcom history? Some helpful souls on Twitter have suggested the tenth seasons of Cheers and South Park, while I had to wrestle over season 10 of The Simpsons. (Ultimately that one was sunk by that lousy “Homer and Ned marry some barflies in Vegas” episode.) In the end, I pick Sunny, based on one deciding factor—degree of difficulty. Sunny’s comedy teeters on a pinpoint—too far one way, and you’re in braying yahoo humor territory, too far the other, and the characters become untenably human. It’s not surprising that It’s Always Sunny is ignored come awards season—which makes what the gang behind the Gang has accomplished that much more impressive.)

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Stray observations:

  • Don’t cry for Jojo, as he is now part of the “turtle’s dream in outer space” Frank posits in “Charlie Rules The World.”
  • It’s Rex! T.J. Hoban’s unquestioningly dim, super-buff Rex is always welcome as part of the Gang’s schemes. After being dragooned into service as The Master by Dee and Frank, his sincerely horrified “Oh shit!” when Dennis informs him the there’s an even more Supreme Master who’s angry with him is classic Rex.
  • The Ass Kickers are drinking something called “fight milk” which is heavily alcoholic and burns Dee’s couch—and it still takes three jugs worth to knock Charlie out.
  • Even replicating the high-flown language of The Master, Dee can’t help but refer to the Ass Kickers as ”dickbags.”
  • Dennis’ finger-sniffing gesture when bragging to Dee about his manipulation skills is one of the creepiest things he’s done all season.
  • Well, that’s season 10, gang. It has been, as ever, a pleasure and an honor. So ’til next year, dickbags!

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