Comedy on It’s Alway Sunny In Philadelphia is filtered through so many layers that adding one more for an episode is exponentially more challenging, for the creators and for us viewers. A hangout comedy where the people hanging out are collectively and individually the worst people in the world makes for humor that, from the outside, can seem like an endorsement of the very thing it’s satirizing. For one thing, the cast and writers of this series—now beginning their 12th season—are astoundingly adept at mining incredibly shitty behavior for laughs that should by all rights have gone stale in a quarter of that time. The Gang, as ever comprised of Sweet Dee, Dennis, Mac, Charlie, and Frank, and played by Kaitlin Olson, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Danny DeVito, have a Globetrotters level of mastery of shenanigans, crudity, comic violence, and all-around awfulness.
But there’s a reason why Sunny’s stuck around so long, and at such a high level. Firmly rooted in character, the show’s lowbrow antics simultaneously are and are more than the sum of each profanity, egregious personal insult, act of dangerous lunacy, or poorly intentioned scheme. The series, at its best, looks deep into the heart of the worst of us and finds—us. And “The Gang Turns Black” is It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia coming out swinging for the fences, an almost profligate high-concept fantasy about race in America, the Gang’s variable degrees of racism, and their seemingly boundless capacity for self-obsessed self-delusion that’s as funny as it is ambitious. Oh, and it’s also a musical.
The setup sees the Gang gathered for a movie night viewing of The Wiz alongside the Old Black Man. That’s how they refer to the wizened, mostly silent homeless guy (Wil Garret) who sleeps in Dee’s bed every night because she lost a bet to Frank last season. That nickname’s a problematic bit of offhand racism once a lightning storm and some malfunctioning electric blankets turn every member of the Gang black. Seeing that their houseguest has disappeared, Dennis says, “Go find Old Black Man. I mean Old Man.” As everyone suddenly breaks into expository musical-style song, Dennis reasonably asks, “What are the rules when you’ve just turned black and you can’t switch back.”
If the fact that the Gang can only see African American versions of themselves (played by A.J. Hudson, Farley Jackson, Leslie Miller, and Anthony Hill) in mirrors isn’t clue enough that season 12 is starting off with some off-continuity storytelling, then Charlie Day’s slyly catchy musical numbers seal the case. (We’re clearly in someone’s fantasy, and all signs initially point to it being Charlie’s.) With all five actors gamely crooning away, this is the finest Sunny musical episode since The Nightman Cometh. Although here, freed from the show’s reality, the songs are less about plumbing the depths of poor Charlie’s tortured psyche (not a troll rape in sight) and more about episode writers Day, Howerton, and McElhenney examining how the Gang’s racial attitudes are a product of their inherent, but slightly different, prejudices.
As usual, Charlie is what passes for the Gang’s heart (it’s both appropriate and sort of heartbreaking that his reflection is of a little boy, especially considering the show’s payoff). As Dennis and Mac—pre-electrocution—airily debate whether black Americans really have it so bad (Mac concedes, “We did have a black president before the orange one.”), it’s Charlie who pipes up with a defense of “them” having their own version of The Wizard Of Oz, stating, “I mean, it’s very difficult being a black man in America.” Dennis, as ever, frames himself as the Gang’s moral center, but that just means mansplaining Black Lives Matter (“I don’t know why it took them so long to realize that their lives matter—but, then again, don’t all lives matter?”) before pronouncing, “It’s kind of tough out there right now for everybody.” Then—ZAP.
Sunny has done blackface before, and I think just about as well as such a thing can be done, so I was glad to see they weren’t just going to the same provocation well here. The alternate Gang only shows up intermittently, in reflections or when we see them through the eyes of other people. After a genuinely hilarious introductory musical number where everyone attempts to suss out whether they’re in a body-swap or Quantum Leap situation (Frank, not clear on the concept, thinks Face/Off), the gang splits up. On the Quantum Leap team, Dee and Frank set out in search of Old Black Man under the bridge where Frank found him (and where he and Charlie hang out), thinking that a good deed will allow them to leap back into their own bodies. Meanwhile, Mac, Dennis, and Charlie, on team body-swap, start hunting for clues as to just which black people they need to swap back with, before being immediately arrested for trying to break into Dennis’ car.
Each team’s quest provides plenty of opportunities for Day, Howerton, and McElhenney to both raise questions about the state of race relations, and to use each character’s blind spots, biases, and, in Frank’s case, just old-fashioned racism (Frank is just really excited to use the n-word) to illuminate the various ways white Americans contort themselves to deny that racism actually exists. When the cops show up just because three guys are desperately clawing their way into Dennis’ Land Rover, Dennis’ assurance that “We get out of this stuff all the time” cuts to the three of them in the back of the squad car. (”I think we just found out a new rule.”) Later, once Mac and Dennis’ doubles turn out to be upstanding members of society and are released (“We’re church blacks!” they exclaim, excitedly), Mac speculates, “If you’re an upstanding member of society then police will treat you with respect,” to which Dennis replies, skeptically, “But I still think we were arrested due to racial profiling.”
Dee and Frank’s campaign is broader and, with its inclusion of one Scott Bakula as himself, more deliriously funny. Finding Old Black Man (who finally reveals that his name is Carl), they bring him to an old age home (Frank reassures Dee he’ll stop paying once they get their old bodies back), where he’s unexpectedly reunited with his long-lost wife. Spotting Bakula (who initially and ineffectually claims to be researching a role and not working there as an orderly), they’re pissed when he can’t get them to quantum leap and storm out, leaving Bakula (who did not get a piece of Quantum Leap, as it turns out) to wistfully sing about when he used to be a star with a Camaro who hung out with Nash Bridges and The Fall Guy. Bakula has pipes, and the whole thing just works itself up to a state of loopy bliss.
It’s when the Gang—all falling into The Wiz-esque choreography—meet back up that the episode pulls off its most audacious, and shocking, twist. Singing and dancing their way to an electronics store called The Wiz because Mac thinks that getting Dee’s shorted-out VCR fixed there will fix them as well, the Gang make a heartfelt, impassioned plea to the white owner to help them out. I mean, it’s as heartfelt as the Gang gets, Mac’s song ending with the epically tone-deaf, “If you look look inside our souls sir, you’ll see that we’re white men.” When the owner calls the cops, Charlie sings his assurance that—thanks to his recent experience talking to child welfare services at the police station—“they’re my friends.” And then the policemen mistake the toy train Charlie got earlier for a gun, and shoot him.
It’s shocking for a lot of reasons. While the episode walked the signature Sunny line of offensive and meta-offensive, the sunny (if you will) musical conceit—tunefully continuing while Charlie writhes bleeding out on the ground—doesn’t prepare us for it. But it’s the one, brief flash from the cops’ point of view right before they pull the triggers that really does it. We’re used to seeing Charlie (and the rest of the Gang) take often bloody comic abuse and laughing at both the moral comeuppance and the exquisite execution of the gag. Here, we get just a glimpse of young Charlie (AJ Hudson looks about 10) being graphically shot multiple times in the chest before it’s our Charlie on the sidewalk, still keeping up the harmony in his screams as the rest of the Gang sing, desperately, “We’ve learned our lesson and we want to go home.” (“Our white home!” “Just say home!”)
People who look to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to reinforce their point of view on social issues are doing it wrong. If an episode sees the Gang faced with, say, abortion, gun control, homophobia, sexism, or the like, the comedy is filtered through the characters’ monstrously blinkered, self-involved perspectives. Here, that means that Mac, as ever trying to catch up, leaps to a number of equally racist conclusions when trying to make sense of the contents of black Dennis’ wallet. (”What’s that rule?,” he asks, to which Charlie replies, “I think we’re not supposed to make wild assumptions about black people based on what we have in our pockets.”) When Dennis and Mac are in lockup, Dennis cautions against making those assumptions about their black selves having priors, even as he prays that they don’t have as many priors as white Mac and Dennis have. Apart from Frank (here revved up to say the n-word because “It’s probably the only chance I’ll get to say it.”), the Gang traditionally tries to assure themselves that they are not bad people, usually by calling out the others’ bad behavior right before doing something terrible as soon as self-interest demands it.
If there’s an exception to that, it’s Charlie, whose more childlike (or feral, if you will) morality often stands him outside the Gang’s more tortured moral hypocrisy. Questioned by the social worker tonight, Charlie (who they see as young Charlie) sings about his life of squalor, neglect, and abuse in such a matter-of-fact way that the adults listening are even more horrified than if they were just hearing about killing rats, sleeping with Frank (unless he brings a hooker home), and not knowing his father from the adult Charlie. It’s the Sunny balancing act at its highest difficulty when Charlie, speculating that young Charlie probably doesn’t know his father either, finds desperately desired common ground with his imaginary young, black self before realizing, “Unless he knows his father. Oh shoot, that was racist.”
Then young Charlie gets shot—blood exploding graphically from his chest—before adult Charlie dies. It’s Trayvon Martin, it’s Tamir Rice, and it’s a soul-numbing number of other black men (and children) dead at the hands of police in America. It’s a punchline that’s a punch in the stomach and, in this, yet another instance where Sunny dives into the darkest comedy and comes up with gems, it’s earned. “What are the rules?,” is the refrain all through the episode’s musical numbers, and, the show seems to say, “Fucked if we know.”
When the whole fantasy turns out to have been Carl’s after all, the expected return to cold, boorish normalcy makes sense, too. Waking up to the sight of the Gang berating him for oversleeping, Carl tries to tell them about his dream, leading Dennis to cut him off with a contemptuous, “That’s great but we don’t give a shit.” They really don’t—Carl is just the old black man who only gets to sleep indoors because they want to humiliate Dee. Sure, that Carl sees the depressed Scott Bakula as his reflection suggests a world of other possibilities (“What are the rules?,” echoes Bakula), but, on Sunny, this world isn’t where you look for things to make sense.
- Chad Coleman returns as the cheerfully disreputable Z, stealing Frank’s thunder by calling out “What’s up, my niggas?” before Frank can.
- Frank confusing Scott Bakula with Blacula is never not funny.
- The Gang has an encyclopedic knowledge of body-swap comedies, their first song seeing them rattle off: The Hot Chick, The Change-Up, Like Father Like Son, Dating The Enemy, It’s A Boy Girl Thing, 13 Going On 30, Freaky Friday, and the even the loopy indie horror-comedy Detention.
- Dee describes Quantum Leap to Frank as being “from the coke-fueled era of 80s television.”
- Day’s songs are, as usual, delightfully clever and paradoxically sweet, and the cast (even the ever-game DeVito, with his old man croak) do a stellar job of acting while singing. It’s especially funny watching them discover things about their new situation while having to sing about it at the same time.
- That the whole thing turns out to be Carl’s dream suggests there’s more to be read into the old man’s conception of the Gang than comes across in practice, although Wil Garret makes Carl’s confused disappointment that they haven’t learned anything genuinely sort-of sad.
- Naturally, Dennis’ biggest concern about his new identity is that he’s overweight.
- If there’s a sincere message, it comes, naturally, from Charlie, singing “We have a lot in common, but too much of it is fear.” Right before he gets shot.