Charlie Day, Wade Boggs (FXX)
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It’s been more than a year since The Gang last entertained us with some appallingly hilarious behavior, which makes the in medias res device of the 10th season premiere “The Gang Beats Boggs” such a kick. The Gang hits the ground running, or rather speeding down a runway, chugging beers in a quest to beat legendary baseball hitter Wade Boggs’ apocryphal record of downing 50 (or 60, or 70) light beers on a single transcontinental flight (and then going 3-for-5 against the Mariners). And while the conceit suffers from a touch of lazy plotting absent from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia at its best, the episode is a solid showcase for all the characters (and actors), and a welcome and promising harbinger of what’s to come in the world of—let’s say it together—the worst people in the world.

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What keeps this show from becoming mere yahoo spectacle is its gleeful knowledge that its five protagonists are, indeed, the pits. Even then, the constant recalibration of audience empathy is, in the best episodes, fiendishly designed to reel viewers back onto the precipice of thinking that Mac, Charlie, Dee, Dennis, and Frank might have some redeeming qualities—before reminding us all that none of the five possess, at bottom, anything like selflessness, love, or empathy. (Charlie comes closest, but mostly due to his status as the Gang’s designated human piñata.) So when the Gang makes someone else’s life miserable, it takes some of the squirm out of their actions because, of course that’s what happens to any actual human unfortunate enough to get sucked into their orbit. And when the Gang loses, which they almost always do, it takes the sting out of their humiliation because, of course we want to see them that way. The five actors are by now so attuned to both their characters and the show’s underlying philosophy that this tightrope balancing act has come to look easy. And even when, as tonight, they wobble a bit, they still come away as unscathed as ever. Which is to say, very scathed for regular people with souls and all, but right back in the sweet spot of squalid degradation where they live.

So it makes perfect It’s Always Sunny sense that we first see the Gang boarding the plane, Dee, Dennis, Charlie, and Frank sporting plain white t-shirts with crosshatched magic marker counts of the number of beers they’ve already downed. (Mac, having lost the chugging contest that spawned the idea, has appointed himself commissioner.) The fact that this, and all of the numerous subsequent air travel no-nos the Gang commit throughout are allowed to take place for the sake of the gags is the episode’s biggest weakness—a classic It’s Always Sunny debacle always has stakes. Here, the forbearing, laissez-faire attitude of both the poor flight attendant (a nicely deadpan Emily Wilson) and the Gang’s poor fellow passengers is too flabbily conceived to heighten the comedy. (The passengers, except when called upon directly to react, just blankly ignore the grotesqueries transpiring all around them.) And while Charlie’s response to Mac’s elaborate plan to retrieve the beers he’d stowed in the cargo hold once the Gang’s finally been cut off lampshades this fact humorously (“I think you could, like, anytime—this stewardess is, like, not on the ball”), the central flaw remains.

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That being said, as a simple showcase for the cast to act drunk, and gross, and hilarious, the premise does its job. Meeting the Gang already red-eyed and hammered means there’s nowhere for them to go but down, in weirder and pitch-perfectly specific directions. Dee, having rushed out to a shocking lead with 29 beers under her belt before the plane leaves the ground, gives Kaitlyn Olson all the opportunity she needs to bring the desperately competitive madness she’s so great at out into the open in pursuit of “Boss Hogg’s drinkin’ record.” As ever, Dee may have once understood the reasons why she got onto this particular self-destructive path, but, once on, it becomes all about satisfying the crazy-eyed self-worth black hole that drives her. And, as ever, her payoff comes in ultimate humiliation, her record-breaking 71st beer seeing her left, in a peerlessly ass-up comic posture, being carried on the baggage carousel into the bowels of LAX.

Dennis uses his alcohol intake to fuel his terrifyingly astute pursuit of sexual conquest, unleashing a Cumberbatch-worthy dissection of why only one of the 98 women on board is suitable to join him in the mile-high club—before settling for the low-hanging fruit of the agreeably dim “filth” (a funny turn by Jennifer Elise Cox) when things don’t go his way. Glenn Howerton continues to make the yawning chasm that is Dennis’ narcissism both very funny and deeply unsettling, epitomized by his viciously abrupt segue in describing his last-minute sexual swerve to Frank (before being interrupted by his agreeable “date,” mid-sentence):

“Boggs, he didn’t hit it out of the park every single time at bat. He just tried to get the ball in play and hope he could squeak it through the hole. And I just squeaked it through multiple holes, if you know what if saying—don’t, you.”

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Frank is…Frank. As much as the paterfamilias of the Reynolds clan abets stunts like this week’s Boggs-beating journey with his wealth, and as much as TV legend Danny DeVito’s willingness (one might say “gleeful willingness”) to do all manner of gross crap for the sake of the show remains ballsy, I maintain he’s best in smaller doses. It’s Always Sunny often goes broad, but Frank is almost always the broadest element, which can get tiresome. Thankfully, apart from near-lethally drugging a fratboy (whose temerity in ordering one beer threatens Frank’s need for all the beer on the plane), Frank flames out at 19 beers, signaled by some truly copious DeVito drool.

Mac, as ever, attempts to turn humiliation into self-aggrandizement, his failure at the pre-show chugging contest seeing him thrusting himself into a leadership role as “the Bud Selig of the group.” (“Nobody did,” says Charlie, “You just started calling yourself that.”) Mac in denial is always a good look for Rob McElhenney, and having him stay sober allows for the episode to have a lone, increasingly exasperated voice of reason (always a necessary It’s Always Sunny counterpoint), but all the baseball stuff comes down a little ordinary. (Mac, seeing Dee take greenies and Dennis and Frank start gambling, lands the on-the-nose line, “As the Bud Selig of the group it’s my job to quietly sweep this under the rug before anyone finds out.”) But sensible Mac wrings some great, underplayed laughs trying to herd the rest of the Gang into his conception of what a drunken contest to beat a baseball player’s infamously silly beer-drinking record should be.

Charlie and Mac have the single funniest exchange of the episode, with Mac’s attempt to explain his plan to retrieve those 100 checked beers from storage going right into classic Marx Brothers territory:

Mac: We’re not on a widebody DC-10 for nothing.

Charlie: Right—we bought tickets.

Mac: Yes, but we chose a widebody DC-10 on purpose.

Charlie: To get up in the sky!

Mac: Ok, let me walk you through it.

Charlie’s position as the heart of the Gang—it’s clueless, filthy, undoubtedly wormy heart—has made Charlie Day’s performances the highlight of many an episode, and here his cheerful carelessness about why they’re doing the whole thing in the first place is typical—and typically endearing—Charlie. As always, it’s dangerous to let oneself get too close to Charlie (and the show deftly keeps him on the disreputable side of loveable), but his “Can we just drink the beer and hang out? Boggsy didn’t drink six gallons of beer because he was looking to break some record” in response to Mac’s escalating stridence is the sort of guileless statement that sets him apart.

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In the end, Frank (passed out) and Dennis (fled in North Dakota to escape his clinging conquest) are out, Charlie and Dee tie with an incomprehensible 71 beers each, Dee forfeits due to baggage carousel unconsciousness, and Mac allows for Charlie’s one (impressively solid) liner to left field to stand for Boggs’ 3-for-5 because Mac only brought the one ball and it’s too far to go and pick it up for another pitch. “The Gang Beats Boggs” reintroduces the Gang after such a long absence with an agreeably beery silliness.

Stray observations:

  • Charlie’s repeated references to the very-alive, guest-starring Boggs “rolling in his grave” are, in Day’s delivery, never not funny.
  • Both Dennis and Mac assert, “According to movies like Executive Decision and Passenger 57, there’s a secret hatch on every plane that allows me to travel freely throughout the plane” in order to justify their below-deck adventures.
  • “You’re 40 beers back, bitch! Just sit back and enjoy the show.”
  • Emulating his conception of Boggs’ signature eating habits, Charlie tucks into an entire rotisserie chicken and orders a rum and Coke in the middle of the contest. “Man batted .328 lifetime, I’m sure he ate some rum and Cokes too.”
  • “You got it, Boss Hoss.”
  • Charlie, after the Gang is finally cut off: “Dude that’s not good. I can’t stop drinking now—I’ll probably die.”
  • “Granted, it’s not a particularly remarkable garment—from the J. Crew 2012 collection. Furthermore, if she were standing you’d notice she’s got no panty line, giving me about five extra seconds to enter her swiftly before she realizes I am not the answer to her problems.” Dennis somehow gets creepier and creepier.
  • “Her blouse is covered in cigarette burns. And I imagine beneath that blouse, you’ll find copious amounts of road rash, probably sustained in some sort of off-roading accident. Which would also explain her limp—although I expect they’re unrelated. Either way, she’s North Dakota trash through and through and far below a gentleman such as myself.” See?
  • “I mistook that girl for Great Plains trash. She’s actually desert trash—I should have picked up on all the multiple gecko tattoos, so that’s on me. Anyway, I’d rather stay in this barren wasteland of a state than spend one more minute with that filth.” And—there’s the capper.
  • As himself in Charlie’s drunken hallucination, Boggs wears a legally distinct version of a Red Sox cap. His acting has not significantly improved since that Cheers episode, but he remains a good sport.
  • Welcome back to the A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of season 10, gang! 14 months was way, way too long, so jump on into the comments and let’s get weird.

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