In a great episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (and there have been a few of those this season), the show’s assorted crude shenanigans coalesce into something bigger, and darker. A really good Sunny sees the Gang’s adventures, mishaps, and petty cruelties reveal something about the way that such behavior illuminates not only the five main characters themselves, but also about the deep, grimy crevices of the collective human soul which give birth to such monsters. Not that the Gang learns anything lasting—for that would violate the very spirit of the show—but that we, as viewers, recognize our collective complicity in the characters’ selfishness, prejudice, sloth, and casual meanness. In such episodes, we have met the Nightman, and he is us.

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And then there are episodes like “The Gang Goes On Family Fight” where the show is basically just screwing around. That’s not a complaint, really—watching these characters screw around is undeniably entertaining, especially when, as here, they bring in a world-class foil to play off of—but episode plays more like an extended comic sketch starring the It’s Always Sunny characters than an episode in its own right.

Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows sketch comedy master Keegan-Michael Key a chance to practice his slow-burn straight man skills as Grant Anderson, the suspiciously Steve Harvey-like host of the suspiciously Family Feud-like game show Family Fight. As Anderson, Key does one of the things he (and his partner-in-comedy Jordan Peele) does so well, imbuing a stock role with the shimmer of inner life, his glad-handing banter hosting the inevitably disastrous game show episode allowing tiny glimpses of the reined-in disdain he has for his gig to blossom behind his smile. Key gives Anderson the sense, even on a good day, that his folksy, faux-friendly flirting is a job—never mind on a day when he’s faced with the co-mingled stupidity, destructiveness, and all-’round awfulness of the Reynolds family. (In Mac’s blithely revelatory rundown on the Gang’s web of interrelationships, he reveals that—seemingly only to secure a place in Family Fight—Frank has adopted him.)

Playing a great straight man isn’t easy, and Key finds just the right note of exasperated professionalism throughout, soldiering on while, for example, Dee (trying to position herself as a Jenny McCarthy-style pottymouth) gives needlessly dirty answers (“See what I did there? I meant chicken but I said cock”), Frank taunts the opposing family with offputting chants and dance moves (and asks to change his answer to “What’s an animal we eat that doesn’t eat us?” because he’s actually seen a lot of guys get eaten by pigs, come to think of it), Mac keeps misunderstanding every aspect of the game (“And then we spin the wheel!”), Dennis ends up fetal on the stage after his speed round meltdown, and Charlie’s nonsensical and oddly specific answers keep turning up on the board as correct. (“What is happening?,” asks a bewildered Dennis when “The Nightman” shows up as the last answer to “What is something people are afraid of?”) Key has to walk a tricky line through the episode’s escalating chaos, letting his performance build at just the right rate of mounting disgust—a task made more impressive since he’d be uncertain of how the episode would be edited—and pulls it off well. Anderson’s a broad character, but Key keeps him within the realm of game show host reality, playing his persona up for the audience while tamping down the gnawing realization that he’s doing something silly and superficial, even when he’s not trying to keep things rolling when the show’s screeners have allowed the five most disruptively terrible people in Philadelphia into his domain. As another seemingly normal human forced to interact with the Gang, Key’s host just keeps smiling and tries to keep the madness from devouring him.

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Kaitlin Olson (FX)

As to the madness itself, the episode (written by Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney) provides a solid showcase for each character to do his/her thing. Dennis’ desperate need to be validated on (national?) television is the closest the episode gets to the show’s signature dark character comedy, the harsh “wrong answer” buzzer seemingly slashing right into Dennis’ central nervous system as refutation of his self-image as a smart, successful, respectable man. His ongoing debate with Dee about how they should appear on TV is another in the show’s intermittent references to how Sunny itself is viewed (“We don’t wanna come across as lowbrow animals”), a debate encapsulated when the dizzy Dee (she’s been starving herself to look good on camera) passes out onstage, activating the electronic fart machine Dennis had talked her out of using. (“That’s about as lowbrow as it gets,” muses Mac.) Frank is, as ever, the most overtly horrible, trying to wedge in right-wing messages alongside unfettered grossness. (Hello, toe-knife callback.) Mac’s eagerness to please exasperates Anderson to no end, as Mac’s relentless inability to understand the basics of the very simple game produces reliable recurring laughs. (“You have answer in the form of a question, Frank.”)

And then there’s Charlie, and his string of impossibly correct, Charlie-specific answers. (An animal we eat that doesn’t eat us equals “dragon.” “Something people are afraid of” equals “The Nightman.”) There were only a few possible explanations as to how this could be, and the idea that Charlie forgot he took the Family Fight survey at a mall that one time is the most palatable one, even if it’s a bit predictable. (It‘s very similar to the classic The Young Ones “University Challenge” episode “Bambi.” in which a series of character-specific and ludicrously funny answers were the result of the guys monkeying with the questions beforehand.)

That being said, everyone’s reactions to Charlie’s insanity being continually validated on the big board are hilarious, and—even though they chose not to use it—his response to “Name something you groom yourself with” (“A bride!”) is some prime Charlie logic.

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If “The Gang Goes On Family Fight” is more like a long It’s Always Sunny sketch, at least it’s a funny one.

Stray observations:

  • That’s character actress Anna Maria Horsford (Amen, The Shield) as the head of the competing Barrett clan. While the poor Barretts spend most of their time off screen while the Gang does terrible things, her initial reaction to the Gang’s pre-show death stare is just right, her pleasant smile taking in the silent hate for a long beat, before she lets out a single, weirded-out “Oh, okay…”
  • The way Key grits his teeth and smiles while letting his growing fury at the Gang seep into his eyes is nothing short of brilliant. Examples:

I’m gonna move on because you’re losin’ me.

You know, I’m not gonna try to figure that one out.

Not gonna ask you any more questions except the ones that move the game along.

  • We see on the board that the Barretts had “spiders” as an answer, which no doubt would have elicited a more complicated response from Charlie.
  • Dennis, trying to walk back Frank’s horrifying man-eating pig story: “His talk of pigs and man-flesh is as confusing as it is frustrating.”
  • Debating answers to “Something people are afraid of”:

Frank: Liberal yahoos taking my guns.

Dennis: That is a political firestorm, Frank.

  • While it’s necessary that the Gang screw up Family Fight, there’s no comic logic to why Dee would break that buzzer. Sure, she’s enthusiastic, but the show must have had people that slam that thing harder than Dee does here. Key’s underplayed reaction is great, but the joke isn’t specific enough.
  • Unsure if Family Fight is a local Philly knockoff of Family Feud or just the Sunny universe’s Family Feud doing a national tour. Either way, those contestant screeners are gonna get fired.

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