Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day (Patrick McElhenney/FX)

If there’s one thing that keeps the Gang tethered to the human world, it’s their desperate need for self-delusion, a fact that “The Gang Group Dates” mines for big laughs. It’s Always Sunny has shown remarkable discipline over its nine-plus seasons, never weakening in its conception of the five main characters as the sort of selfish, irresponsible, destructive people that would make Larry David make excuses and jump in the nearest taxi. With the marginal exception of Charlie, whose constant ability to lay waste to everyone he touches stems from a place of more innocent (though no less destructive) insanity, the Gang views every episode’s premise as the starting gun for a race to satisfy their most venal, petty desires. That the show has resisted anything like an overt explanation for how these people got the way they are is part of that discipline, but, in episodes like “The Gang Group Dates,” that collective delusion provides yet another window into the barely concealed madness beneath—especially once Rankers is introduced into the mix.

Another secret to the It’s Always Sunny formula is that rarely do all five members of the Gang unite in a single storyline. It’s good for the show’s comedy, and, frankly, good for the rest of the world. This time out, Dee’s introduction of the newest dating fads split the Gang into two groups, with Frank, Charlie, and Mac huddling up for a tag-team approach toward suppressing their worst qualities in order to attract (or not immediately repel) women, while the Reynolds siblings, as usual, head down a darker path.

Dee and Dennis derive so much of their self-worth from others’ opinions of them that the appearance of the dating site Rankers—which allows people to affix an indelible five-star rating system to recent romantic prospects online for all the world to see—is a lit fuse of comic TNT. Dee, after mistakenly assuming that the guy she hooked up with after a “buncher” group date is her new boyfriend, takes the resulting humiliation and goes on a Rankers rampage, immediately bedding half the guys in Philly and then wantonly giving them one-star ratings in order to empower herself. It’s typical Dee logic—degradation causes an irrational reaction designed to regain standing, which leads to inevitable, greater humiliation. That her plan hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of what men really want may make Dee look foolish (and, yeah, it does), but it also makes sense in the group’s ongoing dynamic. Every one of the Gang is holding onto some precariously constructed self-delusions, and all it takes is one ill-advised Jenga move for the whole thing to topple into hysterical ego self-defense.

Dennis, his self-worth defined through his standing as “erotic man” shaken to its foundations through a series of Rankers debacles, loses it even more. His initial attempt at seducing women alongside Mac and Charlie (and using the D.E.N.N.I.S. system) ending in failure, Dennis quickly becomes unglued, his signature (and terrifying) seduction acumen deserting him in an ever-more sweaty and wild-eyed quest for affirmation as “a five-star man.” The D.E.N.N.I.S. system and Barney Stinson’s playbook on How I Met Your Mother have a similarly nefarious goal in common, but Dennis Reynolds’ complete lack of empathy or self-awareness, in Glenn Howerton’s performance, is resolutely unloveable. When, grasping at the last possible straw, Dennis seeks out The Waitress to apologize for treating her like dirt for their entire lives, his outpouring of empathy might seem out of character if, even in the midst of his opening salvo, Dennis can’t help but thoughtlessly insult her.

Frankly, I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch, and it’s made me realize that I—have not been the best to women, you included. I’ve manipulated, I’ve judged, I’ve ignored your feelings for pursuits of the flesh. But now I know what it feels like to be completely unwanted—like you. And it doesn’t feel good.

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Then, naturally, he gets immediately revolted by The Waitress’ lack of Internet knowledge and her ’90s cell phone (her “I don’t have online” sends him into a blind rage), causing him to screech out of the restaurant with the easily misheard threat to “rate every woman in here!”

Meanwhile, the Charlie/Frank/Mac team, being further away from the sexual trenches as a rule, supply the episode’s comic heavy lifting. (Mac’s knee-jerk Catholic anti-Semitism notwithstanding: “I’m just concerned that the person I’m dating killed the savior of us all. That’s all! That’s all!”) After being unable to stop themselves from inadvertently submarining the D.E.N.N.I.S. system (Charlie: “Oh, he’s engaging you physically.” Dennis: “Don’t name it!”), Charlie and Mac team with Frank to try and strategize a way to minimize their worst qualities on a series of “bunchers,” with a hilarious lack of success. Mac wants to brag about his workout regime by talking about “creatine shits,” Charlie thinks talking about his decade stalking The Waitress is “a love story for the ages,” and Frank forgets his own name, when his cock ring isn’t clattering to the floor. They finally make some improbable progress, only to panic and blow it (Charlie: “My stomach’s killing me, should we talk about that?” Mac: “I have the shits, I do have the shits.”)

Luckily, at their lowest point, the shattered Dennis returns to restore them all to normal with an It’s Always Sunny version of a Jeff Winger speech from Community, as he nails down the group’s individual delusions—and the collective theme of self-delusion that runs through the Gang’s behavior.

Dennis: We’ve lost sight of what’s really important. You can’t derive your self-worth from the opinions of others. No! You get your self worth from when—[Turns to Mac.] you convince yourself that you’re tough, and that you’re straight.

Mac: I am tough.

Dennis: Or you [To Charlie.], that you have a shot with a woman that we’ve all banged, but that hates you.

Charlie: You’re saying that I’m getting closer. Nice, I’ve got a shot.

Dennis: Or you [To Frank.], that your penis could ever stay erect for more than a couple of seconds. Even with a cock ring on.

Or you [To Dee.], that you’re a powerful woman. And not a dirty, dirty whore, who bangs toad people.

Guys, your true power comes not from outside sources but from the delusional stories that you all convince yourselves of. And no one, no one can take that away from you.

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But, unlike a Community Winger speech, Dennis’ glib insights will change nothing. (And they end in a primal scream.) It’s still and ever It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, after all.

Stray observations:

  • “Why my father is talking to me with a cinch around his penis is beyond my grasp.”
  • The look on Dee’s face when Charlie asks if they’ve noticed that he’s “having a little trouble closing the deal with The Waitress” edges from shock into something like genuine terror at the depth of Charlie’s denial.
  • Through all their romantic adventures, the Gang essentially stops running Paddy’s, brushing off thirsty customers with orders to go find, “the bird woman,” “the troll man,” “the dirty one,” or “the gay one.”
  • Similarly, Dennis is aghast that his dates prefer “the men who eat trash and bang transsexuals.”
  • Dennis, after Charlie blows Dennis’ carefully baited woman-trap involving a fictitious rescue dog: “Don’t talk about the system, the system happens without them knowing about it.” Charlie, attempting to rebound: “There is no system! And there is no dog.”
  • Charlie, learning on the dating rounds, goes from talking about the 80 cats that live in his alley, to the eight cats who sleep in his sink, to a final, bland, “I don’t have any cats, but I sure do enjoy them.”
  • Mary Elizabeth Ellis continues to imbue The Waitress with an enduring, grubby empathy. Her hopeful face as Dennis says mostly—but not entirely—awful things to her is subtly heartbreaking.
  • The D.E.E. system still has some bugs to work out:

1. Do them

2. Establish low rating

3. Increase power… infuriate them… empower, it doesn’t matter—the word doesn’t matter!

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