There’s a standard recipe for an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. That’s not a knock—in its 10th season, this show is still turning out some exquisite television. And, even if Sunny occasionally takes a swing at something bolder (like last week’s stylistically daring “Charlie Work”) you can still see the basic ingredients through the embellishments. And in a less-successful episode like tonight’s “The Gang Spies Like U.S.,” the standard dish can seem a little thin.
In short, the Sunny recipe calls for: inciting incident, picking teams, parallel schemes, chaos and awfulness, humiliation, return to equilibrium. As with any great cooks, the gang behind the Gang regularly produce some delightful variations from those elements, just as, with any daring cooks, things occasionally get away from them. Or, as with tonight, the ingredients just don’t come together in a satisfying manner. Why? Well, let’s examine the recipe.
Inciting incident: There’s a new Chinese-run fish factory across the street from Paddy’s. It’s smells, and Frank is racist and therefore suspicious of their new Chinese neighbors, so, at Dennis and Mac’s instigation, the Gang is easily whipped into a pre-credits frenzy.
Picking teams: It’s rare that all five members of the Gang are on the same team (which is probably good for all of Philadelphia, if not humanity as a whole), and this time is no different, with the xenophobic unity of the group splintering along several lines. Mac and Dennis enlist Dee to infiltrate the plant, which both alienates and infuriates Frank and Charlie, who decide to spy on the others.
Parallel schemes: Dee tries to ferret out what, exactly, the Chinese fishmongers are up to by getting a job gutting fish. It does not go well, as the fish plant is just processing fish, and Dee is an idiot. Frank and Charlie attempt to find out why Mac and Dennis are being so chummy with Dee. (Charlie, incredulously, “Dee over us? You’re completely unreliable, Dee. You’re all gangly and uncoordinated. And she’s constantly gonna backsass!”) Meanwhile, Mac and Dennis have their own secret agenda…
Chaos and awfulness: …which is revealed during their dinner with Charlie, while Frank snoops at their apartment. Sure, they might not like the fish smell in the neighborhood, but they just drummed up the spying scheme to get Dee out of the apartment so they can research a certain sexual practice online (thanks to the wifi they’re stealing from the fish plant) and, presumably, masturbate. A lot. The chaos comes in when they accept Charlie’s decoy invitation to Gugino’s, the Gang’s preferred fancy dining spot (at least the only one that will still accept them), where they torment the impossibly forbearing waiter (a deliciously passive-aggressive Michael Naughton) whom they tripped into a plate of spaghetti in “The Gang Dines Out.” (Not that they remember. One of the episode’s best gags is that they come up with the exact same plan to dump him in spaghetti anyway.) It’s always funny when the Gang gangs up on some poor bastard in the service industry—as a gaggle of mostly powerless losers, they continually heap abuse on anyone they feel like they have power over. Meanwhile, if, when Dee ended up on a fish-gutting assembly line, you envisioned her getting her hair caught in some gears and her face splattered with viscera, you’re not psychic. Sunny does good slapstick, and Kaitlin Olson’s as good at it as anyone, but the whole Dee at the fish plant plot plays out in loud obviousness. (Excellent stunt work though from Dee’s double and the person driving that forklift.)
Humiliation: Dee’s desperate desire to be accepted (loved, or even acknowledged) gets multiple kicks in the teeth in this one. Apart from partial scalping and fish gut facials, she plummets from a ladder and, even from her hospital bed, is still hopeful for an invitation to the guys’ next big plan which, naturally, never comes. Olson makes Dee’s brittle neediness as funny and secretly heartbreaking as ever—Dee’s the pits, but her perpetual position at the bottom of the Gang’s totem pole is always one of Sunny’s darkest and most fruitful veins of comedy. (Dennis, responding to Dee’s excitement: “Let’s not get crazy, Dee.” Mac: “You’re always gonna be the butt of the jokes.”) Sadly, the other big humiliation of the episode is unintentional, with the revelation that Mac and Dennis are getting heavily into “Asian creampies” leading to a dinnertime misunderstanding that wouldn’t have been out of place between Jack Tripper and Mr. Furley. (You know, if you could talk about specific, explicit sex acts that sound like desserts in the 70’s.) It’s all just crudity of a type that seems beneath the show at this point, and the misunderstanding doesn’t pay off in anything but clichéd cross-talk, with Charlie’s pitch for them “combining our ingredients, making like one big delicious cream pie—some little kid licking it down, he’s paying us for the pleasure” invoking eye-rolls in spite of its intended outrageousness. The acting saves it to an extent—even an off episode can rely on this cast, so reliably, effortlessly funny that even weak material like this has its charms. When Charlie’s talk of bringing kids in to taste their cream pies (again, not their best idea) brings the expected reaction from Dennis and Mac, there are still layers, with Mac’s “You’d have to go overseas for that” met with Dennis’ look of horrified bewilderment. The same goes for Frank’s attempt to go into business making “Asian cream pies” with the beleaguered manager of the fish plant (Jim Lau) with a commercial he’s made. The Gang’s ventures into video production have yielded some all-time classics over the years, but Frank’s pitch ad partakes of the same mix of crassness and obviousness as the restaurant scene. Again—the show has done much more with much smarter filth.
Return to equilibrium: Dee, battered but hopeful in her hospital bed, still hoping the guys will include her in whatever they have cooking next. The guys leave her there after berating her for screwing up their dinner plans (her buffoonery at the plant drove the price of snapper through the roof). And Dennis’ summation, “I think you’ll find when you spy on the general population that everyone’s just masturbating constantly,” typically undoes whatever potential insight the Gang might have gleaned from their adventures, with Mac’s “And yet you’ve never heard of a cream pie” providing a weak capper. Things are reset for the next episode, no one’s learned anything, but this time out, the Gang’s ultimately pointless nonsense doesn’t amount to much.
- “You guys just hang back, do your thing, don’t eat reptiles, and just hang out.”
- Charlie Day’s performance as Charlie tries to plant a bug on Dennis and Mac with a vase of flowers is some prime Charlie work. Trying to excuse his unintentional responses to Frank’s voice in his earpiece: “Spider crawled up in there. He’s living there now. He sends his thoughts to me.”
- Same goes for his outburst at the bedridden Dee (“Yeah, snapper’s way up! Snapper’s through the roof! You can’t even get snapper! We’re out of snapper!”), and his barely audible jabbering over the phone as he clues Frank in to what “creampie” really means.
- Dennis’ “I’m to remember every man I’ve seen fall into a plate of spaghetti?” is rattled off with ultimate Dennis contempt.
- “Why do you look familiar to me?” “I’m the waiter you didn’t tip earlier.”
- Frank’s video included a shot of noted pseudo-celebrity and vicious homophobe Anita Bryant being pie-bombed by a gay rights protester in 1977. Kudos to It’s Always Sunny for making sure the moment lives on into the 21st century.