It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a unique and delicate comedy ecosystem. Creating and maintaining a world in which five characters incessantly perform the most cruel, ignorant, selfish, and downright stupid acts, either on each other or the innocent denizens of Philly, and having the results consistently produce classic TV comedy is an accomplishment that puts creators Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton in the rarified company of great showrunners. In their hands, and those of the cast and writers (many of whom pull double duty), what could (and by all rights should) be shrill, offensive, and spirit-crushing TV, instead often utilizes a remarkably steadfast discipline to create something transcendent. It’s a masterful balancing act where the worst of humanity is played out (by the worst of humanity) in an ever-rotating—but never-changing—roundelay of pain and comedy. At its best, It’s Always Sunny strips back the fragile pretenses of civilized behavior to reveal the venal, black heart of humankind. And, apart from the work of the actors, we laugh because we, wincingly, see ourselves in there.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that the announcement that Game Of Thrones writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were coming on board to write this episode scared the hell out of me. It’s not that they’re not good writers (I like Game Of Thrones just fine); it’s that they’re outsiders to this world, and, self-proclaimed huge fans as they are, and as enthusiastic as they apparently were about writing for the show, they’re not immersed in it on a creative level every week. Couple that with the much-hyped Flowers For Algernon/Charly/Charlie plotline they came up with, and there’s an additional level of concern that the show was handing over the keys to a pair of attention (and ratings)-grabbing guest writers at the expense of what makes the show run so smoothly. When It’s Always Sunny falters (I would point to much of season six), it’s due to a seemingly minute mis-calibration in character and tone that throws the whole enterprise out of whack. The improbable alchemy of awful people doing awful things transformed into resonant hilarity curdles into crudity and ugliness. In the hands of a pair of first-timers, no matter how accomplished, there was disaster on the wind—fortunately, the episode itself, while beset with a few tonal issues, worked out just fine, giving Charlie Day a chance to really show his stuff for the first time this season.
The setup is that the Gang (minus Frank) has volunteered for a psychological study at the local university. An intelligence study, it provides Dennis another opportunity to belittle Mac and Dee, especially when they trot out John McClane as their exemplar of street smarts versus Dennis “book learning.” (I’d say book learning has the edge in Dennis’ rebuttal, “Mac, you do realize that John McClane is a fictional character. Who’s voicing lines written by screenwriters who—almost certainly—went to college.”) But when the pair of scientists running the experiment ( Jimmy Ouyang and Game Of Thrones’ own Burn Gorman) see Charlie about to smash their lab rat and then fail to realize, as the rat most assuredly has, that the piece of cheese under the red lightbulb dispenses electric shocks (even after three attempts to secure it), they know they’ve found the ideal subject for their experiment—a trial of their new intelligence-boosting pill.
As a concept, the whole “smart pill” thing was part of my concern. On the one hand, if the pill actually worked, then I was prepared to call foul—apart from the occasional idea that the world is just the dream of the cosmic turtle, It’s Always Sunny is not The Simpsons. What’s possible in It’s Always Sunny’s world has to be possible in ours, and if the new guys were going to be allowed to trot out some magical nonsense, then the show was in big trouble. Thankfully, that’s not the case, as instead the whole setup is a completely different experiment wherein the scientists’ goal is to discover if Charlie, removed from his squalid milieu, plied with placebos, and given false confidence in his abilities, would get any smarter. As grateful as we can be that the whole thing was a swerve away from sci-fi, it does create an odd tension in the episode that impedes the comedy somewhat, at least on first viewing—once viewers realize that there’s no real smart pill (happened pretty fast), the rest of the action is all about waiting for what the big reveal is going to be.
Luckily, Charlie’s non-magical transformation is pretty great, giving Charlie Day a chance to bring some new colors to Charlie. As the scientist ultimately explains, the only measurable effect of their experiment is “a dramatic uptick in arrogance,” a transformation that produces huge laughs as Charlie, listening to two walkmen (one Mandarin, one Beethoven) simultaneously, immediately adopts a breezily condescending tone towards the rest of the Gang (“Ha ha—good pleasantry. Cute.”) Day is outstanding, especially as his performance must suggest the possibility that Charlie is actually getting smarter without ever really knowing things that Charlie couldn’t know. I especially liked the Mandarin gag, where its ultimately revealed that Ouyang’s scientist has been engaging in full conversations with Charlie’s gibberish—like all of his other “new abilities” (speed chess, Shakespeare, the revolutionary technique allowing cats and spiders to communicate), Charlie fully believes he can speak Mandarin and so he spends entire conversations talking nonsense to a native speaker in the complete confidence that he’s being understood. The show’s forays into the mind of Charlie Kelly are its most fascinating and affecting narrative tools, and there’s a fair amount of pathos in the way he’s manipulated here (these scientists—or, as the Gang deems them “science bitches”—really come off as jerks). Sure, Charlie turns into a high-handed, supercilious ass when he thinks he’s outgrown the Gang, but, honestly, he’s not wrong. He might not gain any actual intelligence from the placebo, but he gets a glimpse of just how ignorant, mean, and exploitative of him they are.
That the Gang needs Charlie to be its whipping boy is thrown into stark relief when, finding themselves now having to do the “Charlie work” of catching the huge rat loose at Paddy’s, Dennis, Dee, and Mac make a hash of it. Mac has a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, Dee gets her “man hands” stuck in a hole in the wall, and Dennis’ plan (involving “seducing” the rat with brie and the smooth, smooth sounds of Peter Cetera) is just plain disturbing (although Mac seems to get into it), and they all become irrelevant when the three start huffing the gasoline they were going to use to free Dee’s hand. When Frank comes upon them, whacked on inhalants and watching cat and mouse cartoons for pointers (Mac: “The cat keeps getting hurt”), he accurately sums up the Gang’s terrifying symbiosis. “Charlie is our foundation. Where does a foundation belong? On the bottom. We gotta go grab Charlie and drag him back down into the sewer where he belongs!” Man…
It’s in the treatment of the Gang (and of the Waitress, bribed by Frank to lure Charlie back), that I think the new guys make their worst misstep. In order to set off Charlie’s supposed new smarts, Benioff and Weiss make everyone else a shade too broad and dumb. Even before they get into the high-test, Dennis, Dee, and Mac’s rat-catching adventures portray them as more inept than usual (Dee’s hand is only stuck because she won’t let go of the rat trap in the wall), and the poor Waitress is turned into a ditsy chatterbox who says “like” for every third word. It’s not a disfiguring flaw—these are not smart people—but jarring nonetheless. And the final scene, where Charlie is humiliated in front of a scientific conclave, sees the Gang boorishly heckling the proceedings—which is not a surprise—but their abuse (“You science bitches couldn’t even make my friends more smarter!”) comes across as too dumb even for them.
Finally, as must always happen on It’s Always Sunny, things return to where they started, with Charlie shaking off both his pretensions and, more sadly, his aspirations (however lunatic and misguided), and joining the Gang as they march off to watch Police Academy: Mission To Moscow as the movie’s triumphant theme plays them out. And while it’s impossible not to feel some solidarity with the Gang as they enthusiastically welcome Charlie back (those scientists really were dicks), there’s also the traditional twinge of sadness whenever the show allows Charlie a little glimpse of what life could be like outside of a world where he’s the trampled upon foundation of the Gang’s perpetual cruelty.
- Charlie’s superciliousness is funny throughout, but the pinnacle is his aside to the Waitress, “Do I have to put on training wheels for this conversation, or…”
- The relationship between Frank and Charlie, as exploitative as it may be, always looks pretty fun. Mongolian barbecue and a lesser Police Academy sequel? That’s a Gruesome Twosome Tuesday!
- Also, when Charlie asks if Frank will take him back after all he’s done, Frank’s “With all my heart!” is actually kind of touching.
- The lab rat’s name is Armitage Shanks which is the name of a famous British toilet manufacturer.
- Charlie’s pre-pill response to the scientist’s suggestion (Gormley is delightfully condescending throughout) that he choose the piece of cheese which will not give him electric shocks—“I want this cheese”—says a lot about Charlie.
- Of course, the Mandarin gag doesn’t work if the viewer speaks Mandarin.
- Charlie’s self-confidence, as illusory as it may be, leads him to some heady books on tape—I had to look up the word “pataphysical” ("the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.”)
- Charlie’s point that Stephen Hawking is the Lady Gaga of the science world actually makes some sense.
- The flashback to Charlie’s mathematical equation is a perfect example of Charlie logic: “Nine plus nine equals box, and that’s where the cat goes!”
- Supposedly, McElhenney has his sights set on Matthew Weiner as another dream guest writer. Thoughts?