An It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia bottle episode, locking the Gang together in close proximity under extreme pressure, should be a recipe for potentially explosive comedy. I’m thinking of episodes like “The Gang Is Held Hostage,” where trapping these people together alongside their assorted manias and collective character faults is the catalyst that causes those carefully delineated defects to feed off of each other in a frenzy of magnified awfulness. Unfortunately, “The Gang Gets Quarantined” just isn’t on that level—maybe because the specter of invisible flu germs just can’t compare comedically to a trio of rampaging McPoyles.
The premise is set up before the credits, with Frank’s agitated announcement that the nice old man in his apartment building has died from Philly’s current flu epidemic. As the rest of the Gang is deeply invested in their rehearsal for a contest to open for Boyz II Men, band leader Dennis is all too receptive to Frank’s panicky suggestion that they all quarantine themselves in Paddy’s for the duration of the epidemic, in order to save their voices for those sweet, sweet harmonies. It’s as perfunctory a setup as you can get for a bottle episode, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—if the absurdity of the situation is part of the joke. Here, however, as an excuse to pen the Gang in together, there’s too little comic momentum built up before the Gang is having what Charlie refers to as a “quarantine party,” and too little done with the premise once it’s been established. David “Rickety Cricket” Hornsby’s script, to keep the bottle metaphor chugging along, doesn’t shake things up enough, so that when the cap is finally removed, we get an anticlimactic pop instead of the comic explosion we’d been expecting.
Part of the problem is that the script almost immediately starts isolating the members of the Gang from one another. Dennis is the first to go, when his illicit pizza delivery causes Frank to lock him in the men’s room. (“You’re gonna quarantine me inside a quarantine? C’mon!”) The episode has already set up Dennis as the potential antagonist, so removing him so quickly is puzzling, especially as Glenn Howerton builds up some classic Dennis comedy, both in his martinet’s approach to their singing (“You think ‘fine’ is good enough for the Boyz II the Men?!”) and his traditional assertion of physical superiority, which he demonstrates with maximum, crazy-eyed creepiness by claiming to be in complete control of his penis’ state of readiness at any time. Extra hilarity/creepiness points for tying said demonstration into the Boyz II Men lyrics they were working on (“Not too hard… not too soft.”) Howerton’s Dennis is like the anti-Chris Traeger when he gets like this, his messianic overconfidence in his physical gifts manifested less as a cheerful standard to be imitated than a horrifying übermensch exemplar to be worshipped. (Ill Dennis’ later boast that “If I found myself getting sick, I would simply say, ‘SICKNESS BE GONE!!!’” even mirrors Rob Lowe’s famous “Stop… pooping.”) Howerton is so good here that shunting him off to the sidelines for much of the episode saps some of the energy from the proceedings—although it does highlight how the various groupings on the show can produce unique rewards.
Sometimes, when Dennis’ overbearing skepticism is out of the mix, the Charlie, Mac, and Dee triumvirate can go a little off the rails, and their Dennis-less planning for their stage debut quickly spins out of control, with Mac’s suggestion that they all wear “the same costume” leading to Charlie envisioning them crammed into a huge, Voltron-like suit, and Dee whipping up an increasingly convoluted, sympathy-garnering backstory for them all. Charlie and Mac’s enthusiastic approval (“A group of Southern, stuttering army vets, with like a religious bent!” “Religious, stuttering army carnies!”) leads to Charlie promoting Dee “to the head of the suit.” It’s a funny bit (I could watch Kaitlin Olson stutteringly riff all day, with special props to her delivery of the line, “He got throat cancers from eatin’ some bad pussy.”) It’s just that, like much of the laughs in the episode, this sequence doesn’t build—it’s funny on its own, but it exists largely in isolation.
The same goes for Mac and Charlie’s trip to the convenience store to procure supplies. (It still counts as a bottle episode, since they venture out encased in Charlie’s mom’s homemade hazmat suits, thus taking the bottle with them. My metaphor, my rules.) Removing Mac and Charlie from Paddy’s also removes some of the pressure, especially when a demonstration of his “Fly Girl” dance moves rips a hole in Mac’s suit, literally letting his air pressure escape (man, this metaphor has legs, I’m telling you…) Upon retuning to the bar, the guys find that Dee has also been exiled to the bathroom, since Frank caught her scarfing down delivery pizza and forbidden beers in the air ducts. Mac soon follows, as Charlie, increasingly cowed by Frank’s mounting anti-germ hysteria, rats him out on the suit breach, It’s a structural flaw, as each new group dynamic isn’t given time to gel before being broken up—things just happen too quickly to build up any comic momentum. Especially when it comes to Frank.
While it’s a trenchant comment on the Stephen King-led dictum that, in any catastrophic situation, someone will immediately succumb to dangerous religious mania, Frank’s role as driving plot device here is a problem. As I’ve said before, bless Danny DeVito’s weird little heart: He’s a gamer, willing to do literally anything for this show including, in this case, being transformed into a bald, slime-covered slug-like version of himself, slathered in hand sanitizer and babbling about “purity.” But the conception of Frank’s character as a gross little homunculus is one the show goes to a little too readily at times, and when it’s laid on too quickly as here, it smacks of easy, cruel laughs. It’s not objectionable to have Frank go disgustingly mad, it’s just done too fast and artlessly to make comic sense. (I also call lazy on how Mac and Charlie get the Outbreak suits—presumably they were at Charlie’s mom’s house and not in the bar, rendering their whole function pointless.)
Eventually with everyone exiled to the bathroom except Frank (Charlie nonchalantly exiles himself to escape Frank’s craziness), the Gang realizes that they don’t have the flu at all, but are just undergoing alcohol withdrawal from not drinking for a week. The shared realization that they are all alcoholics (Dennis hides a flask of creme de menthe behind the jukebox) is exactly the sort of comedy/tragedy balancing act the show is so good at, as the somber confession gives way immediately to overeager rationalization so that nothing has to change. Dennis and Charlie’s exchange is especially poignant. Charlie: “Oh. So what do we do with that information?” Dennis: “What do you do with any information, you stuff it deep down inside and keep an eye on it.” And Mac’s desperately cheery admission that, “I’m not gonna stop drinking— I physically can’t at this point!” is right behind. It’s like a referendum on our enjoyment of the show itself—if we wanna laugh at the awful people’s funny behavior, we have to accept that they’re killing themselves for us to do so.
- Frank’s objection to ordering in pizza comes straight out of porn: “Especially not a pizza guy. Goin’ house-to-house, handlin’ money, bangin’ lonely broads—they’re filthy!”
- Charlie’s response to Mac’s idea of matching stage costumes is oddly, insightfully poetic: “We’ll create a visual harmony!” However, his intuitive leap when confronted with Dennis’ pizza-delivery alias proves he’s still Charlie: “Holy shit. Dennis is Spider-Man!”
- Picking up on the Parks And Recreation theme, that’s Jerry Gergich himself, Jim O’Heir, as Frank’s doctor. Nice to see him, although as with fellow NBC sitcom supporting all-star Oscar Nunez earlier in the season, he’s not given anything funny to do.
- Trying to prove he’s not sick, Dennis’ absurdly extended operatic note, coupled with his zombie pallor and too-bright eyes makes for one of the most unsettling moments in It’s Always Sunny history.
- The Gang’s harmonizing is actually not bad at all, right? It strikes me as something the actors like to do as a goof that they decided to put into an episode.