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Mac's sweaty rom-com plotting exhausts It's Always Sunny's underwhelming season 14 premiere

Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
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“Just trust the structure!”

There’s a lot of self-referential humor in “The Gang Gets Romantic,” the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia season 14 premiere, but that one line, blurted by Mac in the face of his doomed attempt to keep various rom-com plots spinning, is the most illuminating. After ending its 13th season with a development so stunningly heartfelt and seemingly show-breaking as to throw our expectations for its record-tying 14th season entirely into the realm of the unknown, “The Gang Gets Romantic” (also from “Mac Finds His Pride” co-writers Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day) surprises us by not doing anything especially surprising at all. Which would be less of an issue if the old groove the show settles back into as it comes out of the gate weren’t so well-worn.

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And, make no mistake, It’s Always Sunny exists in an unprecedentedly smart, hilarious, original, and deeply filthy groove, with its 14th season tying it for the longest-running live-action comedy series ever. (The fact that it now shares the top spot with the squeaky-clean The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet couldn’t be more perfect, conjuring up thoughts of the Paddy’s Gang crashing the Nelson’s placid nightly dinner with demands for milk steak and a bordeom-busting round of Chardee MacDennis.) What Sunny does carries such a high degree of difficulty in its comic formula that managing to carry off its delicate balancing act for so long with only a handful of off-kilter self-immolations along the way deserves all the Emmys the show remains proudly unencumbered by. (The fact that last season’s finale didn’t garner a single nomination for anyone involved continues to suggest that the golden age of TV we’re supposedly in retains a few blind spots.)

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Admittedly, I thought the same thing once Dennis Reynolds packed in his unsettlingly self-absorbed Philly existence for the more Ozzie And Harriet-esque life of a partner and father in the snowy reaches of Bismarck. Dennis’ intermittent return to his old stalking grounds (and his old self) was, as it turns out, handled with the sort of winking “Don’t worry about it.” offhandedness as befits Glenn Howerton’s ultimately conquered ambivalence about remaining on the show. (Once more, there’s no mention of Brian Jr. here.) As for Mac’s season-long transformation into the nimbly jacked, apparently enlightened guy who finally transformed his lifetime of repressed, tortured sexuality into an exhibition of cathartically world class artistic expression, however, I got suckered in again. Or so it seems, as season 14 Mac (while remaining thankfully untroubled about his homosexuality) does leap right back into the old ways of bumbling, dimwitted scheming.

Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
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Again, which would be less worrisome if “The Gang Gets Romantic” represented a heedless cannonball back into the deep, dirty waters of deliriously inventive dimwitted scheming. As it is, though, season 14 begins by scrabbling around effortfully in a pool that, in this first outing at least, feels unprofitably close to empty. In the dueling A-stories, it’s Mac and Dennis versus Charlie and Frank in dueling ding-dong seduction plots. (Dee’s perpetual afterthought role is summed up irritatedly by Mac as “a diversionary plot twist at best!,” slyly playing with Dee’s ever-rebuffed desire to be the star of the Gang’s ongoing tragicomedy.) Frank and Charlie take the blunter approach, Frank’s lingering wealth allowing them to publish a comically honest bus station ad in which the “Gruesome Twosome” (complete with buddy movie photo) attempt to lure sexually adventurous European tourists to hostel in Frank and Charlie’s infamously grubby digs. (“Shitter’s down the hall” wars with Frank’s email address warthog.orgyfart@edu as the biggest warning signs for potential roomies.) Meanwhile Mac and Dennis have a more subtle (if stupid and complicated) scheme in mind to advertise Dennis’ bedroom on Airbnb, only to spring the old “Oh no, we double-booked! Might as well make the best of it.” scam on the unsuspecting young woman they have thus ensnared. What, in either case, could go wrong, right?

Well, with inspiration rarely yoked to the Gang’s attention to vetting and follow-through, the excited Frank and Charlie wind up with a couple of Austrian guys (Alexei and Nikki instead of Frank’s drooling anticipation of “Viennese gash” dream-girls Alexi and Nikki), while the winsome young woman (Man Seeking Woman’s Britt Lower) innocently stumbling into Mac and Dennis’ clutches comes toting not only a beleaguered husband (Enlightened’s Timm Sharp), but a tragic backstory decidedly not conducive to Dennis’ predatory dreams of duplicitous bedroom farce. So far, so set up for cringe-worthy Sunny fun, especially when Mac starts trying to rewrite his rom-com “meet-cute” scenario on the fly, and Charlie and Frank quickly shoo away their shockingly well-matched father-son roomies (grumpy Alexei is constantly digging at his scabby feet with his “toe spoon,” while Nikki makes even more grotesquely concocted fried sandwiches than Charlie) in favor of Minka and Sasha (Tania Fox and Cody Kennedy), the two sexually liberated European dream-bedmates who inexplicably jump at the chance to share a pull-out couch with the two most understandably eligible bachelors in Philadelphia.

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It’s in the handling of these two parallel tales of grimy bed-hopping that “The Gang Gets Romantic” sputters. Alexie and Nikki prove to be blander Frank-Charlie doppelgängers than the inevitable ass-to-ass sleeping hijinks require to really lift off, while the too-good-to-be-true sexual pliancy of the languorous Minka and Sasha (explained by Charlie’s eventual discovery that they’ve been using Alexie’s abandoned toe-spoon to cook heroin) takes its cue from the perpetually sleepy tourist-junkies and just lays about. Any time a member of the Gang is presented as a sexual being is recipe for grotesque hilarity, but the potential for creative offensiveness in a father and (likely) son having queasily porny close-contact, single-bed foursomes with a pair of barely conscious model types doesn’t reach very far from surface ickiness in practice here.

As for Mac and Dennis’ constantly re-jiggered plan to bed either husband or wife (or both) throughout the episode, their more energetic efforts produce a similarly enervated comic wheeze. That the Gang is dumb is central to most of the best Sunny plots, but that’s because their inevitable boneheaded missteps as they dig themselves deeper into whatever pit of unsavory mire they’ve plunged are informed by an unusually canny ability to move the comic payoff just far enough that we want it to keep going. Here, the logical leaps that Mac, Dennis, and aspiring day-player Dee make regarding the couple’s supposed marital difficulties are so broad that the whole plot just plops down and rolls around in the mud with them. Overhearing the couple talking about their sorrow over someone named Teddy sends the trio spinning off into various permutations of love-triangle infidelity, and while Mac’s poop-related machinations to separate the couple into their own rom-com subplots is just gross enough to work, it takes forever for the obvious truth (Teddy is the couple’s dead son) to drop. (If you didn’t see that one coming when Dennis pitches woo to the wife by telling her to “dig up” supposed old lover Teddy, and roll your eyes in memory of less forced Sunny jokes past, I don’t know what to tell you.)

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To be fair, it does (finally) drop with a fine bit of business where Dennis’ attempt to score Mac’s plea to the husband for a gay love story that “might not play in Middle America” but will “win a ton of awards” and “get a shit-ton of attention from the liberal press” goes awry. (“La Bamba” taking the acciental soundtrack spot reserved for “In Your Eyes.”) But it has to be said that Howerton (directing his first-ever Sunny episode) and the Day-McElhenney writing team overplay the comic tension of each escalating misunderstanding until things start to sag.

If there’s a redeeming aspect to Mac’s plans, it’s in the meta-text of his constantly making reference to the clichés and contrivances of the romantic comedies upon which he’s patterned the Gang’s latest caper. Even here, however, the show has broken fourth walls a lot more insightfully in the past, and with better focus. McElhenney makes Mac’s bright-eyed mania about crafting the perfect rom-com tropes (one after the other, as things go pear-shaped) amusing, if not especially illuminating. If there’s a shadow of Mac’s season 13 long game of creative expression in his date movie plotting, it’s a carryover more in the abstract than the actual at this point, so all his asides about Dennis having to be a likable romantic lead (while Dee’s pretensions at being the star are dismissed by Mac pronouncing her the “nasty skank” the straying husband immediately regrets) aren’t sufficient motivation to keep the comic plot viable.

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Danny DeVito, Charlie Day
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Still, this is Sunny, and everyone involved is as gamely invested as ever. The running gag about everyone misunderstanding Mac’s reference to the term “meet cute” pays off every time. Charlie and Frank’s mishearing it as “meat cubes” seems, to them, the ideal reward for all their efforts, while Dennis mistking of “meet” as “meat” leads to some prime horrifying Dennis Reynolds self-deluding misogyny. (“I’d never put so much effort into banging some cute meat.” “No Dennis, ‘meet-cute.’” “It has a name, Mac. Its name is Lisa.”) That sequence, too, continues with Dennis objecting to Mac’s strained scripting with on-the-nose echoes of the sort-of still on board Howerton’s wavering allegiance to his and McElhenney’s creation, as Dennis tries to opt out, exclaiming in frustration, “This just seems like a lot of effort. It just seems desperate.” (Mac/McElhenney assures him that “This is all part of the Act One banter, and we are right on schedule.”)

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The thing is that there is a lot of visible effort in “The Gang Gets Romantic” that all the meta-textual joshing can’t redeem. Pulling back the ever-mysterious TV reviewer curtain for a moment, I’ll reiterate that it’s my choice to review a series one episode at a time (leaving the post-game big picture stuff to the occasional For Our Consideration), so I do not know how this premiere’s self-parodying self-awareness is going to play into the season’s plan, Mac’s (and Frank’s) season finale breakthroughs, or the rest of the behind-the-camera baggage that a series accumulates after 14 seasons. I do know that “The Gang Gets Romantic” is a middling standalone episode of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”

Stray observations

  • I don’t really want to know how Frank obtained an .edu email address, do I?
  • Frank and Charlie’s “rush to the airport/bus station” ending at least pays off their own parallel rom-com with a flourish (and a parting gift of meat-cubes). Just wish Alexei and Nikki were more interestingly outrageous objects for their affections.
  • Dennis, objecting to Mac and Dee’s initial attempts to embroider their meet-cute plan, tellingly advises, “Let’s keep the trap simple.”
  • There’s a solid reveal blurring gag when Charlie and Frank’s sincere discussion about how much they miss Alexei and Nikki is taking place pantsless.
  • While Mac’s prediction about last season’s “gay-ass” finale winning awards largely proved untrue, at least he was right that “Mac Finds His Pride” did garner plenty of praise from the liberal press.
  • And we’re back for the A.V. Club’s coverage of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, season 14! Tune in next week, when we see if the return of Thunder Gun Express can put things back on track.
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Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.