“The only way to beat men is by competing with other women.”
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has to deal with a lot in its thirteenth season. For one thing, this is its thirteenth season. Not a lot of TV shows get that far, and those that do—especially comedies—are running on creative fumes by then. (And let’s not talk about shows that last twice that long.) But this season also sees Sunny coping with the sort of major shakeup that should leave it floundering for direction and sputtering out self-referential gags and wacky new characters in an attempt to stay alive. With Glenn Howerton striking out for A.P. Bio and his participation in the show he helped found downgraded to “nobody really knows,” Sunny looked to be headed for the rocks.
In fact, “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot” is exactly the sort of tired-looking stunt episode a flailing series would toss out there. Callback to a popular previous episode? Check. Stunt allows for the conspicuous absence of Howerton’s Dennis? Check. The only thing missing for the desperation trifecta is an adorable/gross/suspiciously Dennis-like replacement character, and while the episode (written by Dannah Feinglass Phirman and Danielle Schneider) doesn’t whip whatever the Sunny equivalent of a Cousin Oliver is on us, it does replace Dee’s usual running crew with every other recurring female character on the show as a splashy stunt of its own.
The thing is, It’s Always Sunny has been so good for so long that it’s easy to take for granted, and “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot,” while not without its stumbles, cruises along with the confidence of the episode’s pair of female airline pilots. Booked onto an all-woman flight to the Women’s March by Dee, the group (the Waitress, Artemis, and Mac and Charlie’s moms) instead find themselves dragooned into Dee’s plan to outdo the guys’ cross-country drinking contest. (Which she technically co-won along with Charlie, although that 71st, Boggs-beating beer left her rotating, ass-up, on the baggage carousel at LAX.) With the guys (supposedly) safely back in Philly, and Dee’s cobbled-together version of a girl gang trapped a mile in the air with her, Kaitlin Olson signals Dee’s forced enthusiasm with her signature steamroller desperation.
Fair enough, as Olson’s work as the perpetually put-upon Sweet Dee has long seen her channeling the compressed madness of a lifetime of abuse, neglect, and offhand misogyny in myriad ways. Sunny, what with its métier of creative cruelty and scatology (and you ain’t seen nothing yet on that last score), walks a razor’s edge between braying yahoo humor and the incisive deconstruction of braying yahoo humor. When the guys call Dee a bird, mock her ambitions, and label her with every possible negative female stereotype, the joke’s on them for being misogynistic assholes. But it’s also on Dee for embodying—as does every member of the Gang—the essential truth of every insult, at least in her specific case. Each of the main characters is the worst person in the world—it just means that, each week, individuals take turns being slightly worse than that.
And Dee doesn’t even have Charlie’s feral wild card madness as an escape from her position as the Gang’s whipping person when it’s her turn. For all her awfulness, there’s an undercurrent of stomach-turning poignancy to Dee’s plight as the one ever-present target of womanhood upon whom the Gang’s quartet of male meatheads take out their woman issues. Last week, Dee won the guys’ respect (and a free steak), sure, but all she had to do was endure their belittlement, get locked in Dennis’ sex dungeon, and plummet to the street from Mac and Dennis’ apartment ledge. Shattered and furiously planning to sue the guys into oblivion, all it took was the exuberantly appreciative guys’ praise for how she almost destroyed herself to take part in their nonsense to forget all her justifiable rage and abandon any sense that enough would ever be enough.
Here, Dee’s sweaty need to not only score a win against the absent guys but to gather an empowering female peer group both strike that same, painfully perceptive balance between sledgehammer satire and heart-hurting character dissection. At the same time, the episode seeks a similar balance between outdoing the show’s signature broad humor and scoring points against prevailing preconceptions of “women’s comedy,” with Phirman and Schneider puncturing the disreputable proceedings with knowing asides. Told of Dee’s plan, Artemis immediately slams the breaks on Dee’s enthusiastic reveal, asking, “Shouldn’t we do our own thing? We’re just copying the guys.”
And here’s where this second Boggs-beating flight hits most of its turbulence. Jokes that simply point out narrative weaknesses have to do more than that to qualify as jokes, and the script often settles. Later Artemis doubles down on her critique in the plane’s bathroom line, calling Dee’s copycat plan (and, by extension, the episode’s) “lazy and uninspired,” even as she admires Mrs. Mac’s blunt expression of gastric distress for shattering the idea that women can’t do gross-out humor. “See, nobody expects that from women,” she enthuses, “It’s more shocking.”
Like last week’s episode (which also fired some overly blunt bullets at gender roles), “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot” is better the further afield it gets from straight-up stating its premises. When Mrs. Kelly immediately panics upon hearing that both pilots are women, Lynne Marie Stewart once more makes Bonnie’s self-loathing a heartbreakingly appalling illustration of a lifetime of internalized abuse and humiliation. It’s also a decent joke about the episode being written by two women (and directed by a third in Kat Coiro), addressing that particular male segment of Sunny fandom who are just here for the yahoo humor alone. (And who—I’m just spitballing here—habitually complain about women not being funny.)
Indeed, Dee’s attempts to replicate the guy-centric comedy of the first Boggs flight/episode are doomed for the very reason that she can’t see the futility of playing the guys’ game. And while Artemis and the Waitress shoot holes in Dee’s blinkered perspective (“I just feel that if it’s all with women, it should be better,” advises Artemis), they, too, bring their particular blinkered insanities to the party. After all, nobody who willingly associates with the Gang is altogether together, and the grunting, monosyllabic Mrs. Mac, dithering Mrs. Kelly, self-abusing Waitress, and anarchic Artemis can be rightly skeptical of Dee without being the voice of anything like reason. There’s a meta-joke about Sunny’s lack of major female characters outside of Dee here, but the episode is also a chance for four very funny actresses to step into bigger roles. It mostly works—there’s a reason why such extreme characters are traditionally limited to sporadic guest shots—with Artemis Pebdani and Mary Elizabeth Ellis especially relishing the chance to amplify Artemis and the Waitress’ roles in the show.
Pebdani—having proven herself to wider audiences as Scandal’s decent-hearted Susan Ross, among other more reputable places—always seems to have a ball embodying Artemis’ agent-of-chaos libertinism. Here, she can see through Dee’s slavish desire to best the boys all while following her grifters’ bent in hawking Goop-y trinkets and suspect cleansing teas to the credulous do-gooders headed for the Women’s March. Describing her plan to sucker gullible women with “fake spirituality and clean orgasms” (thanks to a New Age-y “goddess stone” for “putting up your snatch”) introduces a layer of criticism of privileged white feminism that’s slyer in its obliqueness than Artemis’ criticism of Dee’s hacky imitation. As for the Waitress, Ellis continues to trace the inexorable spiral of a woman trapped in love-hate proximity to the Gang’s black hole of horribleness, throwing herself into Dee’s drinking contest (even though she sees how lame it is) in an abject stew of self-hatred, unrequited love for Dennis, and, one presumes, a desperate need to forget life with Charlie. (And whatever she did with that Dennis sex doll.) Finding Frank stowed away in the airplane’s toilet so as to pick off sexually frustrated Women’s Marchers (although he only ends up banging Bonnie again), the thoroughly bombed and Judy Garland-belting Waitress even has sex with Frank once more, her defeated “I do wanna beat Dennis, so pop it in” her new lowest point in a life spent being crushed by the Gang’s gravitational pull.
Dee keeps trying to herd her unwilling charges into replicating old near-glories, predictably failing to overcome their lunatic disinterest until she collapses into her seat in defeat. That’s when she, like Charlie before her, has a vision. Not of baseball legend Wade Boggs this time, but of tennis legend Martina Navratilova, whom Dee had invoked to her girl gang as a suitable, supposedly beer-swilling replacement inspiration. Only this isn’t Martina, since Dee, having made up the cross-country, beer-pounding, Chris Evert-defeating exploit to keep things on track, doesn’t really know who Martina Navratilova is or what she looks like.
Here, played in spectral form by Dawn Alden, the illusory Martina tells Dee where she’s going wrong, rebutting Dee’s hate-fueled rivalry saying, “Men have the luxury of hating each other. But as women, we stick together, fight for the respect we deserve, and grow the sport.” Dee, being Dee, doesn’t get it. First assuming that means Navratalove and Evert were lovers, Dee then transforms Navratilova into Lori Petty’s character from A League Of Their Own. Dee calls the movie “a good reboot,” to which Martina snaps, “No! It was its own thing!” There’s something very smart and very sad about Dee unable to conjure an actual female sports hero to inspire her. (She’s not alone, as Artemis, the Waitress, and Mrs. Mac settle on Secretariat, who was male. And a horse.) In trying to beat Boggs’ possibly apocryphal beer-guzzling record, Dee is trying to be one of the guys, not recognizing how ultimately dubious a feat drinking 50-70 beers on a plane ride really is. When Artemis and the Waitress start suggesting legendary female drinkers like Judy Garland or Joan Crawford instead (“Or Betty Ford!,” chimes Bonnie), Dee tells them, “Those are all sad examples of alcohol abuse [...] When women do it, it just feels sad.” Dee doesn’t see the inescapable double standard, and how hard she’s buying into it in her furious, frantic push to beat a game designed to exclude her.
Enter Gail the Snail. Finding the plane’s supply of pink wine (another canny dig at tone-deaf corporate “woke-ness”) hijacked by a mysterious first class passenger, Dee bum-rushes her way past the hapless male flight attendant to find that her resentful (and, in Mary Lynn Rajskub’s performance, gleefully disgusting) cousin has spitefully wrecked Dee’s chances at victory. So, despite Gail’s treachery having previously sapped her will, Dee takes exactly the wrong lesson from the imaginary Navratilova’s words and decides that her enduring hatred of all things Snail is just the inspiration she needs to truly smash the record. And she’d have done it, too, if Artemis’ healing tea hadn’t, in fact, been spiked with ayahuasca by the messianically mischievous Artemis, sending Dee (and all her other victims) into a both-ends spurting gross-out frenzy. “I’m pulling the plug on your male hand-me-down plot!,” bellows Artemis as dozens of women graphically void themselves all around her. “For maximum gross-out,” chokes out the afflicted but triumphantly bananas Artemis, “Nobody saw that coming from women!”
- Mirroring the previous flight as well, Mac and Charlie’s moms wind up the only victors, unimpressedly standing on the same California baseball diamond.
- The flight attendant turns out to be the same put-upon waiter routinely harassed by the Gang every time they wind up at Gugino’s. Michael Naughton’s funny enough, but the episode never really pays off the coincidence of the poor guy’s presence in any integrated way.
- Dee calling the guy “a soy-boy beta cuck” underlines just how thoroughly Dee’s bought into the worst elements of macho assholery.
- Frank, making the subtext very much text: “In every reboot, you gotta have somebody from the original to make a cameo.”
- As Dee tries to work out the relative alcohol levels of beer and wine, Bonnie shouts, “Oh dear, why would a woman do math? It scares me!”
- Cameo-wise, Charlie and Mac wind up getting butt-Skyped on Dee’s phone, taunting her for a few staticky moments. Dennis, meanwhile, has the week off, leaving the mystery of Howerton’s continued presence up in the air.
- Mrs. Mac (Sandy Martin), deprived of her cigarettes, immediately blurts out something racist. “Wow, I never heard you talk so much. Truly awful,” marvels Dee.