Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton,Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

“The Gang Gets New Wheels” begins with Dennis itching to answer some questions. In the season’s most direct nod in the direction of Glenn Howerton’s “is he in or out?” status, Dennis demands the Gang gather around him, as he prepares to spell out exactly what his deal is. Dee, Charlie, Frank, and Mac, already “gathered” in exactly the spots at Paddy’s bar where they’d been sitting, are unimpressed and decidedly incurious, despite Dennis’ self-important preamble:

Dennis: I know that a lot has been on your minds these last couple of weeks since I’ve been back. Burning questions about my personal life. I’ve been gone, now I’m back. That’s been confusing for you. It’s been overwhelming—the whole thing’s been overwhelming for you. And you’ve danced around the topic for a while now out of respect for my privacy and I really do appreciate that, but I want you all to know I’m ready now, and I think it’s time to open it up to questions. [Silence.] Now don’t hold back, guys, you can ask me anything. Really, all those questions that you’ve got for me about what’s going on, go ahead and ask them to me now. [Silence.] You wanna ask me if I’m gonna stay or if I’m gonna go.

Dee: I mean, it doesn’t really . . .

Dennis: I may go back!

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Dennis Reynolds may indeed go back to his accidental family in North Dakota, his defensive protestations that many great men in history have raised their families “from a distance” notwithstanding. Howerton and his castmates, friends, and co-creators have been circumspect on that score, and, while Dennis has been just as central as ever in the first four episodes this season (including one tour de force example of Dennis Reynolds’ manipulative male madness), this simply strings along our collective concern with another knowing meta-joke. The Gang greets Dennis’ posturing with the same offhand contempt it held for the revelation of Mac’s new beefcake body, underscoring the show’s commitment to its five protagonists’ bottomless self-interest. Yes, the Gang was thrown into sex doll-banging chaos at the thought that Dennis was never coming back, but they’re not about to admit their co-dependence just because Dennis desperately needs them to.

Glenn Howerton, Aaron Ikeda
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Naturally, the opening is a dig at viewers, too, who have been left hanging all this time by last season’s cliffhanger finale. “Just keep hanging” seems to be It’s Always Sunny’s message here, mocking us for placing so much importance on things that are out of our control when there’s Philadelphia mayhem to be sown. “The Gang Gets New Wheels” (written by longtime Sunny hand Conor Galvin) is as calculated a throwback episode as can be, with Dennis’ discovery of his burned out 1993 Range Rover sending the Gang on four separate, old school adventures. Dennis, thwarted in his attempt to purchase a replacement 2018 model (despite its lack of the original’s “masculinity and beefiness”) by Frank’s stinginess and impulsive desire to buy Dennis’ chosen model for himself, tries to make peace with his economical alternative, a Prius. Frank, upon the dealer’s discovery that Frank hasn’t had a valid driver’s license since the year after Taxi went off the air, goes back to driver’s ed. Dee, glorying in getting to ferry Frank around in the Range Rover until he can legally drive, lords her luxury ride over Dennis before falling in with a group of wealthy, status-conscious housewives. And Mac and Charlie, Dennis’ quest for new wheels making them long for their sweet, matching Mongoose bikes, relive their childhoods as they tool around Philly with a pair of lime green replacements.

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Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

It’s all just like it was, as is the inevitable destruction wrought by and wrought upon the Gang. Dennis falls in with a genial guy who mistakes the Prius for his Uber, Dennis’ vulnerably malleable ego latching onto the man’s life of environmental conscious ride-sharing and fantasy baseball. Sure, the poor guy should have twigged to the gleam of need in Dennis’ eyes as he pronounced “Cancel your ride—I’ll drive you to your fantasy!,” but he doesn’t know what a half-formed megalomaniac he’s dealing with. Dee turns almost immediately on her idle new pals, her Range Rover-inflated sense of self-worth (“A throne, looking down on all the minions!”) turning a few careless slights into a calculated scheme of towering sex-vengeance. Mac and Charlie, despite recapturing their youthful bike-riding freedom (“I feel like a carefree young kid again,” exclaims Charlie rather sweetly as he and Mac do half-assed tricks), can’t escape their former fate as the bullied victims. One of their bikes stolen by a gang of just-teen bike-thugs, they discover their lead tormentor is the son of the very same bully (Tyler Labine) who stole their bikes the first time. Frank, left to his own devices, unseuccessfully dragoons a teenage driver’s ed student to help him cheat on the upcoming test with promises of beer, drugs, and porn, before enticing the jaded kid with a promise that noted alpha-sleaze Dennis can get him laid.

Danny DeVito, Kaitlin Olson
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

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The episode has a few more minutes to play with than usual, which helps flesh out each story. Also assisting is our familiarity with the characters’ motivations, weaknesses, and tendencies, providing a shorthand that accepts the inevitable collision of sordid disasters that’s coming. Dee, raging through the face-hole of a day spa massage table and bathed in hell’s own red glow, pronounces her imagined tormentors “savages,” and plots to seduce one of their boy-toy second husbands while she spits, “You’re not the alpha here, you crusty-ass fool! I’m gonna cuck you so hard!” Mac and Charlie find themselves unable to escape their hard-learned fearful inferiority, backing down from the bully’s dad once more. (The phrase “What are you gonna do about it?” elicits their self-justifying excuse, “It’s the perfect line, dude. There’s no coming back.”) Dennis, determinedly extolling the “economy” lifestyle of his new friend, joins in with a life of fantasy football and inept, confidence-free flirting with the one, baseball-capped woman in the group. (Turning down her proffered chili, he mumbles, “I don’t wanna fart right now,” trying to come back by claiming his sister “farts a shit-ton.”) Frank, left to wander in from the woods after failing to impress his new buddy with a tree stump cache of vintage porno mags, finds the Prius-driving Dennis a disappointment, and flunks his test. (It might be his reliance on hackneyed Asian driver stereotypes as much as the disgruntled teen’s absence.)

Throughout, the wheels (two or four) make the person, each’s need for external validation focused on their respective rides. For most, it’s a way to pump themselves up at the expense of others, while, heartbreakingly, for Charlie and Mac, it’s a way to look back on a time before they were locked into their roles as the Gang’s—and life’s—ultimate losers. Emerging from purchasing old packs of baseball cards (including a Chuck Knoblauch, “pre-yips”), Charlie tells Mac, “Our whole lives could have been different if those bikes weren’t stolen.” But, as they discover when backing down from the fearful symmetry of their father-son tormentors, those are the sort of things we tell ourselves when faced with who we’ve become.

And just what the Gang have become remains some iteration of “the pits,” so Mac and Charlie stride manfully back to right old wrongs. Which for them, means beating the unholy crap out of a gang of children. (Mac even hoists one into the air, echoing his fighting strategy from last week, although only by the throat here, thankfully.) It’s an extended sequence of wonderfully edited brutality that earns the sort of bug-eyed admiration of those of us glad to see Sunny’s willingness to go too far for the joke remains undiluted by 13 seasons. Meanwhile, Dee’s plan goes similarly awry, as she winds up mistakenly hate-bedding the teenage son of her monied main target—and the obnoxious kid turns out to be Frank’s underage driver’s ed buddy. Again—Sunny, never change, please.

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Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Thankfully for the rest of the Gang, Dennis, slouching into his new pal’s garage for a beer, spies the gas-guzzling “piece of shit” the guy doesn’t like to drive anymore—a 1993 Range Rover. Stroking its flanks dreamily (“What is this? What am I seeing?”), Dennis offers his pal double the blue book value and then dismisses his well-adjusted “economy” life for the high-riding, fuck-the-world luxury of his past. “Begone from me, soy-boy beta-cuck, the transaction is complete,” Dennis demands, punctuating his renunciation with an imperious “BE GONE!” Popping in his wonted feel-good driving song/paean to holding onto the past no matter what, Dennis picks up Mac and Charlie (on the lam from the cops and the enraged parents of bloodied children), and Frank and Dee (bloodied from a Frank-caused accident and fleeing from the cops and the wrathful mom of a despoiled child). With a song in his heart and his world restored to its range-roving glory, Dennis assures them all, “It doesn’t matter. It’s okay,” as Sunny Rickrolls all those hoping to find some enlightenment in its world.

Stray observations

  • It cannot be understated how long Mac and Charlie’s beatdown of those kids goes on. It’s not of They Live duration, but it’s hilariously ugly. Charlie later cries, “I think I killed a kid!,” and Mac does not disagree.
  • Mac’s been trying to get Charlie’s mass up, largely by having him ingest Fight Milk.
  • Mac, responding to the bike-thieves schoolyard gay-bashing: “Well I am gay, but he’s not my boyfriend. I can do much better.”
  • The fact that newly-buff Mac can’t stand up to the paunchy, middle-aged bully who tormented him as a child recalls a similar scene from the 1992 Fech-Canadian film LĂ©olo where the hero’s bullied big brother spends years transforming himself into a bruiser, only to fall victim to the same, still-runty bully once the long-awaited rematch comes. The sick joke seems to be less about some people being born to be oppressed as it is how changing one external thing about ourselves means nothing if we haven’t addressed the real thing that’s holding us back.

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