Kaitlin Olson, Rob McElhenney, Travis Schuldt, Danny DeVito
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

“I don’t want to set a precedent of little mishaps setting us back.”

After setting up the scenario in last week’s bummer of an episode, “Charlie’s Home Alone,” “The Gang Wins The Big Game” follows the Charlie-less Mac, Dee, and Frank as they travel to Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. Piling onto Frank’s rented party bus (which they immediately crash) alongside the Waitress, Cricket (stowing away inside Charlie’s Green Man suit), and Philly C-listers Ben the Soldier, Bill Ponderosa, Rex, and Uncle Jack, this watered-down Gang does eventually make it to the big game. And win it for their beloved Eagles, at least according to their combined superstitious logic, Dee’s epically gross pinkeye, and the machinations of another disappointing bummer of a stunt episode.

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If there’s a little more to like here than in the first installment, it’s due to quantity more than quality. With all these disreputable weirdos in the same place (much of the episode’s spent either in Frank’s Super Bowl luxury box or a stadium bathroom), there’s more material to work with than “Charlie’s Home Alone” had with just a constantly yammering Charlie Day getting creamed by a bar’s worth of unimaginative booby traps. After the Waitress destroys the bus’ axle with some Tom Brady-distracted driving, Mac rants that the Philly faithful “had an opportunity to be something, to be winners. And we’re never gonna make it!” Cut to the gang (note the lowercase ‘g’) walking into Frank’s luxury box from the private jet he hired, and Mac musing, “Well, we made it to the Super Bowl. That was easy.” Decent joke, drawing on Rob McElhenney’s underplaying and Frank’s seemingly bottomless largesse, at least when it comes to fulfilling the Gang’s most disreputable desires.

Rob McElhenney, Danny DeVito, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Andrew Friedman, Kaitlin Olson
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

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But, once there, this gaggle of “the biggest pieces of shit in the city” (according to Mac) careens around the show’s version of U.S. Bank Stadium without much comic direction. As mentioned, Dee has unexplained pinkeye, which gets progressively more grotesque with each appearance, sending her blurrily rambling into a stadium locker room where she wipes her eye-crust with a towel headed for Pat’s quarterback Brady. Uncle Jack substitutes some “Eagles #1" foam fingers for the oversized monster hands Mac made him leave back in Philly. Bill Ponderosa barfs on some hot dogs. Rex, having been suckered into Invigaron since we last saw him, has gained some season 6 Mac-level weight, his signature male model abs substituted for an unconvincing prosthetic berry-belly. Cricket is his usual, Gang-ravaged self, shambling around merrily with a constantly bloody nose and eating from the communal buffet with his scaly hands. Meanwhile, Frank, having signaled some serious abdominal discomfort on the bus, reveals to Mac that’s he’s got a massive kidney stone, and spends most of his time attempting to pass the thing, while a suddenly superstitious Mac roots him on. (Honestly, once I heard “Frank” and “abdominal pain” at around the five-minute mark, I assumed we were in for an episode’s worth of shit jokes, so here’s to small favors.)

T.J. Hoban, Travis Schuldt, Andrew Friedman, Lance Barber, David Hornsby, Kaitlin Olson, Mary Elizabeth Ellis
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

That’s not to say that Sunny can’t make comic gold out of vomit, pus, blood, pee, and whatever other bodily functions or injuries the Gang puts out there of an episode. It’s Sunny, after all. But “The Gang Wins The Big Game” suffers from the queasy, trying imposter syndrome of a Sunny episode (this one written by Conor Galvin) without enough inspiration for the inevitable mess. The fact that, like “Charlie’s Home Alone,” “The Gang Wins The Big Game” clocks in at around 19 minutes only reinforces the idea that this two-parter would have been better served as one, much tighter episode. For one thing, the first minute of “The Gang Wins The Big Game” consists of the exact same opening footage from “Charlie’s Home Alone” before branching off into its own story, while, once Brady and those bastard Patriots seem poised to make another improbable Super Bowl comeback, we see the tail end of Charlie’s bear trap sacrifice, too. When an episode of Sunny misfires, it plays like a bad imitation of itself, and both of these episodes traffic in lesser iterations of the signature Sunny squalor.

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Andrew Friedman, David Hornsby
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

The episode also smacks of the sort of re-jiggering McElhenney and company have had to do in order to bring Glenn Howerton back for season 13. A two-parter timed to coincide with Dennis’ time in North Dakota looks a concession to the now A.P. Bio star’s new schedule and wandering priorities. And the fact that the show would necessarily have to address the Gang’s long-worshipped team not only making but winning the big game lines up perfectly, too. But this two-parter plays a discouraging lot like the shadow of Sunny everyone was afraid it would become when Howerton first announced his sort-of rescinded departure, a loud, messy, incomplete heap of half-motivated cruelty and gross-out jokes. (For one thing, why is Mac suddenly so concerned with representing Philadelphia well in the eyes of the rest of the country?)

Mac and the gang (lowercase ‘g’ version)
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

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If “The Gang Wins The Big Game” works at all, its in Mac and Frank’s urinal-side confrontation over just why an Eagles win means so much to them. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s relationship with its namesake city has—for all its “actually filmed in California” reality—been a long and defiantly affectionate one. Philly native and co-creator McElhenney has set up his show as the proudly abusive big brother to a town that nobody can beat up but Sunny. The Gang is represented as the five worst people in Philadelphia, sure, but they’d be the five worst people in Duluth, or Kansas City, or Pittsburgh. They’re just the pits. But Sunny also posits that there’s an essential Philly-ness to the Gang’s awfulness that makes them the uniquely horrible spawn of a place renowned for a singular strain of belligerent, perversely proud ignorance. (Mac references the infamous Santa incident at one point.) The theoretical Gang of It’s Always Sunny In Boise would suck—but not in the same way.

So when Mac, fatalistically assuming that a resurgent Brady is about to engineer yet another heart-ripping, Terminator-like march down the field in the game’s waning moments, turns to despair, it’s in the tortured language of his people.

You know who we are? We’re losers. All of Philadelphia—we’re angry, and we’re mean, and we’re cruel, and we act like jerks.

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Frank—wheezing and sweating as he tries to pass the stone that he and Mac have convinced themselves is the superstitious key to impossible victory—can’t disagree with that. But he does offer what passes for the show’s version of Philly nobility.

No, Mac, you got it all wrong. [Referring to Cricket, Bill, and the rest of the Philly “degenerates” cavorting on national TV.] Those guys are Philadelphia. They bust their ass just to get through, and then, on a Sunday, they put all their hopes into the Eagles. And year after year after year, their team lets ’em down, and they get angry. And that anger builds into a stone of fury, and if it could just be released, then we could feel something different, could feel like champions.

And then, with Dee’s eye-crust clouding Brady’s vision, and Charlie maiming himself in desperate loyalty and hope, Frank (Danny DeVito taking one for the team once more with some full-face grotesquerie) passes the stone, Brady fumbles, the Eagles win, and everyone in Philadelphia is what passes for happy. The episode ends with a montage of clips of the actual Philly faithful back home, celebrating, weeping, dancing, high-fiving cops, and releasing the pent-up misery and pain of decades, concluding with the reality-busting but delightful sight of McElhenney himself whooping it up in incredulous joy at the actual Super Bowl. For all it’s faults, “The Gang Wins The Big Game” knows a crowd-pleasing ending. Well, maybe not a crowd in New England.

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Stray observations

  • “Save your boos for who deserves it—and that’s the most successful franchise in organized sports.”
  • Before “realizing” that Frank’s peeing is making the Eagles win, why exactly does Mac have to keep walking Frank to the bathroom?
  • And we’re almost through season 13, gang (lowercase ‘g’). Next week’s finale sees Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day penning “Mac Finds His Pride.”

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