Photo: Patrick McElhenney (FX)

“We might actually be able to pull this thing off!”

The promo pictures for this thirteenth season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia feature a terrified Mac, Dee, Charlie, and Frank being variously menaced by a looming, axe-wielding, hockey-masked figure. It’s a canny choice, neatly (and amusingly) encapsulating the most dramatic change in the Sunny universe since the blessedly, gleefully disreputable arrival of Danny DeVito back in season two. That comic cannonball into the filthy community pool that is It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia was an act of perfect addition, though, while the still-unclear nature of Glenn Howerton’s participation remains a murky, potentially crippling subtraction. The darkly comedic balance perfected over its astoundingly consistent run has been Sunny’s most impressive achievement. The Gang’s grossly interdependent awfulness is an unbreakably elastic membrane, deformed and stretched to its breaking point again and again by Mac, Dennis, Sweet Dee, Charlie, and Frank’s sweaty, unceasing attacks against each other and the very bounds of human decency. Now one of the Gang has busted out.

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“The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” shows the remaining four attempting to fill the Dennis-shaped hole Dennis’ (and Howerton’s) shocking escape has ripped in the show’s world. Naturally, the Dennis-less Gang’s efforts involve a signature mix of abject stupidity, desperately self-delusional denial, and inventively outrageous grossness. (Frank and Charlie proudly marching into Paddy’s blowing into the anus of a Dennis-shaped sex doll at episode’s end expresses all three elements in consummate Sunny style.) The episode also tackles the meta-textual issues caused by Howerton’s departure with a nimbleness that calls back to season nine’s “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award,” where the show’s creators vented about the industry’s perpetual snubbing come awards time in the guise of a cathartically musical “go fuck yourselves.”

Of course, the fact that Howerton is still so intimately connected to the show and everyone involved makes less for a “fuck you” in “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” than a messily but eloquently complicated bout of love/hate-fucking. After Mac’s telling misunderstanding of new Gang member Cindy’s advice to fill “the Dennis-shaped hole” in his life (as “I needed something Dennis-shaped to fill my hole”), the horrifically lifelike Dennis Reynolds sex doll he mail-ordered winds up triple stuffed by a drunk and lonely Mac, Charlie, and Frank while Dee watches. (As Cindy sums up Dee’s response to “the most disgusting orgy that has ever taken place,” Dee was “so numbed to this kind of behavior that it doesn’t even register to [her] as odd.”)

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But back to the beginning. The 13th season opens on a black screen and a woman’s voice proclaiming, “What an awesome night it’s been, huh?” That’s Cindy (played by Mindy Kaling, whose appearance is the first of many delightfully shocking reveals in the episode), the new Gang member—and, it’s made clear, Dennis’ replacement. Hosting a lucrative get-together of left-wing types (“A night of liberal conversation and liberal drinking” reads the sign at Paddy’s), Mindy soon drops her earnest facade to reveal herself as the sort of devious, manipulative, amoral mastermind the Dennis-bereft Gang so desperately needs. Unveiling her cynical plot to repackage her lefty political gathering as a right-wing hootenanny (Mac and Charlie are tasked with changing the “Conservative Whine” wine bottle labels to “Liberal Tears”) in order to destroy the nearby competing pub that’s crushing Paddy’s business, Kaling’s Cindy does Dennis even better than Dennis. “She’s just the right amount of asshole,” pronounces Dee.

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

And that’s the problem. Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Dennis can’t function without Dennis’ particular brand of familiar amorality. Cindy, like Dennis, calls out the others’ unceasing stupidity (like, say, how she rebukes Mac for trying to “shoehorn your shirtlessness into plans that have no need for it”), but she’s also far too aspirational in her evil. Cindy, like Dennis, is a go-getter and amoral scheme-machine, but she’s also too much of a functional—if horrifying—human being to be sucked into the Gang’s madness. When the Gang starts hearing Dennis’ voice wordlessly emanating from the disturbingly agape maw of Mac’s Dennis doll (Mac claims it’s merely “in mid-conversation”), their obvious comfort with Dennis’ predictably abusive put-downs is exasperating to Cindy. After attempting to get things back on track, she suggests to Dee that a beautiful blonde distract the competing pub’s doorman, to which Dee responds immediately, “Okay, you want me to go find one?” After the Gang laughingly agrees that Dennis would have called Dee a bird at this point, they explain to the baffled Cindy that, while that’s not funny exactly, it’s the sort of predictable insult comedy they’re comfortable with.

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Inserting self-referential commentary into a narrative is usually a cue for dutiful head-nods than groundbreaking comedy. (See latter-day The Simpsons for innumerable examples of how not to do this.) When Frank, taking Charlie out for some cheer-up strip club beers, admits, “I feel like I’m forcing it a little,” the nose is, indeed, exactly what the line is on. But “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” stampedes through the comic minefield that is Dennis/Howerton’s absence on the twin horses of inventiveness and outrageousness. It might be similarly on-the-nose for Mac to muse:

Look guys, I think that the problem is that we’re trying to do things that we used to do, but things are different now. Look, Dennis is gone and he is not coming back, We have to accept that.

But Howerton’ loss is more than the just elephant in the room, and this new season makes an admirable start at addressing its Dennis-hole. More than any show I can think of, Sunny needs all its component parts to function with its traditional grimy grace. At the end of last season, I predicted—incorrectly, as it appears—that Dennis’ abrupt flight to the farmlands of North Dakota was just a fakeout. That’s how inconceivable an It’s Always Sunny without one of the five central characters seemed, honestly. The reveal of the Dennis doll staring glassily at the gyrating stripper while the Gang effortfully proclaims their preference for Cindy is funny, and telling. There’s a Dennis-shaped ghost right over everyone’s shoulder, and Sunny will have to adjust to a new dynamic.

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Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day
Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/FXX

Thankfully, the real Dennis shows up in the end. Listening to Cindy’s spot-on analysis of just what doll-banging form the Gang’s directionless insanity will continue to take, the Gang hears Dennis’ voice, smugly asking, “Or will it?” This time, the camera move reveals the actual Dennis, having swept Mac’s sex simulacrum (“Oh, Mac’s shooting his loads into it?,” Dennis surmises correctly) to the floor. Frank whips out his gun to destroy the living nightmare, naturally, but it’s really Dennis Reynolds, in the non-latex flesh. It’s the third major shocker of the episode (Mac’s ridiculously ripped new body being the second), and if Howerton is (shock number four) only listed as “starring” in the end credits, everyone—both in and outside the show—is overjoyed. Even if, as Dennis’ “Well, for now. I’m back for now” leaves the nature of Howerton’s continued participation in the series up in the air.

It’s a relief also, because, under the capable Cindy’s guidance, the Gang might have done some real damage. With her effortless manipulative skills (she plays up her Indian heritage to sway her lefty drinkers, bashfully referring to “this brown-skinned girl and her liberal ideas”), and mastery of social media outrage, Cindy also brings a scabrous self-helper’s boosterism to the Gang. (The apparent swerve into topical button-pushing that is the Gang’s MAGA-hatted (well, MPGA-hatted) provocation turns out to be the actual fakeout, calling back to Sunny’s first season template.) Fully aware of how bananas her new pals/accomplices are, Cindy, yet, combines Dennis’ signature mockery of, for example, Dee’s abyssal self-esteem with ongoing pitches for a sisterly bond. And, sure, she can mock Mac’s terrible dinner party cuisine (mac and cheese with a side of convenience store energy shots) with the rest of the Gang, but she also urges him to confront his unresolved feelings about the departed Dennis. (Who, it turns out, gave Mac a fake phone number on his way to North Dakota. It was to a mental health hotline.)

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But the Gang can’t function outside of its slimy Paddy’s cocoon, and even the presence of an uncanny valley fake Dennis is enough to reassert their desperate interdependence. First mocking Mac for carrying on imagined conversations with the thing, Dee, Charlie, and Frank are soon under its spell as well. Dee ditches her naturalistically sexy spy getup for the bleached-out, clown-painted grotesquerie where she’s felt safe in the past. Mac and Charlie screw up Cindy’s label-switching plan because Dennis is in their heads. (“What are these liberals tearing and why are they tearing it?,” asks Mac of Cindy’s “liberal tears” motto.) And Frank—tasked with blowing a tuba, for reasons that probably would have paid off under Cindy’s leadership somehow—subs in the Dennis doll, with Charlie helpfully blowing into the much-abused thing’s rubber asshole. “You see, we’re still making Paddy’s great again,” enthuses Mac to the horrified Cindy, “but now everybody’s happy.” Cindy, vainly attempting to hold onto her place in the Gang, protests, “Guys, come on! You are better than this.” But, as twelve seasons have shown, they really, really are not.

When a main character leaves a show, there is, indeed, an character-shaped hole for the show and its characters to fill. Sometimes the character just walks upstairs into oblivion, sure, but, for Sunny and the Gang, that’s not really an option. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a finely calibrated balance scale, where the week’s triumphs for some come at the precise measure of the others’ crushing humiliations, and the Gang’s intertwined madness is snarled beyond individual or group redemption. Season 13 enters as an incomplete, wonky machine and exits this first episode careening in several, seemingly out-of-control directions at once. But the script (by David “Rickety Cricket” Hornsby) embraces the chaotic new order of things, delivering an improbably confident argument that Sunny can still work without Dennis Reynolds—most of the time.

Stray observations

  • Mac has indeed transformed himself into the shredded hunk of beefcake he always claimed to be. (This isn’t just mass.) I don’t know if Rob McElhenney’s real-life fitness is solely another body-shaping goof for the show’s benefit, but the episode certainly works it in as such. Just as Mac/McElhenney’s weight gain in season 6 served as a remarkably committed metatextual joke, here, Mac’s incessant shirtless preening is waved off by the others as just another desperate plea for attention.
  • The Waitress is still living with Charlie at the beginning of the episode after her affecting yet ill-advised decision to give her longtime stalker a chance. Sadly(?) for them both, Charlie leaves the doll alone with his love (who was getting on his nerves anyway), and she promptly falls off the wagon and cheats on him. With the doll.
  • Mac’s out-of-nowhere “You guys like me, right?” after the rest of the Gang is callously unimpressed by his new physique finds the right note for the ongoing empathy puzzle that is Ronald McDonald.
  • The closeups of the Dennis doll are nightmare fuel. Sheer madness kindling.
  • I’m assuming that this Dennis is the actual Dennis and that his appearance and ongoing role in the season will be revealed. Still, I’m not the only one who expected that the last shot would be of the Dennis doll sitting on that stool while the Gang addressed it as if it were real and poured beer into its gaping mouth, right?
  • And we’re back for The A.V. Club’s coverage of season 13, people. I’m Dennis (the other Dennis) and I’ll be your reviewer. See you in the comments. And remember, “Dennis is a bastard man.”

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