Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Sunny Gang’s stellar 14th season closes with abortion, an existential crisis, and laser tag

Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

“But this is different. This affects me!”

Episode 9: “A Woman’s Right To Chop”

That’s the essence of Sunny social satire, as Mac—embroiled in a thinly veiled anti-abortion crusade spurred by an all-male objection to a new neighborhood salon’s short women’s haircuts—confronts the beleaguered veterinarian refusing to perform a life-saving abortion on Mac’s impossibly long-lived dog, Poppins. That’s right, Poppins is a female (but not really, as it turns out), and the battery-eating, loose-eyeballed, vicious little beast is somehow knocked up at what is, by any conservative estimate, the dog-age of 210 or so. That “miracle,” as the vet (Andree Vermeulen) pronounces it with obvious ambivalence, is complicated by the fact that the female Poppins can in no way survive birthing a litter of puppies at this point in its cockroach-esque survivor’s existence.

Advertisement

And so Mac, who snapped immediately into full-bore Catholic dogma mode (“Killing babies is wrong Dee, and God forbids it!”) the moment Dee made the case that if women want to get “short, ugly, lesbian haircuts”, that’s their business, veers right back into self-interest mode once it’s his (pardon) bitch on the table. “Well, you gotta kill those babies then!” Mac explodes once the vet explains that she doesn’t perform that particular service. Later, as Charlie unsuccessfully calls around to every vet in town, Mac tries to soft-pedal their pitch, telling Charlie to soften their request from “Kill the dog-puppies” to the more clinical pro-choice terminology “terminate… the embryos.”

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

As happened the first time the Gang tackled the abortion issue, the joke is twofold. First, it’s on the Gang—in this case specifically but not only the guys—whose knee-jerk opposition to abortion/short haircuts is immediately revealed to be a product of unexamined male self-interest. Or part-examined anyway, as “A Woman’s Right To Chop” isn’t exactly subtle about revealing the guys’ motivations here. It’s a quibble, but Sunny’s “issue” episodes work best when the actors and writers (the excellent Dannah Phirman and Danielle Schneider in this case) aren’t winking at us quite so brazenly to signal the joke. The upside after all this time is that everyone involved is so effortlessly good at supplying their characters with tellingly specific types of awfulness that the winking is pretty funny nonetheless.

Advertisement
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Dennis is the self-important would-be alpha, his patronizing misogyny couched in pseudo-scholarship about the natural roles of men and women, hunter-gatherers vs. nurturing breeders, and so forth. (You can pretty much insert a “Well, actually…” before every line he says to Dee here.) Mac, out and sort-of proud as he might be at this point, is all ’bout that old time religion, especially when he can use the bible as a cudgel to beat Dee with once she tries to present a counter-argument. Charlie’s the wild card, as usual, his uniquely insane outsider’s perspective equal parts Charlie-logic (he mainly objected because he thought the women’s pixie cuts were “a little comedy hat”), and go-along Dee-bashing, with just enough hint of his own horrifically neglected past seeping in around the edges to suggest a more visceral reaction to the issue of motherhood. (Still, Charlie never seems to connect the issue of abortion with his own circumstance of being Frank and Bonnie’s abortion that lived.) As for Frank, the episode provides a singularly loony backstory to inform Frank’s revulsion, as he confesses to Dee that he, too, once gave up his hair (gloriously ridiculous in photograph) for money, and it haunts him to this day in truly grotesque (even for Frank) gastrointestinal distress. Taking Dee to see the car salesman (Phil Idrissi) who Frank claims now wears Frank’s mane as his toupee, Frank feelingly (for Frank, anyway) appeals to his daughter not to get the spite haircut she’s planning. Citing his own lifetime of guilt—for giving his hair up for adoption? Hair surrogacy?—and his lifetime habit of buying lots of cars from the grateful but uncomprehending salesman out of regret, Frank rounds out the guys’ takes on the (again, so thinly veiled) issue with appropriate baldness.

Advertisement

But the parallel joke, as ever, is on us for ever thinking that this Gang (or this show) would provide a coherent, lockdown answer concerning a seemingly intractable American social issue. That is seriously not their department, the Gang’s function as the worst possible representations of the American national character functioning to undermine the blinkered, self-involved, hypocritical position of, in this case, the anti-choice faction without coming anywhere close to providing a counter-argument. For the pro-choice side, we get Dee, whose standard position as the Gang’s punching bag and designated second-class citizen sees her leaping into the fray, catchphrases at the ready, but utterly unable or unwilling to overcome her own complicity in the Gang’s ultimately soulless selfishness of purpose.

As when Dee positioned herself confidently on the right side of the Me Too issue last season, the inherent rightness of her stance does nothing here to hide that Dee is Dee. She’s one of the Gang, and the Gang is the goddamned pits, so Dee’s quest to give herself a short haircut she doesn’t want (“I don’t have the face or the body to support a haircut like that!,” she storms at Dennis and Frank as they harass women entering the new salon) functions less as a brave stand for women’s bodily autonomy and more a misguided rush to self-interestedly bolster a misunderstood point. The shakiness of the whole haircut=abortion gag is summed up in Dee’s interpretation of the women’s choice to get short hair, “They’re clearly bored and lonely and need to do something extreme to make them feel special!” Again, not the same issue at all, really, a fundamental bad-faith position that the episode never fully comes to term with on a satirical level.

Advertisement
Chad Coleman, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

In the end, the repercussions come fast, furious, and farcical. The real (male) Poppins pops by the underpass dog-abortion parlor (a blanket on some cardboard) of Chad Coleman’s returning and always-welcome Z. (He breeds fighting dogs, so Frank thought this would be right up his alley, so to speak.) Sniffing around the equally decrepit female dog Mac and Charlie assume only he could have impregnated, Poppins provides the perfect riposte to Mac’s high-minded speech about how men—though they may stray, as is their natural right—always come back to “take care of his fam-… nope, there he goes.” (Poppins simply runs off with the pregnant, doomed dog’s blanket.) Dennis, storming into the salon with his own high-minded speech about ruining women’s lives all ready to rip, is taken aback by the owner’s unexpected tears. (It’s her dog who’s pregnant, and missing.) As Dennis attempts to get his judgmental mojo back, he can’t help but get derailed by the uniquely (to Dennis) eroticism of a crying woman. (“I can switch gears, though—this can be an arousing thing,” he stammers unsuccessfully.) And while his final decision to hold Dee’s hair appointment hostage for the return of the woman’s dog sees him swerving into men’s rights territory (Since Dee’s his twin, it’s his hair, too, genetically), the poor woman just want’s her dog back, and the crazy man out of her place of business.

Advertisement

Then there’s Dee, who, desperate to win the argument no matter what the cost, bursts into the bar with her horrible “back-alley” self-haircut (“The scissors were dirty and they weren’t even sharp!,” she moans), much to the guys’ horror. That horror, while more about the hair (which—yeesh), does reveal that, for all their machinations, dognapping, extortion, speechifying, and rhetoric, the guys really don’t give a shit about any of it. “We were used to being in charge,” says Mac offhandedly, while Dennis admits, “We’re never going to able to stop them,” shrugging. Right before Dee’s entrance, Dennis had seemed up for the battle to continue, demanding, “We can’t rest until every woman is free from the choice of ruining their lives forever,” and suggesting “Shame is a great motivator.” But, confronted with what a woman he (for the sake of appearances) loves, he caves in the sort of indifference born of ginned-up outrage over something far too complicated to figure out. It’s of a piece with Sunny’s satirical strategy, only, this time, the shrug of it all extends too far into the episode itself.

Episode grade: B

Episode 10: “Waiting For Big Mo”

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
Advertisement

And that brings us to the season 14 finale. Sure, FXX is calling this a one-hour finale, but these are completely separate episodes, so the ending of this laser tag-themed bottle episode gets the true final word on what’s been a truly fine (and record-breaking) season. The set-up is as simple as they come, with the Gang engaging in what we learn for the first time is their big annual team blowout at the local Family Fun Zone laser tag emporium. With their green team’s leaderboard status updated throughout, we see that Mac, Dee, Dennis, and Charlie are on the verge of winning, their only obstacle seemingly an unseen nemesis nicknamed Big Mo, who Dennis and Charlie assume is probably just some little overweight kid, sugar consumption being what it is in America and all.

And Dennis is all in, playing field general with the disproportionate zeal (and vaguely offensive “cool black guy dialect”) of someone desperate to prove something. He’s got Dee and Mac illegally sniping from the facility’s air ducts for points, and sniping at each other, thanks to some deviously effective mental manipulation on his part. He’s got Frank making “pew-pew” noises with an inactive sensor vest and laser gun, drawing fire while illegally not registering the thousands of times he’s being zapped. And he’s got himself and Charlie holding down the fort—and the episode’s lone set, labeled “Green Base.” Sure, they’re not having any fun whatsoever camping out and playing to win, but, as Dennis puts it with mounting, desperate importunity, “This isn’t about having fun. This is about staying alive and winning!”

Advertisement

The whole episode spins around that theme, as Dennis tries to keep his teammates from either striking out on their own, or abandoning a good thing that works in order to, as Dee says excitedly upon abandoning the ducts, “finding all kinds of corners of this place that we’ve never explored before!” Yeah, you see where they’re going here, as Sunny turns the finale of its 14th lucrative season into a referendum on longevity, playing it safe, and its own history, all in the guise of a neon-hued laser tag escapade. Like “A Woman’s Right To Chop,” the balance isn’t quite there in this one (written by David “Cricket” Hornsby”), but familiarity with the Gang provides plenty of direct laughs (Charlie’s obsession with riddles, Dennis’ mind games with Mac), and a few more knowing nods to us, who are ready to catch every reference to the show’s malignly brilliant inner clockworks.

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
Advertisement

The show has gone big in its last two season finales. Dennis’ (and Glenn Howerton’s) departure (to North Dakota/A.P. Bio) threw Sunny’s prospects into jeopardy. And Mac’s revelatory coming-out did the same. Not necessarily the show’s prospects for another season, as, in Dennis-speak, Sunny’s safely raking in the Fun Zone dolla dolla bills y’all, and had already been renewed in each case. But certainly in the comic balance the show had been so remarkably assured in maintaining for so long. Here, Howerton being given the rah-rah speeches against “giving up everything we’ve built, everything we’ve worked so hard for” rings with the presumed guilt of the prodigal, Dennis’ warning to the others about “seeing what’s out there” ringing with hard-won experience. (And the playful ribbing of the behind-the-scenes Gang he briefly left.)

Frank, too, gets his moment of clarity, the realization that he’s been used as the Gang’s “fun monster,” running around like an idiot and spreading fake pedophile rumors to the fathers in line for chicken wings, giving Danny DeVito his own chance to spotlight how Frank’s broad, gross-out role has functioned over the years. “I’m not part of the team?” Frank asks in a somber little voice upon learning he’s been the useful butt of a joke, and DeVito, too, finds just the right, improbably soulful note in Frank’s disillusionment. (Dennis’ attempt to cheer him up by defining his role as the Gang’s Cookie Monster doesn’t cut it.)

Advertisement

“Waiting For Big Mo” draws out its extended self-referential gag throughout the whole 21 minutes, Dennis and Charlie never leaving the Green Base (sort of like Paddy’s—you get it), while the others dart in and out to further the comic dissection. It’s a funny (and presumably money-saving) idea, and if the whole laser-tag thing reminds us of Community, that can’t be an accident. That late, lamented sitcom’s knowing deconstruction of its own form and penchant for high-concept theme episodes is an essential component of Sunny’s DNA. It’s also something of an enervating conceit, though, with the premise removing us from the action at hand as we listen up for the references. As noted above, Sunny’s satire is more potent when it’s more sly about it.

Still, for Sunny to address its longevity, its future, and its history in such an ultimately offhanded way is the perfect punchline to the episode-long goof. Dennis, informed by Frank that the Fun Zone’s real owner (as opposed to fun bucks mascot Rutherford B. Fun) killed himself after a lifetime of overextended ambition and neglect of his loved ones, seemingly abandons his fast-talking attempts to keep the Gang rolling safely and lucratively along. “It all means nothing if you’re not enjoying it,” he muses, finally, adding the capper, “If something deep down inside is telling you to move on, then maybe that’s what we should do.” (With the one glowing set and the existentialist waffling, the episode plays like Cube meets Waiting For Godot.) As the Gang resignedly files out of their Green Base, Dennis—over sad strings—intones, “Time to end the game.” And then all five—Dennis, Sweet Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Frank—file out silently, their double-edged words reverberating to close out one of the best, longest-lived sitcoms ever on a note of unaccustomed finality.

Advertisement

Psych! They appear at every door to Green Base, surrounding the entering bespectacled Big Mo (he’s about 12), with Mac promising gleefully, evilly, “We’re never leaving, you little piece of shit!,” before they all laser-blast a child into oblivion. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Episode grade: B+

Season grade: B+

Stray observations

  • I love Chad Coleman’s Z, his guileless grubbiness emerging, in performance, as something both pure and horrifying.
  • Frank eventually hooks Dee and Z up, since, in addition to dog-abortions, Z is also Frank’s wig guy. It’s border collie.
  • Dennis, at the root of it: “These are young, sexually viable women, and they are making themselves no longer attractive to me.”
  • That is some primo Mac slow-thinking in the vet’s office. “Poppins is gonna be a father!” “A mother.” “What?”
  • Same goes for Z, who gamely tries to wrap his head around what he’s being asked to do, eventually offering to scrounge around in the trash cans to find an Allen wrench.
  • Mac, explaining to the vet why he’d never dared check out Poppins’ undercarriage at any point, points to Charlie losing a thumbnail when he went in for a belly-rub that one time. “Oh, he’s a monster,” Mac beams.
  • The fact that no Philly vet is doing dog-abortions is a pointed stab at the increasingly unavailability of a legal procedure in certain areas of the country. But—vets, help me out here—does that sort of un-Hippocratic moralism extend to the veterinary profession?
  • Charlie, solicitously offering the belching Frank some cat food to settle his “valves,” asks, “Are you drinking enough beer, bud?” He really isn’t.
  • Dennis, keying into Mac’s insecurities for maximum laser tag berserker rage, tells him angrily, “I’ve been warning you about your lack of elbow-mass for weeks!”
  • Dennis, once more for the people in the back: “The goal is to play the game and grind it out until the end, then at the end you can go crazy!” Mac: “At the end of what?”
  • A closeup of Dennis’ phone backs up Frank’s tale that Fun Zone owner Larry P. Takeshi left his suicide note on a Fun Zone dolla dolla bill, reading, “It all meant nothing.” “We can assume this is referring to him devoting the majority of his life to money,” the entry concludes, tramping the grave down by noting that nobody attended his funeral. That’s right, Howerton, you’re not going anywhere.
  • And that’s a wrap on The A.V. Club’s reviews of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia season 14. It’s been, as ever, an honor and a pleasure, you knuckleknobs. Now get some sleep.
Advertisement

Share This Story

About the author

Dennis Perkins

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