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Words are the enemy, but a Sunny zoo trip finds the Gang triumphantly embracing its animal side

Danny DeVito, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
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“If it looks like you thought about it for a while, it’s pretty lame.”

Taking the Gang out of their element is a risky proposition. For the Gang, exposed as their multifarious flaws and hangups are in the bright sunshine away from Paddy’s. For the chosen destination, whose continued existence rests on just how deep it allows the Gang’s grasping, monomaniacal desires to penetrate. And for It’s Always Sunny, since finding the right balance between the Gang destroying stuff and the Gang ultimately and inevitably getting destroyed can send an episode out of whack. When it doesn’t work (the Super Bowl), the resulting chaos feels cacophonous and labored. When it does (the World Series, a water park, and, in “The Gang Texts,” the unsuspecting Philadelphia Zoo), it’s like watching a dark comedy version of a horror movie successfully set all in the bright sunshine. Think of this one as like the Gang’s Midsommar, but with slightly more pee.

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Written by Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney, “The Gang Texts” takes its comic cues from Mac’s eagerness to set up a group text chain so their trip to the zoo can stay all-inclusive. As usual, the Gang splits, reforms, and re-splits into different alliances and configurations through the day, with the added fillip of the onscreen text exchanges juicing their usual abusive banter and misunderstandings far more effectively than it has a right to. (Staying with the horror movie theme, even Unfriended didn’t exploit the gimmick nearly as well as Day and McElhenney do here.) With the vagaries of written inflection, punctuation, emoji, and abbreviation adding to the Gang’s traditional rapid-fire, cross-purposes communication breakdowns, the whole episode fairly swims in multi-level riptides of comic timing.

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Mac is the driving force here, his neediness informing his plan—to keep everyone up to date with even the most insignificant details—ringing with his now-established role as the Gang’s most desperate and lonely sad sack. Naturally, his focus remains squarely on Dennis, whose imperious rage at Mac, Charlie, and the tardy Frank for making him miss the bloody “live feeding” of the lions (his sole, gleam-eyed reason for agreeing to come to the zoo in the first place) leaving Mac scrambling to make amends. I’ve maintained that last season’s stunner of a finale will have to be reckoned with by Sunny, Mac’s unequivocal acceptance of his sexuality (and Frank’s seeming acceptance of it, too) too big a change to be simply brushed off in pursuit of comically rancid business as usual. But “The Gang Texts” continues season 14's sly incorporation of the newly-out Mac into the Gang’s dynamic by showing how the issue was never as much about Mac being secretly gay as it was and is about Mac’s bottomless need to serve. Because, for someone who’s never known love from anyone, the merest glimmer of acceptance from someone important to him is cue to grovel, as Mac shows when Dennis’ terse tweets upon missing the lions receive two separate, cringe-inducingly heartfelt paragraph-long texts in return.

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Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Oh, and to get pissed on, first by a furious Charlie, and then a furious Dennis, both of whom demand Mac lock eyes with them while they—in the style of the meerkats Mac and Charlie are obsessed with—mark him as the weak one of the Gang. (A group of meerkats being often knows as, of course, a gang.) Charlie’s pissed because Mac’s terror of disappointing Dennis is killing their meerkat plans and ruining the chance of a fun day looking at the animals. (California sets stand in for the actual Philly Zoo, with the Gang’s various obsessions leaving actual wildlife confined to insert shots, and one guy in a gorilla suit.) Dennis is pissed because his transformation over time into an arch, supervillainous dandy with age has left him with the unquenchable thirst to watch something die horribly. “He devoured the kill and I wasn’t here!,” rages Dennis impotently to the poor zookeeper (whose only sin was accurately estimating how long it would be until feeding time), while, later, his dudgeon at Mac for once more misunderstanding the concept of “feeding a goat” sees him glaring in silent, disdainful fury at Mac as he melts into the crowd like Dracula.

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Dee and Frank are the odd ones out—Dee is terrified of a repeat of the goat-trampling zoo incident when the guys ditched her in childhood, Frank just wants to taunt a gorilla with some bananas—although the conceit of Mac’s text chain does masterful work at tying each separate misadventure together in a sea of missed meanings and assorted hijinks. (Dee keeps getting ditched by the others, who see her desperately texting them for their whereabouts before slipping out of sight.) The joke that texting isn’t especially suited for nuanced conversation might come across as some grumpy old person hackery if not for how nearly every joke about the Gang’s text-tastrophies is rooted in their dysfunctional dynamic.

Glenn Howerton
Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
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“This whole texting thing was your idea and you don’t know how texting works?,” is Charlie’s apt summation of the chaos Mac’s inept attempt to bind the Gang together engenders. Mac, needlessly emoji-updating Dee and Dennis about how the churros he’s eaten have made him thirsty, inadvertently leaves himself open for abuse, which in turn leaves Dee open for abuse, since, as ever, her hunger to join in on the Gang’s put-downs outstrips her capacity. The brilliance of “The Gang Texts” is how it juggles several levels of comic timing (written, spoken, and hieroglyphic) in a dizzying display of verbal and visual dexterity. Dee has the perfect response to Mac’s accidental display of thirstiness, but Frank beats her by seconds (peach + fist), leaving Dee to send a way-too-late lonely fist. “C’mon, too late, Dee,” Charlie muses out loud, while immediately sussing out the meaning of the running-late Frank’s dancing lady + smiley face +gun message as “he’s stuck behind a woman driver and he wants to shoot himself.” (Charlie’s semi-literacy, too, informs some of the episode’s best jokes, in that he’s especially good at picking up the non-verbal cues of emoji and Dennis’ increasingly dismissive use of “K.” and an abrupt thumbs-up in response to Mac’s obsequiously long-winded attempts to make things right.)

Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX
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Racing through to the ending foreshadowed by Charlie (about those observation bubbles that let visitors pop their heads into the meerkat enclosure), “The Gang Texts” is one, long, virtuoso exercise in TV storytelling. It’s the sort of deceptively effortless lark of an episode that shows off this gang’s experience and inside knowledge with/of the Gang like the Harlem Globetrotters on a good night. The denouement sees all five scattered, harried, and variously furious members glaring at each other from inside their wordless, phone-less bubbles (while “Circle Of Life” plays on the soundtrack) and finding, improbably, understanding. It’s about as close to heartwarming as Sunny gets as they all walk out in unaccustomed, good-natured solidarity (since they’re not bonding over having destroyed someone/something else for a change). Mac’s sincerity, at last, isn’t greeted with scorn as he tells the forgiving Charlie, “That smile was worth a thousand words,” and Dennis accepts Mac’s silent apology, telling Mac, “I really appreciated that, bro.” And sure, Frank punctures the moment by being the third person to piss on Mac’s leg in the episode, but even that brings some measure of redemption, since Dee finally gets her emoji game right, just in time to alert them to something hilarious. (Bowling ball + eggplant +water drops +lady = “Frank is pissing on Mac’s leg.”) Even Dennis appreciates his sister’s appropration of Mac’s inadequate comeback (“Shut up bird!”) before Mac can type it. The Gang might be animals, but this time when they got out of their cages, nobody got hurt, which counts as a good day in Philadelphia.

Stray observations

  • The constant autocorrect of “fuck” to “duck” keeps the episode safe from the FX standards department.
  • The zoo staff the Gang interact with are pitched just right, too, their sunny professionalism never quite allowing the Gang’s unthinking inappropriateness to rattle their cages overly.
  • Another deft example of Mac’s coming out is how unapologetically offhand he is in talking to Charlie and Dennis about being on Grindr, how zoo bathrooms are a great place to meet “closeted dads,” and how he unsuccessfully propositioned a zoo employee for information to mend fences with Dennis. He’s as terrible at connecting as an out gay man as he was as an in-denial gay man, but at least he’s not ashamed of it any more. Yay, Mac?
  • The confusion between “see lions” and “sea lions” is at least partly on Dennis.
  • Dennis, to Dee after her labored pictorial attempt to call Mac a particular gay slur: “Don’t go blue. That just tells me that you’re not funny at all.”
  • Of course, Dennis then goes on to emoji-slur Mac as a “flamer,” which he claims is “totally acceptable, for now.”
  • More examples of Dennis’ villain-speak: “When is the goat to be slaughtered?;” “My friend engaged in a sexual exchange for information.”
  • Frank’s planned mockery of the “dumb ape” goes about as well as expected. Losing his bananas to the crafty primate, Frank is left shattering his hands on the enclosures’ glass, demanding them back.
  • Dee’s nightmare returns, as she’s unthinkingly lured once more into the path of some stampeding petting zoo goats, one of whom seems about as menacing as Black Phillip. (With Terminator vision.)
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Dennis Perkins

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