When a sitcom has the longevity of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, every season is a fight to evade repetition. The task of finding fresh ground can sink a show, especially one that’s oriented itself around its continued ability to remain shocking and transgressive. There are only so many taboos to bust, and so a change of scenery has been a constant standby of the sitcom in need of something new — The Office was often at its best when ushering the drones out of Dunder Mifflin to see how they would individually react to a new setting, and likewise, It’s Always Sunny gets some amusing material from the ensemble by sending them beyond the walls of Paddy’s Pub.
The AquaMania Pennsylvania water park sets the scene for a simply enjoyable episode, an agreeable turn to pure idiocy after the high-wire racial satire of the season opener. The gang can’t wait to soak up a day of sun and surf (with the notable exception of Dennis, who’s looking for bored MILFs, naturally), and they couldn’t have found an environment more accommodating of their incurable selfish streak. Amusement parks virtually reward unrepentant assholery, leaving polite suckers to pony up eight bucks for a soda or wait in line for untold hours.
The gang splits up, with Dennis taking the A-plot, Mac and Dee stuck in a B-plot, and Charlie and Frank carousing about in the C-plot, but they’re all playing out variations on the eternal Sunny theme: flouting the rules in pursuit of a good time and getting what’s coming to 'em. Dennis has the best material of the three, as he makes the acquaintance of a pint-size sociopath and takes her under his wing. He drops his pursuit of married women (his brushoff — “Interesting.” “What’s interesting?” “Nothing. I’m done with you. Keep up.” — is freezing cold) when the young Abigail cons him out of $20 and he senses a kindred spirit in this precocious grifter. It’s an uncharacteristic turn for Dennis, showing true empathy as he develops genuine affection for the young girl. As they scam their way through the park, this show’s indefatigable cynicism creeps up on the viewer and the question becomes obvious: Who will betray whom first?
The episode takes a route that has a complex tragic edge to it. When Abigail finally puts one over on Dennis, the betrayal stings specifically because he's had so much trouble establishing meaningful connections with others. But at the same time, he can’t help but be proud at the skill evident in her sleight of hand. She’s a true prodigy, and he must accept that she’ll have to leave him eventually. God willing, this will be the closest that Dennis Reynolds comes to parenting for the rest of his natural life.
Meanwhile, Mac and Dee hightail it directly to their favorite waterslide before any 12-year-olds can get a chance to try it. They arrive with dueling paranoia, all but guaranteeing that their worst fears will come to pass. Dee rightly estimates that the water flowing through the park will be majority youth urine and brings a home-testing kit in the hopes of avoiding an incident of Trumpian proportions. Mac, meanwhile, pays full credence to an urban legend about a girl who experienced a full anal prolapse (known on the streets as a “pink sock”) by sitting butt-first on a pool drain, then had to chew through her own organs like a trapped coyote.
Just as Mac and Dee receive cosmic retribution in the form of a dozen-tween pileup that douses the both of them with piping hot urine courtesy of sheepish Sherman, Charlie and Frank don’t make it out of their mishap looking too rosy either. Upon devising what I’d call the Trashbag Fastpass — Frank cruising past the line while yelling “AIDS, AIDS, I got AIDS, comin’ through” after Charlie covers his body in lesion-like hickeys — they have their dream day at the park. But of course their reckless water-sliding must exact a terrible cost, and they fly too close to the sun when attempting to break in an insufficiently lubricated new waterslide. The extreme wide shot of Frank sliding down the slide, screaming in agony, turns into a wonderful sight gag when an animated tiny sliver of red shows the skin being flayed from his back.
Charlie and Frank’s waterslide binge gives Sunny occasion to play around with some creative camera work, racing with them as they speed down chutes and dunking down into the swimming pools like a suburban I Am Cuba. In Mac and Dee’s plot, the cinematographer flexes a bit of creativity to work around the constrictive space of the tube they get stuck in. Visually, the episode takes advantage of an unfamiliar setting, although a much more negative connotation of “take advantage” also pertains. Charlie and Frank’s montage of fun and good times calls its own existence into question relatively quickly, rubbing the frivolity of the episode’s core premise right in the viewer’s nose. Although creative types suckering freebies out of the deep-pocketed FX suits would usually be cause for rejoicing, it feels indulgent here, and not the improvisational kind of indulgence that Sunny has made its trademark.
“The Gang Goes to a Water Park” plays out with an inessential bent, but admittedly, not every episode needs to be a swing for the fences. (Only on It’s Always Sunny does an episode with a recurring joke about faking AIDS qualify as “mild,” by the way.) Take it as a chance to catch your breath and to soak in the surroundings before they fill with bloody water. Low-key episodes such as this have a muted sort of pleasure inherent in their low stakes, too; it’s very comfortable, just to drift.
- I believe it’s federal law that every county in America must have a beloved, disgusting water park to call its own. I spent many a halcyon boyhood afternoon flicking away Band-Aids in the tide pool at New England’s famed Water Country.
- Dennis using the Jedi mind trick to dismiss the woman sitting by the pool is a nice flourish.
- Frank’s utterance of “They should’ve sent a poet!” upon seeing the glorious, dry slide nods to Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 sci-fi film Contact.
- Trying to communicate how special Abigail is, Dennis sputters, “If she was born in China … wait. I tried that already. What country values their women?” That’s an excellent question! Maybe the Scandinavian states?
- Charlie looks very snappy in his ultra-hydrodynamic racing suit. TV execs, here’s a freebie — get the Charlie Kelly character on Jon Glaser Loves Gear, pronto.