The Gang has done it all, from making musicals and making movies to ski slopes and water parks. Over 130-plus episodes, they’ve grown so estranged from the central premise of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that getting back to basics doesn’t feel so much like creative exhaustion as it does a subversion. “The Gang Tends Bar” attempts to force a group of characters who ostensibly run a bar to actually run a bar, and the episode acts like a test of its own concept’s tensile strength. It offers up the idea of It’s Always Sunny as a normal show about people doing normal jobs, and then illustrates how it could never be that, first and foremost because the Paddy’s staff is violently allergic to actually doing work. “The Gang Tends Bar” pretends that It’s Always Sunny could be a salty workplace comedy with just a few tweaks to the formula, and then gladly exposes what makes it an entirely different creature.
Unfortunately, the whole “anti-concept” concept is more nifty than entertaining, an interesting angle to consider but far from a wellspring of humor. The joke outlined above is pretty much the only one in the episode, that every member of the Gang — except Dennis, who has somehow magically transformed into an industrious employee of Paddy’s Pub — would rather spend far more time and energy tricking someone else into performing a simple, menial task than just doing it themselves. This is the rare episode that works better as a bizarre narrative exploration than a half hour of a sitcom, leaving the Gang less amusing than usual while nonetheless teasing out new sides of their personalities.
With the arrival of Valentine’s Day, Paddy’s sees an influx of unexpected clientele. Suddenly, the Gang’s called upon to do all sorts of unreasonable things, alien tasks like “taking orders” and “serving drinks” and “treating customers with basic human respect.” Dennis take charge at a pivotal moment and sees an opportunity to make money on the straight-and-narrow, though of course Charlie understands legitimate business as a “booze-for-pay scheme.” All he wants is for everyone to overcome their gnatlike attention spans and do a little labor, but that’s complicated by the appearance of a mysterious crate in the alleyway behind the bar.
The closest thing this episode has to a B-plot concerns emerging tensions between Frank and Charlie regarding the former’s tapeworm, which he has named Jerry. This intestinal parasite incapable of complex thought gets a more thorough characterization than any of the people newly introduced in this episode. Hell, Jerry’s got desires (eating Frank’s food) and inner conflict (needs Frank to stay alive, but must kill him in the process) — he’s about as finely shaded as Cricket, who drops by to smoke some PCP in the bathroom. The continued personification of Jerry makes for a dynamite running joke, as if he’s a new friend threatening Charlie’s supremacy in Frank’s personal life. (“We can’t even play Nightcrawlers anymore, because Frank says he doesn’t wanna offend Jerry!” Charlie cries.) But then the episode hits a sour note by asking the audience to take the situation seriously. Though it revolves around forced weight loss via parasitic organisms — this is still It’s Always Sunny, after all — the writing suggests a moment of genuine vulnerability between Charlie and Frank that can’t sustain itself.
This is the same problem plaguing the episode as a whole, that the most resolutely cynical show on television can’t smoothly segue into sincerity without inducing whiplash. Dennis nearly reaches the point of apoplexy because everyone can’t shut up about the stupid crate for two seconds and do their damn jobs, but there’s an underlying cause to his grouchiness. Glenn Howerton evinces a sarcasm-free sense of hurt when Dennis finally confesses, “I hate Valentine’s Day because you assholes never got me anything!” He defiantly asserts that he has feelings, of course he has feelings, and that they’re hurt every year when his friends fail to get him a gift. These friends, who framed him for murder a few weeks ago. The moment is a tough sell.
Dennis’s outburst is clearly meant to counteract the way he’s been drawn this season, returning a little humanity to a character who’s sprinting towards sociopathy. Although the effort certainly commands respect, it’s just a bit too much to swallow. Not only does Dennis’s sudden desire for a little affection from his friends contradict everything we know about him, but the rest of the Gang’s reaction scans as entirely unlike them as well. The enigmatic crate turns out to be a ruse from Mac, containing a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher that they had ordered for Dennis, knowing it was his dream to own a weapon of controlled destruction. We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for this gesture of selflessness to turn into another punch line about selfishness, but the moment’s played completely straight. It is, to say the least, disorienting.
Whenever It’s Always Sunny turns genuine out of nowhere, it feels like a disingenuous move, a futile attempt to conjure pathos from people incapable of emotional altruism. Why would the show want to dial back its chief comic appeal, apart from a well-intentioned hope to try something a little sweeter for Valentine’s Day? Like the real Valentine’s Day, “The Gang Tends Bar” is a reminder of how phony sentiment can sound when the particulars are miscalculated. A kinder, sweeter It’s Always Sunny isn’t It’s Always Sunny at all.
The stealth star of this episode is Dottie, the mojito-swilling regular that Dennis immediately dubs “Dee,” much to the chagrin of the original Dee. Her time at Paddy’s is sadly brief, but it teaches us a valuable lesson: Even postal workers have their limits.
The little-seen bathroom at Paddy’s really nails the “derelict dive bar crapper” aesthetic: filth-caked grout, graffitied urinals, and whatever in God’s name the “yuck puddle” might be.
If it were real, would you ever consider going to Paddy’s? The service is laughable, the ambience is best described as “defunct amusement park,” and Charlie considers cutting the drinks with pink ink. And yet, its overall shittiness is indivisible from it charms — to the right sort of person, it is specifically the terrible parts of Paddy’s that’d make it worth a visit, and the same goes for It’s Always Sunny itself.