Charlie Day as Charlie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis as the Waitress.
Will It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia ever jump the shark? It’s hard to imagine that anyone who’s stuck with this show for over a decade, through the crack-smoking and shattered lives and obliterated taboos, could be turned away by anything else it might try. Disbelief has been stuck in a state of permanent suspension since the series’ second episode, leaving an unusually small number of internal laws that could be broken. This affords the writers the freedom necessary to put the Gang through all manner of bleak ordeals without the hassle of dealing with any consequences, but on the other side of this double-edged sword, it’s made meaningful progress a difficult ordeal.
Circumstances snap back to the status quo with some regularity on Sunny, but this season has been dedicated to making real, lasting change. Mac’s full emergence from the closet was irrefutable proof that these characters can develop beyond the end credits of a single episode. The season’s finale serves up a one-two punch of major character crises, and sets the stage for a radically different batch of episodes when the series returns for its 13th season. If It’s Always Sunny can jump the shark, this is when it’d happen — but for the time being, it looks like they’ve stuck the landing.
“Dennis’ Double Life” does away with two core truths of this universe called Philadelphia: that Dennis cannot be made to experience human feelings, and that the Waitress will never stop hating Charlie. Upending these two constants threatens to break apart the cozy derelict world that It’s Always Sunny has built, but at the same time, it opens up a ton of storytelling options for these two stuck-in-their-ways characters. Put simply, they’re risks. And in the words of Steve Guttenberg, “No risk, no reward!”
The first harbinger of these cataclysmic changes arrives on a flight from North Dakota with Dennis Reynolds’s bouncing baby boy in hand. Mandy (Christine Woods) knows Paddy’s resident sociopath as Brian, the well-to-do pilot he impersonated in season ten, who gave her a night of pleasure while on a layover during a quixotic quest to beat baseball legend Wade Boggs’s record for most beers consumed during a continental flight. Dennis’s womanizing ways have finally caught up to him, and the Gang all fly to his aid with equally impractical plans. Although their efforts end up being for naught, the emotional revelations they trigger could have major ramifications next season.
After doing everything in his power to wriggle out of the responsibilities of fatherhood, Dennis follows through on the glint of humanity he displayed at the climax of “The Gang Tends Bar” and agrees to rear little Brian Jr. with Mandy, setting up a cliffhanger that’s yet to be resolved. Credit’s due to episode writers Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney for carefully working up to this change of heart, and noting that Dennis doesn’t want to repeat the same pattern of disappointment established by his own father. The staff avoids a feelings ex machina by giving a long lead-in to Dennis’s choice, and hopefully, that same level of care will be present in the season to come.
“Dennis’ Double Life” presents his decision as a possible game-changer on par with Mac’s big reveal, and while it’s clear that his friends don’t take his words particularly seriously, how the show will treat this choice remains murky. This could be a significant juncture for Dennis, granting him a more recognizable arc and ushering him into the horrifying new phase of Dennis Reynolds, Dad. To renege on that would certainly be a classic Dennis move, but it’d also make Sunny seem as manipulative and calculating as the character it’s created.
The same goes for Charlie, who experiences his own personal upheaval as a reaction rippling from Dennis’s newfound purpose in life. Charlie decides that it would be mutually beneficial for he and the Waitress if they decided to have a little one together, and calls her to mount what ends up being a pretty persuasive argument. As he frankly and rightly points out, her life is in a shambles, and Frank’s money would get her out of the women’s shelter where she currently lives. But it’s not until Charlie opens up and uses the L word that she starts to pay his offer any mind. Charlie Day is a better actor than he’s given credit for, and he does his best to sell this moment, but this is the closest the episode comes to shattering its sense of internal logic. Charlie is a stalker in no ambiguous terms, and the way he’s treated the Waitress is not the way someone treats someone they love, even if his devotion feels true in the moment. Their offspring should have an even more far-reaching aftermath than Dennis’s, but there’s no telling if this will all get wiped away for a clean slate next season.
Even in the C-plot, Mac’s having a reckoning of his own, as his unrequited attraction to Dennis grows more overt. He whips up a fake love life for himself and Dennis with an immediacy that betrays his hidden sentiments, repeatedly insisting that they do indeed bang one another despite Dennis’s protestations. It’s the rare gay-panic gag that works (because, like Andy Millman’s catastrophic scene opposite Ian McKellen in Extras, it’s rooted in the insecurities of hetero men) and it cues Mac up for an arc worthy of his openly gay status.
Frank, meanwhile, wants eggs. As has been typical of his role throughout this season, he spends the episode off to the side in his own loony scheme, this time offering Mandy a “decent proposal” of $5,000, failing to realize that the amount of money was never what made the more infamous proposal so indecent. It’s redundant to suggest that a sitcom would have comic relief, but Frank’s undoubtedly the member of the Gang most purely devoted to dispensing bizarre punch lines over character-driven storylines. He’s been a constant MVP this season, and the revolting matter-of-factness with which he lays out the terms of his proposal serve as a fine reminder why.
After Sunny began to spin its wheels in season 11, this year has felt like a breakthrough for the show. It’s plumbed new depths of racial and gender-based satire, and perhaps more impressively, it’s added new dimensions to characters we’ve known for a decade. I marvel when I think back to Dennis taking a shine to the pint-size con artist at the water park, seeing how the show has played this transformation out incrementally so it didn’t arrive as a betrayal of Dennis’s profile. The show could coast on its boorish-yelling shtick for as long as FXX renews it, and the fans would probably keep watching. But It’s Always Sunny deserves to be commended for continuing to challenge itself, expand its boundaries, and push the signposts of good taste a little farther. I wish we could get ten more seasons like this one, and the most thrilling thought of all is that we very well may.
• This episode runs pretty light on laughs, and most of them come from Charlie’s lovingly crafted visual aids that accompany his presentation on why he and the Waitress should have a kid. As Charlie explains that life with him and the baby would be “pretty good,” he holds up a collage of magazine clippings featuring a woman with wads of cash stuffed into her bikini.
• Mac gets the best throwaway line, helpfully explaining the nature of his alleged sexual relationship with Dennis: “He’s the power bottom. He generates a tremendous amount of power from the bottom.”
• Recapping this season has been sweeter than a fresh-cut rum ham, and I hope you’ll all join me when the show returns for lucky season 13. Until then, take care and stay off PCP.