It’s been a year and a half since the last new episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hit the airwaves, the kind of hefty-sized hiatus more frequently reserved for the time-taking likes of David Chase or Matthew Weiner. In this case, however, the cause of holdup was logistical rather than artistic. When Glenn Howerton landed the lead role on NBC’s classroom sitcom A.P. Bio, the future of the dashing amoral void known as Dennis Reynolds was thrown into jeopardy. The 12th season’s finale seemed to send him out to pasture, acquainting him with the son he never knew he had and ushering in a fresh chapter of fatherhood far from the buzzing fluorescents of Paddy’s Pub. But a trickle of interviews with Howerton and other cast members in the following months called that move into question. First he was going to leave the show, then he was going to be back, but only barely, then he didn’t know, then he was definitely returning for almost every episode.
The season 13 premiere “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” attempts to work around Howerton’s partial involvement by creating a paradigm that is both post-Dennis and not. While the episode title and constant mentions of liberals and conservatives would suggest that the writers have finally decided to do their big Trump episode, the real work of this half-hour is, as Mac so elegantly puts it, finding something Dennis-shaped to fill our hole. Everyone — on either side of the screen — recognizes that he’s left a vacuum in his wake, except that Howerton himself is back in the mix before the credits roll. He cracks a few cruel jokes, calls Dee a bird, and it’s like nothing at all has changed. Except it has. But it hasn’t?
While the final scene leaves the precise nature of the series’ shift in direction unclear, those preceding it wrestle with that confusion in suitably hilarious ways. Two new characters have entered the picture to pick up Dennis’ slack, each of them incompatible with the show’s universe in their own way and accordingly ideal for guest-star-sized fun. The first is Cindy (Mindy Kaling), a new hire who opens the episode by thanking the Paddy’s crew for being “so welcoming of this brown-skinned girl and her liberal ideas.” Obviously, something is up, and it comes as no surprise when she drops the bit and outs herself as every bit the scumbag as her new coworkers. She’s got a master plan to get one over on rival bar Murphy’s using Trump-era outrage-mongering — “1. Spread fake news. 2. Incite liberal outrage. 3. Trigger conservatives. 4. INFLAME.” — but her purposeful, strategic thinking ultimately alienates her from the group. Though they’ve all got the same goals and motives, the constant distraction and incompetence of the Paddy’s crew proves too much even for her.
The second and more entertaining is an anatomically correct sex doll molded and dressed in the likeness of Dennis, ordered by Mac as a severely misguided attempt to process his absence. From the agape, beckoning mouth-hole to the harrowing, vacant eyes, it’s a gold mine of prop comedy. They put the creepy facsimile through its paces, first as a “lifeless thing Mac pumps his loads into,” and eventually as a modded-out tuba played by pursing one’s embouchure directly onto the anus. To quote James Franco on moe body-pillow women: “Objects are made by men and used for many purposes. But we never love objects.”
That last bit poses some difficulties for the Gang, who quickly imbue the Dennis-doll with a life all its own. Perhaps as a self-effacing knock on the series’ tendency to rely on pattern-based improvisations and catchphrasery, the Gang starts to hear the fake Dennis speaking in the genuine article’s go-to canned lines. He achieves full personhood when he does just what the real Dennis would do, and cuckolds Charlie by sleeping with The Waitress. She’s quick to point out that it’s not cheating, as it is technically an inanimate item, but that does little to dull the sting of betrayal for Charlie, and so too does the doll wear out its welcome.
Which brings the show’s progress to a juncture that markedly resembles square one. Lucky number thirteen is to be a season of change — a proudly-out Mac will attend his first Pride parade, for starters — and yet the undoing of Dennis’ absence combined with the prompt departure of their promising new additions seems to have restored the status quo. Not that that’s a massive issue, seeing as the Paddy’s crew has always thrived on stasis both in their lives and in terms of arc-based storytelling. Besides, Dennis may be back, but Howerton’s still juggling two television shows. The season to come has a lot of fun navigating what must have been a tricky shooting schedule (in one episode, the show gets an all-female reboot), and they’ll have to contend with somewhat less Dennis, even if it’s the same Dennis. It’s canny of them to end with the image of the old buddies all reunited around the corner of the bar, abusing one another and slugging beers as nature intended. After 18 months, they’re glad to be back together, and they know we are, too.
Assorted notes and Questions
• To be cucked is an indignity. To be cucked by a sex doll modeled after a friend who’s got you locked in a psychological mind-vise even from afar is a personal injury. To walk in on the scene of the crime only to be confronted by the strains of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” is nothing short of a tragedy.
• Mac’s shredded again, and very eager to show off his rippling physique in a fourth-wall-leaning gag about inventing opportunities to get shirtless. The group’s read on his constantly fluctuating weight? “No one knows what’s going on with Mac. He’s fat, he’s skinny, he’s regular. It’s a cry for help.”
• The advertising hints that The Waitress will be a regular presence this season, presumably as she embarks on a downward spiral through her latest relapse into alcoholism. Her rapport with real-life spouse Day remains unimpeachable.
• Welcome back to another year of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia coverage! Hope everybody had a suitably dirtbaggy summer, and can’t wait to dive in for another year of degraded, contemptible shenanigans.