It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Perhaps you’ve heard the good news that ladies in Hollywood are finally gettin’ theirs. A social tide turning towards parity in terms of pay rate and onscreen representation has brought a windfall of projects geared to showcase female talent, from the remake of Ghostbusters (but with women!) to the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (but with women!). Studio mandates to pump a few dollars out of this whole “feminism” fad have not, as it turns out, always reliably produced the most substantive material for the actresses on the job. This week’s half-hour, an “all-ladies reboot” of the notorious Wade Boggs Challenge from the tenth-season opener, contends that real, live women deserve a bit more than a rehash of whatever intellectual property might be lying around.
Sweet Dee has corralled a dream team of distaff characters to join her on a noble mission with only the vaguest of feminist underpinnings. To prove to the living boners back at Paddy’s that anything men can do, they can do better, Dee endeavors to match baseball legend Wade Boggs’s possibly apocryphal claim that he once downed 70 beers on a single cross-country flight. Her competition is fierce: There’s profligate alcoholic The Waitress, New Age charlatan Artemis, Mac’s permanently scowling mother, and for the wild card, Charlie’s nervous-flyer mother joins as well. Using the same rules as the first time around, Commissioner Mac’s Mom marks each beverage downed with a strike on the white T-shirts worn specially for the occasion. Like the lifeless reboots that Artemis critiques through the fourth wall throughout the flight, it’s different enough to be different and yet fundamentally the same. Whether slugging 70 beers or 29 bottles of rosé, it all shakes out to the same alcohol intake.
As mentioned last week, staff writer turned executive producer Megan Ganz has taken gradual yet meaningful steps to let women in on the happy dirtbagginess of It’s Always Sunny. That’s true both onscreen, where Dee has been given more time to shine in plots that skewer the absurdity of misogyny, and off, where she’s gotten comedy duo Dannah Phirman and Danielle Schneider on the payroll. The co-creators of reality TV parody The Hotwives are credited as writers of this episode, and here they massage a progressive polemic into a show that reflexively projectile-vomits at the faintest whiff of histrionics. Though that just might be the ayahuasca Artemis slipped in the tea.
While Dee has her eye on the prize, Artemis and the rest of the flight’s passengers en route to the women’s march in Los Angeles would like a little betterment for their gender along the way. There’s some overlap between their causes; among the most salient points made in the episode concerns the subtle sexism inherent in depictions of alcoholism, their example being Wade Boggs’ Bunyanesque heroism versus the pitiable likes of poor, dissolute Judy Garland and Joan Crawford. But righting the scales isn’t such a straightforward task, as Artemis explains, citing the false equivalence between equal opportunity gross-out humor (a promise this episode amply makes good on in its final minutes) and comedy about womanhood. “You can’t just change one small specific and call it new,” she warns. While Dee’s rejoinder — “I changed three!” — has proven more than enough for major film studios, Phirman and Schneider have higher aspirations.
When one character declares early on that “the only way to beat men is competing against other women,” the tone is tongue-in-cheek, and yet Dee learns to find solidarity and strength in healthy rivalry by the end of the episode. Instead of stacking herself up against Dennis, Mac, or Charlie, Dee finds the Chris Evert to her Martina Navratilova in Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Gail the Snail. In the dynamic between them, the episode manages to break away from the example set by the original Wade Boggs Challenge and become its own thing. In the deepest throes of her drunken stupor, Dee’s visited by Navratilova herself (portrayed by Dawn Alden), who explains the vital importance of charting a new narrative path rather than following a trail already cleared. She then transforms into Lori Petty in A League of Their Own, in effect providing the perfect example of an original, pro-woman (both in and outside the text) work of popular entertainment.
Over on FX’s big brother Fox, Kaitlin Olson’s already putting this idea into practice through her sitcom vehicle The Mick, a show that luxuriates in the flaws and shortcomings of a layered, recognizably real woman. At the same time, she’s started to break new ground on her home turf. While growth is anathema to the Seinfeld-ian ethic of It’s Always Sunny, the character of Dee has gained the most depth and shading over the years, second only to Mac. Olson has proven herself fit for the challenge of promoting a feminist mentality from within the moral black hole that is Paddy’s, and the rebooted Wade Boggs Challenge asserts that we now need movie projects worthy of her skills. Furious, blind drunk, and invigorated with feminine togetherness, Sweet Dee’s ready for the big time. The only question is whether the big time’s ready for her.
Assorted Notes and Questions
• Artemis falls in line with past sitcom creations like The Good Place’s Janet and 30 Rock’s Devon Banks, characters who speak almost exclusively in laugh lines. In this episode alone, she rationalizes tapping out at six drinks by reasoning that it’s a “yonic number,” informs some strangers that “the goddess-stone is for putting up your snatch,” and describes Los Angeles as “a land of sad, lonely women willing to pay any price for fake spirituality and clean orgasms.”
• Dee’s repeated use of the term “soy-boy beta cuck” suggests that she may be a regular peruser of Breitbart’s comment section. I like to think that she doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the ideology they’re peddling, and simply finds it a fun place to spend her spare time.
• The aforementioned soy-boy beta cuck is played by Michael Naughton, who returns as a flight attendant after having crossed paths with the Gang on several other occasions over the years, most notable among them an encounter at the Super Bowl. Like Rickety Cricket, he seems to magnetize the ruinous misfortune that hangs over the Paddy’s regulars like a storm cloud.
• Comedy 101 teachers in search of an object lesson in timing, look no further than the exchange in which Dee tells the Waitress, “That’s some record chugging, what’s your secret?” and she flatly shoots back, “I’m an alcoholic.”
• Ever the opportunist, Frank’s plan to score points as a male ally by wearing a “FEMINIST AF” T-shirt and waiting for sexual partners in the airplane bathroom isn’t so far removed from the behavior of many actual self-proclaimed male feminists.