The second half-hour of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s most recent season was “The Gang Goes to a Water Park,” a prime example of the stock “change-of-scenery” sitcom episode. Shows bound up in familiarity — one or two key sets, a relatively fixed lineup of characters — can give themselves a jolt of novelty by taking an excursion to a location beyond the usual that then filters the usual group dynamics through a new set of variables. It would appear that the showrunners like to leave an early slot open for such adventures; after tussling with big fate-of-the-gang concerns in the opener, things slow into a comfortable neutral with an outing to the nearest water park, or ski resort, or, in this case, escape room.
A newish craze in the world of grown-up fun-tertainment, the escape room has already been lampooned by the likes of Bob’s Burgers in another setup that sowed dissent and factionalism through what was conceived as a team-building exercise. Dee hires the fictitious Escape From Philadelphia to convert Dennis’s apartment into a clue-strewn sitting room straight out of wartime London under the guise of group bonding. Dee being Dee, it all turns out to be a con job designed to make her look clever and capable, but her male counterparts start in on disrespecting the sanctity of the process without her. Give the Paddy’s gang an objective and they’ll take the most direct route to getting it out of the way, rules and regulations be damned. They are, to put it mildly, not the best-suited collection of personalities for the cooperative demands of an escape room.
“The Gang tries to cheat their way out of a locked-room game” is a ripe enough premise on its own, but the episode finds direction by sowing disagreement along gender lines. From the jump, the men of Paddy’s convince themselves that they understand the game better than its creators. The first problem with escape rooms, suggest the people who have never done this before and know nothing about it, is that the stakes are too low. Easy fix: winner gets steaks, for no other reason than the word having just been said out loud. From the outset, their demented anti-logic and wholly unearned confidence (“As a man, this makes sense to me,” self-fashioned sage Dennis declares) warps the fabric of the game’s reality.
Of course nobody wants to go through the work of riddle-solving and basic collaboration, so the men decide to lock Dee in Dennis’s bedroom and remake the game in their own chauvinist design. After splitting into teams fails to bear fruit, the foursome join in a formal decision-making assembly styled after British Parliament, complete with table-pounding to express approval. Their malformed idea of the civilized, rational society attainable only by menfolk reflects their idiocy back at them, and their farcical form of self-government is the case in point. To ensure continued equality, everyone is permitted a wad of Big League Chew–brand gum on which they can happily smack their lips, and they resolve their disputes by adopting corncob pipes. Even after establishing order in their singularly moronic fashion, it doesn’t get them far, as the key-and-lock combo they solve by working together (the point from the start!) contains nothing but the first clue.
But is it not the most classically masculine move of all to ignore a woman’s advice until a man can independently reach the same conclusion himself? While the Paddy’s group happily divides itself into boys-versus-girls at every opportunity, this episode skewers the foibles of male blowhard-ism more acutely than most. Possessing the most brain cells, Dennis and Frank know enough to promote the macho-man fetish for regimented debate, as currently demonstrated by the legion ranks of think-tank conservatives obsessed with out-shouting their opponents onstage. The guys claim to rely on the airtight objectivity of logical reasoning as opposed to flighty emotion, but then act on gut instinct (“His neck feels high, that makes me trust him,” Charlie figures) or underhandedness (“Never trust another man in a negotiation! That’s textbook!”). A group of men talk in circles and accomplish nothing while a woman’s screams from the next room over fall on deaf ears, same as it ever was.
This broad microcosm of gender in the workplace/government/everywhere ends on a semi-optimistic note, as Dee finagles a way out of Dennis’s sexual prison cell and lays claim to the prize steak, cuing up the final laptop-wallpaper-perfect snapshot. But not before she takes a great fall, getting mighty dinged up on the way down. I like to think that this is how credited writer Megan Ganz, a known proponent of the feminist cause, sees being a woman. It’s all fun and games until someone takes away your right to be heard or seen. For those willing to risk life and limb, however, there’s a way out. And if you’re lucky enough, you get to bite into a big, juicy sirloin like it’s an apple.
Assorted Notes and Questions
• The clear highlight of the episode is the erotic torture chamber Dennis charitably calls a bedroom. Each scene parcels out a new scrap of information, gradually revealing the sum total of his deviant tendencies. The room locks from the outside, and it’s soundproof, and the lights turn red, and the bed violently vibrates, and Dennis’s pre-taped intercourse intro forms the sour cherry atop of this disgusting carnal sundae. “Remember, if you’re having too much fun, that ruins it for me,” calmly intones the stomach-churning welcome video.
• Mac is very popular: “Dennis is the smartest person I’ve ever met, and I’ve met, like, a hundred people.”
• Dee’s crafty escape from Dennis’s take on the Red Room of Pain from the Fifty Shades saga earns her an utterance of “clever girl.” The Jurassic Park reference seems strangely placed, until it dawns on the viewer that dinosaurs are, taxonomically speaking, birds.
• Continuity nitpickers will be pleased by the reappearance of Mac’s rubber fist-equipped exercise bike, which we see sitting expectantly in the corner of his bedroom for … let’s call it “late-night cardio.”