Five weeks deep in the new season, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’d already forgotten about Dennis’s rumored departure, the surprise child, the family-man bit, all of it. The first joke of this week’s episode, then, is his presumption that everyone still cares. In the cold open, Dennis gathers the Gang for an important announcement about what happened during the inter-season hiatus, except the problem is that nobody remembers. Then, once they do, they’re not particularly interested in hearing about it. Writers room cop-out or no, this move adroitly anticipates the widespread fan reaction to Dennis’s return. While I voiced some frustration over the season premiere’s efforts to have it both ways, both processing his time away and not, I now count myself among those perfectly happy to move on and get back to normal. What’d you expect, resolution? Maturity? From Dennis Reynolds? Fat chance. Now watch the characters ponder automotive purchasing.
“The Gang Gets New Wheels” is downbeat even by the show’s low-key standards, a Big Issue–free half-hour that makes last season’s trip to the water park feel high-stakes by comparison. At nearly 140 episodes, though, the show can certainly be forgiven for wringing a script out of someone rubbing their eyes and muttering, “Okay, this week’s theme: cars!” Especially when it’s funny; the Gang splits up into three isolated plots before converging for a Seinfeld-ian comeuppance at the close, and each strand of story passes laugh-per-minute muster, albeit with one lagging behind the other two. Even so, it’s a solid episode that suggests that the current writing bull pen could select any subject, no matter how banal — I hear someone at an improv show shouting out “office supply store!” — and get 21 decent minutes out of it. Plus, now that I’m really thinking about it, “The Gang Goes to an Office Supply Store” would be a riot.
The sole meaningful consequence of Dennis turning tail on Philadelphia reveals itself when he goes to check on his car, only to find it gutted, stripped, and torched. This calls for a trip to the local auto dealership to pick out a new whip, a decision that nudges everyone toward their own transportation-related misadventures. While Dennis and Dee lock horns at a local cruising spot over their respective rides, Mac and Charlie decide to get back into riding bikes, while Frank goes Rodney Dangerfield and returns to driving school. The combination isn’t that much greater than the sum of its parts. But while these three premises don’t collectively signal toward one cohesive statement, the statement taking its place by default — in this instance, Dee screaming “I’m gonna cuck you so hard” at her new nemesis — works just fine, too.
She shines as Kaitlin Olson continues what may be a career year, tapping into depths of sputtering feral rage rarely accessed on the show. What else but competition with trophy wives could drive her to screech, “You stupid savage! You’re not the alpha here, you crusty-ass fool!” She falls in with a clique of rich gold diggers upon buying the Range Rover that Dennis had his eye on, discovering that she fits right in with them due to both her monstrosity of a car and her tendency to abuse everyone in a ten-foot radius. Of course, this alliance cannot last for long, and Dee goes way too far when she smells the first whiff of opposition. It’s no secret that the social dynamics among wealthy women can be treacherous. It’s just that it doesn’t usually include unwitting (and yet seemingly consensual?) statutory rape done purely out of spite.
Dee’s claim on new mojo leaves Dennis looking for his, as his lack of funds for a new Rover leads him to purchasing a Prius and adopting the “economical” lifestyle that goes with it. While the Range Rover makes you feel like “you’re up on a throne, looking down at all the minions,” the Prius might as well be called the Emasculationmobile. Driving a fuel-efficient, nearly silent hybrid turns Dennis normcore, robbing him of his intrinsic, apex-predator Dennis-ness. He joins some dork’s fantasy league, starts talking like a guy on a beer commercial, and loses any semblance of game he may have once had with the ladies. He eventually finds a back route into Range Rover ownership, but this detour does offer a window into the life he may have lived while trying his hand at starting a family. After the episode firmly declares that there will be no further discussion of what happened to Dennis, it fully puts the matter to bed by giving in and showing without showing.
In the subplots, getting into biking inspires Mac and Charlie to start acting like ten-year-olds again, while Frank shows his age in a driver’s ed class. Passable as it may be, the latter thread is the weak link, starting with Archie Bunkerish “jokes” about how bad Asian women are at driving and ending with vintage porn mags buried in the woods. Frank’s bit has become that he doesn’t even realize how offensive he’s being, which only works when done with finesse, and the Charlie/Mac material works the guilelessness angle much more convincingly. They decide to buy packs of baseball cards — they even get a Chuck Knoblauch card, pre-yips! — and get shown up by bullies once more, their mental state of being overgrown kids more literal than usual. The first shot of the duo happily coasting through an alley takes a viewer off guard with its unbothered happiness. The bicycle bell on the score has been here since the start, but it sounds different here. It conjures memories of simpler and sweeter times, of long summer afternoons with nothing to do. It’s a jewel, embedded in an otherwise less-than-noteworthy episode.
Assorted Notes and Questions
• I, too, have experienced the acute sadness of having a Mongoose-brand bicycle stolen by neighborhood no-goodniks. Mine was the snazziest, a black frame with yellow streaks. If anyone in the northern Massachusetts area has any information about its whereabouts, I will accept the bike’s safe return with no questions asked.
• Rick Astley’s meme-soured masterwork “Never Gonna Give You Up” makes for a weird score in the final scenes. But if you’ve got the music-licensing budget, I guess just follow your bliss?
• Looks like “soyboy beta cuck” has become the show’s latest epithet of choice, which I take as a welcome development. I had been wondering which comedy program would be the one to steer the fascist-favored term “cuck” into the realm of comedy, where it belongs. (Alone Together got the ball rolling, but still.)