On an otherwise ordinary night a few years ago, the rapper El-P came to an Earth-shattering realization while under the influence of potent marijuana. After a life spent under the impression that the series of popular children’s books about the lesson-learning ursine family was titled “The Berenstein Bears,” he noticed that it was, in fact, spelled “Berenstain Bears.” This epiphany set off a chain reaction of dumbfounded astonishment through the internet, as thousands were jolted into awareness of a mix-up that’s plagued creator Stan Berenstain since his school days. The mass delusion isn’t all that hard to comprehend, -stein being a common surname suffix, but the totality with which that misconception started to reshape the contours of reality made an intriguing statement about the subjectivity of thought. If, for everyone’s intents and purposes, the name really was Berenstein, does that not alter reality? It sounds like stoner babble, but there’s epistemological backing for the theory that this hallucinated typo split reality itself in twain, creating parallel timelines with each spelling.
This is the metaphysical rabbit hole down which our players tumble in “The Gang Does a Clip Show,” a self-reflexive interrogation of memory’s intrinsic imperfections that fits within the span of time it takes to download a new iOS. App sluggishness compels the Paddy’s crew to update their phones, and when confronted with a sudden lapse in the action, they decide to take a stroll down memory lane. Cue the clip show, that refuge of the exhausted and/or budget-strapped writers room, where recycling of beloved footage can cut production costs down to peanuts. It’s the most minimally conceived premise since the episode where they all decide to have a normal day at the bar, and of course it’s too easy to be the full game.
To be slumming it with a clip show (in this, the year of our lord 2018!) would be a surprising phone-in from a staff that’s been firing on all cylinders this season. For the first few minutes, as they cycle through fan-favorite clips — a “Dee getting harmed” supercut, a glistening nude Frank slithering out of the leather couch, rehearsals for The Nightman Cometh — a viewer wonders if they could really be serious. But like Community before them, they start to interpolate original footage as the universe begins to break down. Little things go off-kilter in their recollections, gradually getting more noticeable: who turned the lights off when Dennis left at the end of the most recent season, Frank’s general appearance, Charlie speaking fluent Chinese in place of regular dialogue. Confusion manifests itself visually in some instances, wherein Charlie mistakes the immortal “The Bet” episode of Seinfeld for a story that happened to him and his friends. He thinks he’s Kramer. He doesn’t know who he is. They’ve come unstuck.
Things get all Inception, a comparison the episode directly courts in its final moments, upon the realization that they’re all stuck in the malleable dimension of someone’s mental interiors, the only question being whose. Fortunately for them, the gang unreliably narrates their own thoughts, warping events by playing out wish-fulfillment fantasies in the dream-plane. All it takes to discern who’s calling the shots is a look at who’s getting their way, whether that’s Dennis finally being rid of the dildo-biking Mac as a roommate or Charlie siring a child with the Waitress. They take refuge inside their own fantasies, and with the membrane between the constructed diegesis of the show and their imaginations all but dissolved, the characters can freely rewrite their own lives.
The ability to revise one’s own history has figured prominently into this season of It’s Always Sunny, as the writers have made strides to reconcile the show’s proud dirtbag streak with some semblance of moral direction. Under the stewardship of Megan Ganz, the story lines have gotten more of their laughs at the expense of the characters who have earned it, and distanced themselves from the mean-spirited down-punching of earlier installments. This episode goes one step further, making barely noticeable revisionist tweaks on past regrettable humor, in effect taking back the lines they now wish they could. During Charlie’s confrontation with the mall Santa he believes banged his mom, Kris Kringle’s query of “Is he retarded?” gets bleeped out. Dee makes a motion to revisit some of her racial caricatures from early seasons, only to be roundly rejected by the rest of the group, even Frank. (“We’ve decided that isn’t funny anymore, as a society,” Dennis flatly explains.)
For a show that has always prided itself on immaturity, growing up can be difficult, and adapting to changing social mores even more so. But while South Park has dug in its heels on the god-given right to offend anyone and everyone, It’s Always Sunny has refined its approach without compromising its chief virtue of flagrant dickishness. “The Gang Does a Clip Show” makes the radical suggestion that this process of evolving without losing touch with a series’ integral identity can be much simpler than we might think. As long as a showrunner has the willingness to do so, they can alter reality as easily as an omnipotent god, and the rest of their world will fall in line. This half-hour advances that principle one more step, theorizing a memory so elastic that all wrongdoings can be fully erased from the record. At least in the fictive realm of television, where writers call all the shots, a new status quo can be willed into being at any time. Berenstein can turn back into Berenstain in the blink of an eye. Call it eternal sunny-shine of the spotless mind.
Assorted Notes and Questions:
• I will be haunted by the image of a hair-headed, giraffe-legged Frank Reynolds for many moons to come.
• The script goes for Inception as its prevailing reference, but I personally prefer to believe that someone in the current Sunny writers room has seen Meshes of the Afternoon.