It feels strange to wonder if a show is growing up when it aired an episode two months ago that featured a character pretending to have AIDS to cut in line at a water park. And it feels especially strange when the show has taken great pleasure in being immature and focused like a laser on goofs for over a decade, even when the jokes and subject matter are not things you would want to discuss in polite company. It feels… it feels almost like an accusation, without the context. (I’m sure people will read the headline and declare me wrong before, or just without, reading my explanation. Which is fine. Lord knows I’ve done it, too.) And yet, that is exactly what I am doing at the end of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s 12th season.
There are two moments, really. Small ones. Both lasting a few seconds, tops, and coming at the end of episodes that saw a main character display something resembling growth. The first was at the end of “Hero or Hate Crime?,” the season’s sixth episode, which used a very silly starting point and very many slurs to get to a long-brewing development: Mac finally coming out of the closet and announcing he’s gay, for real, for good. It’s not just that he did it, though. It was the happy, almost relieved look on his face, and the way the rest of the gang was taken aback and legitimately happy for him. It was kind of touching, or at least as touching as any moment can be when there’s a dildo-thrusting exercise bike in the background.
The other moment was in the season finale, “Dennis’ Double Life.” The episode started with Dennis discovering he fathered a child in North Dakota while using an alias (and it says a lot about the show that this happened and my reaction was “Yeah, that makes sense” instead of shock and/or disgust), continued with an elaborate death-faking plot to try to get out of the situation, and ended with him apparently leaving the gang, the bar, and Philadelphia to go be with his new family. (It’s Always Sunny in… Bismarck?) The moment his attitude changed came near the end of the episode. Watch his face as he says goodbye to his son. It’s also kind of touching, or at least as touching as any moment can be when a character is covered in fake blood because he faked his death in an attempt to avoid paying child support.
And this wasn’t the only moment this season we saw Dennis appearing to want more from life. That storyline has been quietly percolating all season. The aforementioned water park episode featured him mentoring a young grifter who he started to care about enough to stop wooing an attractive single mom, which is a big step for Dennis. And the Valentine’ Day episode saw him sad and sullen because his friends didn’t show him enough affection. But then again, he also tried to use Dee in a long-developing scheme to “make a withdrawal” from a barely legal convenience store employee, so I suppose my “Dennis has become a big old softy” theory has a few, tiny flaws. Dennis is a complicated man, as Glenn Howerton told our Alan Sepinwall in a finale post-mortem interview:
It’s just a matter of, for us, we satirized the opposite for so long, the idea of being completely oblivious. I think that now I find it interesting the idea of hitting a point where a character realizes, “I can’t hide from this anymore. I can’t pretend. There’s a lot of wreckage and carnage I can leave in my past,” but there’s an interesting emotional truth to the idea of having a child and realizing, “I don’t think I can hide from this.” And recognizing the damage that was done — it’s weird to get this deep about a show like Sunny — but for me, there was something really interesting and poignant about Dennis having a moment of realizing, maybe his childhood was f*cked up, and that he doesn’t want his kid to have a f*cked-up childhood, too.
Now, there are two things going on here, and the second one is the huge glowing elephant in the room. The first thing, though, is that there’s something interesting about the show dealing with “emotional truth” and poignant moments like this in its 12th season. It’s almost like the show is a real person, slowly growing up, moving past the stage where it can crap its pants and screw around in a sandbox all day (both of which I say very much with love, for the record), and starting to notice the world around it. It’s an interesting move, and I’m already looking forward to next season to see how it plays out. The show has always been relentlessly funny. The question is whether it will try to do so with more range.
And this brings us to the second thing, which is that this was maybe, possibly, the last the show will see of Dennis Reynolds and Glenn Howerton. The actor and series co-creator also dropped that little tidbit in the post-finale interview. He played a little coy about it at the time (“It’s not entirely certain whether I am or am not. I might be. I might be, but I might not be. That really is the truth”), but between the interview taking place and running, NBC announced a new pilot starring Howerton and Patton Oswalt. So if that goes, and the schedules can’t be jigsawed together, then Dennis running off to be with his North Dakota baby might be the last we see of him. This is something that’s probably not worth freaking out over yet, or running with too far in either direction. There will be plenty of time for that once an official announcement happens.
(There is a fun little dot-connecting to be done between Sunny and Fargo now, though. Howerton played a personal trainer who got extremely murdered in season one of Fargo. And while that season technically took place in Minnesota, can we really rule out a scenario where Dennis flees his new family, skips a state over, and adopts a new identity? I don’t see how we can.)
Of course, knowing Sunny, this could all take a hard left in the Season 13 premiere. Dennis could be sitting back at the bar in the cold open, in the middle of some borderline deranged explanation for why he’s no longer with his family, moments before the gang embarks on a journey to, let’s say, poison the Dallas Cowboys. And the thing is, that would be fine, too, because that’s what Sunny has always been. But if there are changes afoot, if It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is starting to grow up a little bit, Dennis or no, the show did a pretty neat job of sowing the seeds this season.