See, here’s the thing about the season 13 premiere of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: there was really very little going on, plot-wise. Oh, it looked like there was going to be a lot of plot, sure. The episode opened with guest star Mindy Kaling and the gang in the beginning stages of a classic Sunny ruse. With her help, they were going to play up the divisive partisan climate to start a Right vs. Left kerfuffle in the streets in an attempt to poach customers from a bar down the street. There were wine bottles labeled Liberal Tears, there were bright red hats that said Make Paddy’s Great Again, things were all shaping up to be one of those In This Political Climate episodes that shows sometimes do after a long break, in an attempt to explain What Is Going On In The News. Which, fine. If I trust any show with that kind of story, it’s this one. I was on board.
Ahhh, but then. But then. Shortly into the episode, after setting us up with all of that foundation for a political satire, things took, let’s say, a hard left. Like, someone grabbed the wheel and yoinked the car completely off the road. I don’t know how else to describe this.
Folks, friends, that is a sex doll of Dennis Reynolds, with its mouth open “in mid-conversation,” that Mac had made to fill the Dennis-sized hole in his life after his roommate and (kind of) best friend left to go raise a baby and ended up in North Dakota. It all raises a number of very reasonable questions, like:
- How much did Mac pay for it, because it looks so much like Dennis — and the man who plays Dennis, Glenn Howerton — that I have to believe it was some sort of full-on custom job that set him back a not-insubstantial amount of money?
It also threw a wrench into the episode’s trajectory in the best way possible. What started out looking like another comedy doing a Topical Episode about politics ended up being a deep character dive about the Gang’s internal dynamics that, oh, hey, prominently featured a sex doll that looked exactly like one of its stars and later broke up Charlie’s relationship with The Waitress. It was an okie-doke, a case of misdirection, like one of those old Simpsons episodes that opens with Bart and Milhouse hijinks and then reveals that to just be the launching point into the real story. And it was so, so good.
That the episode worked was both an explanation and feature of the show’s absurd staying power. Live-action comedies are not supposed to last 13 seasons, especially not in 2018, and especially not in a way that remains fresh and exciting over a decade after they start. That’s kind of insane. The show premiered in August 2005. That was only three months after Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch. Patricia Arquette won an Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for her work on a network series about talking to ghosts. It was a lifetime ago. And yet Always Sunny has remained surprising and relevant, with the same cast, with characters who have changed but not grown, in a way that no other live-action comedy of its generation has. It’s almost a magic trick.
But it’s also that history itself that makes it work now. We know these characters. We’ve seen them torment each other and everyone around them for so long that the show can replace Dennis with a sex doll in its season premiere and it can have the characters communicate with the doll through silent interactions based on things Dennis probably would have said and we can still see all of that and sit back and think “Oooo, classic Dennis.”
Take, for example, this screencap from the premiere.
There are levels at play here. The surface level, the one you could get even if you’re a very casual viewer (or even a non-viewer), is that this really just a funny visual. A shirtless jacked dude in a leather Blade duster is standing next to a fully dressed sex doll in a grimy bar. That’s almost art, really. Like if you saw this as a painting in an art museum you’d probably stroke your chin and say “This man… he has stories… and a past. It’s fascinating.”
But there’s also over 12 seasons of history there, packed into one still image. There’s Mac’s body image issues — from beefy to skinny to fat to, now, just righteously shredded, which is something I’ve been glossing over to this point but am truly flabbergasted by — and there’s Dennis’s scheming and judgmental asides and there’s the rich history of the jacket and it’s all loaded into that one shot that, again, features a sex doll and a shirtless man in a Blade duster. Longtime fans can look at that and infer so much because we’ve seen so much. Or, to be more specific: The show has lasted because it works and now it also works because it has lasted. It’s a nice little trick they’ve pulled.
Poor Mindy Kaling, by the way. Her character never stood a chance. Even if Dennis hadn’t come back. Thirteen seasons in, there’s still no room for reason here. Only chaos. It’s a beautiful thing. Unlike that sex doll, which is a hateful abomination that should be heaved into a volcano until its lifelike eyes melt away. Or kept around for multiple seasons and played for jokes. Either way.