If we've learned anything after 11 seasons of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's comic madness, it's that the veteran FXX series has never been afraid to test the boundaries of what's socially acceptable on television. In fact, the show and its depraved characters have reveled living in the space on TV's comedy fringe since day one. So, by now, more than a decade since the series first aired, its niche dark comedy-loving fans would expect (and accept) nothing less.
And yet, there will surely be some fans who will cringe a little at hearing the premise of season 12's opener, 'The Gang Turns Black,' which sees all five main characters become African-American versions of themselves for a day. Even for a show that's gotten away with using blackface on more than one occasion, this episode's concept seems particularly risky -- if not for being potentially offensive, for being unfunny (which, for many comedy fans, is the bigger sin).
Fortunately, the show's strong track record of delivering laughs from typically touchy subject matter (religion, drug abuse, gun control) has built up enough goodwill that audiences can almost always trust the series and its creators with just about any topic or comedic approach. And it's especially comforting knowing we're in good hands this time around, given that the episode ambitiously tackles racial issues with a body-swapping storyline (with plenty of film references thrown in along the way) and acts as a musical at the same time.
Needless to say, it's an episode the show probably could not have pulled off near the beginning of its run, simply because audiences would have been less likely to give it a chance. But even with that said, the experiment is not a complete success either. While the premiere mostly works as solid topical social commentary -- as the Gang empathizes with the trails and tribulations that come with being a black person in America -- it's hard not to see the episode as somewhat of a gimmick, mostly due to the musical numbers, which don't come with the same Sunny charm and flavor that fans fondly remember from the classic season four episode, 'The Nightman Cometh.' This season premiere's approach certainly makes one wonder if the episode would have been better off focusing its energy and limited runtime on the jokes and the sociopolitical points it was trying to make, rather than also trying to fit that material into multiple songs.
In the larger context of the series, it's also easy to see a trend emerging in the last few years of the show leaning more on concept-driven or stylistic episodes. Some have worked quite well (season 10's 'Charlie Work') while others haven't (season 11's 'Frank Falls Out the Window'), but it's interesting to note this developing tendency, especially as the series pushes ahead to its 13th and 14th seasons, the latter of which will contain the show's milestone 150th episode.
On its own, 'The Gang Turns Black' probably ranks somewhere toward the middle of Sunny's growing catalog of concept pieces. While the musical bits felt out of place and the joke about the Gang being mysteriously compelled to sing the plot of the episode became stale, the episode certainly had some humorous points to make about race and culture, especially as those issues relate to the characters themselves. Here, we saw Frank (Danny DeVito) using his predicament as an excuse to use the N-word, Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) experience racial profiling and Charlie become a victim of police brutality (though Key & Peele tackled that particular issue in an even more absurdly hilarious way in a season 5 sketch). These were all pretty effective and funny bits within the very on-the-nose lesson that the Gang is supposed to learn, but befitting of Sunny tradition and style, the Gang learns absolutely nothing as we discover the entire episode was part of the Old Black Man's (Wil Garret) dream.
Perhaps what we can appreciate most about the episode is that -- while the show is starting to resort more to stylistic gimmicks over character-driven episodes -- it also demonstrates once again that the series is still willing to take chances, not shying away from what it thinks is funny. Because even when the show slightly misfires, it still manages to find laughs in unlikely places, while its unflinching, creative approaches to original ideas keep us engaged, entertained and wondering what misadventures the Gang will be caught up in next.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 12 continues next Wednesday with 'The Gang Goes to a Water Park' @10pm on FXX.
Photos: Patrick McElhenney/FXX