It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has a Dennis-sized hole in its heart (and its cast) at the start of season 13, and in typical Paddy’s fashion, the gang manages to exacerbate the problem in the most uncomfortable way possible. The bright side is that, after so much hemming and hawing over whether or not Glenn Howerton’s narcissistic Dennis Reynolds would be back for the new season after the character departed in the season 12 finale (and the actor playing him went to NBC to star in his own sitcom A.P. Bio), the character does indeed return to his old stomping grounds.
That’s right, much to the chagrin of his ostensible replacement, Cindy (Mindy Kaling), and also the quietly judgmental sex doll created in his likeness to Mac’s exacting specifications, Dennis Reynolds is once again a part of the It’s Always Sunny gang. Although his smug visage was noticeably absent from a lot of the promotional material leading up to the series’ thirteenth season, Howerton’s return wasn’t exactly regarded as a state secret. In fact, given that the last time anyone saw him was in the season 12 finale, using the word “return” feels like something of a misnomer. Still, with all the attention his role in A.P. Bio received and the cast's own less-than-forthcoming comments regarding his future on the show it’s no surprise the season 13 premiere, ‘The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again,’ makes it all about Dennis’ absence and his subsequent reappearance.
In a way, Howerton’s involvement in NBC’s bad teacher sitcom is a creative blessing in disguise for FXX’s long-running comedy. While there’s no doubt Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito can carry the show without their ostensible partner in crime, the premiere gets a boost from seeing the characters (and the show itself) struggling to deal with his departure. Dennis gets into everyone’s head, and even though he’s not there in body (unless you count Mac’s weird sex doll, of course), he’s definitely there in spirit. And he can’t stop getting under the gang’s collective skin. In doing so, the show reveals Dennis may in fact be the one who’s been holding everybody back.
Kaling’s surprise role as Cindy sees her elevating the bar’s status by getting political, first turning Paddy’s into a more congenial space by hosting ‘A Night of Liberal Conversation’ events. But as it turns out, improving the bar and its owners is just part of a much longer game to turn a profit, one that includes engaging the MAGA crowd and selling them wine labeled Liberal Tears. Cindy’s motivational skills are second to none, as no sooner has she dropped her plan than she’s raised Dee’s self-esteem, gotten Charlie organized, and helped the gang mostly forget that Mac has an impressive new, muscular body for no reason whatsoever. Unfortunately, just as Cindy is about to turn Paddy’s ship around, everyone begins to second-guess themselves, all on account of an inanimate object with a grotesque “mid-conversation” mouth that’s taken Dennis to the uncanny valley.
Thirteen seasons in, It’s Always Sunny maintains a solid relationship with its characters’ penchant for failure, especially when it’s brought about by themselves. The events of ’The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again’ is no exception. This time, though, the series leans into the idea that one individual’s influence greatly outweighs the others, turning Howerton’s moonlighting on the Peacock Network into a meta-joke about the role Dennis plays in the group and on the show. A recurring gag in the premiere has Dee, Mac, and Charlie "hearing" doll Dennis’ mean comments about them and responding in kind. The result is a sharp joke that cuts both ways — Dennis has some sort of Svengali-like hold over the gang, and they’re probably better off without him.
It’s a solid start to Sunny’s thirteenth season, one that makes good use of Kaling’s guest appearance as the hero Paddy’s needs, while once again demonstrating the show’s understanding of the power of schadenfreude. Watching Charlie’s already tenuous relationship with the waitress go up in flames because he left her alone with a Dennis sex doll is perhaps the episode’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment, proving there’s nothing these characters can’t achieve that won’t be ruined for them in some way or another by their best (and only) friends.
‘The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again’ is proof the show’s still pretty great after so many seasons, but it gets extra points for finding a darkly funny solution to the show’s Dennis problem — one that proved not to be much of a problem at all.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia continues next Wednesday with ‘The Gang Escapes’ @10pm on FXX.