It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has consistently tackled controversial topics every season. From gun laws to abortion, the gang have discussed it all. For the season 12 premiere, the gang harkened back to their very first episode (“The Gang Gets Racist“) and discussed race relations in a very surreal way. If any show on television could get away with their protagonists literally swapping races, it’s Sunny. The gang doesn’t just “turn black”, they also find themselves uncontrollably singing what they want to say, like some sort of forced musical.
“The Gang Turns Black” is one of Sunny‘s most challenging episodes yet. It has a lot to say but still manages to be hilarious in typical Sunny fashion.
The episode starts with Charlie, Mac, Dennis, Dee, and Frank watching The Wiz with an old man Frank met under the bridge back at Dee’s apartment. The electric blanket they’re using shorts out, causing them to all be involved in some kind of body swap. While trying to determine how exactly they changed skin color, they also break out into song. Within moments they’re making assumptions about the black individuals they’ve switched bodies with, all while trying their hardest not to be racist. (They fail, of course.)
The first order of business, then, is to determine the rules of their new reality. How did they switch bodies? How can they switch back? What are the exact rules of their new bodies? Dee believes that they have “Quantum Leaped” into their new bodies, so in order to switch back, they have to complete a good deed. Dee and Frank decide to go find the old man from under the bridge and reunite him with his family. Mac, Dennis, and Charlie are of the opinion that they’re in a Freaky Friday scenario, so they just have to learn a lesson in order to change back. The three of them go off to try and figure out exactly what lesson they’re supposed to learn.
There is a lot of meta-conversation in this episode, more than Sunny usually contains. The show is always self-aware, but by placing the characters in a body-switching musical, they create an opportunity to explore concepts the characters never could otherwise. Dee and Frank openly discuss whether or not it’s acceptable for Frank to use “the n-word”. Mac, Charlie, and Dennis get arrested trying to break into Dennis’ car, and then Mac and Dennis try to figure out what kind of men they’ve switched bodies with. They immediately begin with stereotypes, believing their new bodies have an arrest record. Part of the brilliance here is that Mac and Dennis both have criminal records as white men, and the bodies they inhabit turn out to belong to “church people”.
Charlie is in an especially strange situation. He has not only switched bodies with someone of a different ethnic background, he has also switched bodies with a child. When he is arrested along with Mac and Dennis, he is taken to a separate room to speak with a social worker. Here, the episode makes some amazing commentary on Charlie and the cycle of abuse he’s gone through. He very bluntly tells the social worker his life’s story. Charlie is essentially a child in many ways, having been emotionally stunted as a result of his horrific childhood. He has a similar revelation to that of Mac and Dennis when the social worker asks about his parents. He immediately assumes that the child’s body he inhabits doesn’t know his father, then immediately calls himself out for being racist.
None of the characters wants to be racist (except maybe Frank). Each tries to accept their new reality and behave in a way that’s acceptable and without prejudice. In trying so hard to not be racist, they end up causing more problems for themselves and others.
While Charlie, Mac, and Dennis are at the police station, Frank and Dee take the old man to a nursing home and reunite him with his wife. Then, by some kind of sci-fi miracle, they run into Scott Bakula, who just so happens to be a janitor at the home. They accost him, trying to get him to tell them how to return to their bodies. It doesn’t work, of course, but Bakula sings a nice little solo about being a broke former actor while staring longingly out a window.
Eventually, the members of the gang reunite and decide to try to return their VCR to an electronics shop called “The Wiz”. Instead of getting their VCR fixed, however, they end up having another terrible encounter with police. Charlie raises his toy train and they shoot him multiple times. For one brief moment, the show almost goes too far. The image of a little African American boy riddled with bullet holes hits way too close to home for many. Thankfully, they cut back to Charlie Day being all shot up and somehow still singing.
The whole episode contains this back-and-forth between comedy and social commentary. The gang eventually learns that race issues are too complex for them to paint in their typical broad strokes. They begin to understand that skin color has nothing to do with the person who wears it. But it does affect how other people treat them. In the end, it all turns out to be the old man’s dream, anyway, and the gang has actually learned nothing.
The dream works because it’s a reference to The Wiz, plus it explains all of the silly singing and body-switching. Sunny may be absurd at times, but it rarely breaks the rules of reality. It also works because having the gang learn the lessons in the episode would change them, make them somehow more mature. The show relies on the awfulness of the proprietors of Paddy’s, so growing up isn’t something they’re ever likely to do.
“The Gang Turns Black” is a great episode of a show that frequently breaks down serious issues in ridiculous ways. Some of the musical moments don’t entirely work, but the singing helps provide levity in an otherwise bleak episode. The only time the singing feels off-tone is at the end, when Charlie is shot. The singing feels a bit too glib, given the seriousness of the moment and what it means for people of color. Otherwise, this looks to be a fantastic start to the new season.
- Charlie being a child is so on the nose and genius. His best kid moment? “Okay, but I’m gonna make the train fly now.”
- Immediately after Frank and Dee’s song about whether or not Frank can use “the n-word”, Z walks up and immediately uses the word in question.
- At the very end of the episode, the old man passes a mirror in the hall after leaving Dee’s apartment. He sees Scott Bakula as his reflection and instantly asks himself, “but what are the rules?”