‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Takes on White Privilege in Trump’s America

The gang is back—and yes, they’re black.

Patrick McElhenney/FXX

It’s a hell of a feat for any TV show, but especially a live-action sitcom, to reach its 12th season in such fine creative form. It’s all the more impressive when that show is a no-holds-barred spectacle of human depravity like FXX’s delightfully deranged black comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

After its 12th season, which premieres Wednesday, only one live-action sitcom in American TV history will have run longer than It’s Always Sunny: ABC’s 1950s family comedy The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Several more, including Two and a Half Men and Cheers, will have produced more episodes.

But none will have plumbed the depths of human immorality and immaturity to such debauched, riotous effect. To be so funny so consistently for so long—with little to no recognition from the Emmys or Golden Globes, an injustice the show itself skewered brilliantly in Season 9: “We’re too fringe! I mean, it’s given us a lot of street cred, but we’ve alienated a lot of people in this town”—is more than a marvel. It’s a goddamn miracle.

Over 125 episodes, the degenerates of Paddy’s Pub have schemed and squirmed their way through one prank and money-grubbing plot after another, degrading and debasing themselves each step of the way. They’ve faked handicaps to pick up strippers. They’ve pretended to be jihadists to scare off an Israeli business owner. They’ve tormented at least one priest into leaving the church (then rubbed cocaine on his gums until he was addicted and sold him out to the mafia).

In matters dealing with race, the show is equally uncompromising in its characters’ buffoonery. Mac, Dee, Dennis, Charlie, and Frank are all the kind of white that think stunts like the jihadists impression, or the blackface Mac and Dee don in their homemade Lethal Weapon sequels, are OK for them to do because they’re not that kind of racist. (They’re exactly that racist.)

Wednesday’s season premiere exploits this delusion even further: In “The Gang Turns Black,” an episode penned by It’s Always Sunny creators and stars Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney, the gang isn’t pretending to be another race. Through a freak accident involving lightning, a VCR, a black man, and electric blankets, the gang actually wakes up in the bodies of black people.

You can imagine how smoothly being black goes for five relentlessly monstrous white people suddenly stripped of their privilege.

It’s actually a timely concept. As Mac points out during a late-night viewing of The Wiz on VHS (a movie that gets him grumbling about why an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz is necessary at all), “We did have a black president before the orange one.” To him, like to so many other real people, Barack Obama’s existence means black people have it just dandy in America nowadays.

Charlie, resident Bernie bro (or so I like to imagine—the rest were all definitely pro-Trump), pipes up to remind everyone that Obama’s eight years in office weren’t the end of a single damn problem for any minorities. “What about Black Lives Matter?” he offers, prompting Dennis into a cringeworthy All Lives Matter spiel that, in true All Lives Matter fashion, completely misses the point. “Black people may not feel like it, but it’s kinda tough out there for everybody,” he asserts. “Really, our lives aren’t all that different.”

And that’s when lightning strikes.

The gang wakes up to find the old black man they’d watched the movie with missing—a running gag involves Dee and Frank fretting over whether to include “black” in their description of him—and themselves in a comically hazy jumble of body-switching pop culture tropes. They can only see their alternate black bodies in mirrors, like in Quantum Leap. And they keep bursting into song, like in musicals. They’re also pretty sure they have to learn a “lesson” of some kind to switch back into their original bodies (see: Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30).

The first obvious lesson in privilege comes when Dennis finds himself stuck without car keys. Forgetting the extra weight of suspicion that comes with being black in public, Dennis, Mac, and Charlie try breaking into a car instead. Almost instantly, cops pull up, radioing a “robbery in progress.” And with all the confidence of a mediocre white man, Dennis turns to face them, reassuring his accomplices that “we can talk our way out of this. We get away with stuff like this all the time.”

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Not this time. The boys are handcuffed and hauled off to a police station, where Charlie, who inexplicably switched into the body of a child, is coddled and given a toy train to play with. Mac and Dennis hem and haw over whether they’re victims of racial profiling, while Dee and Frank set off to find the missing “old black man.” (One of the episode’s silliest, best moments comes with Frank enthusiastically appropriating outdated black slang, and Dee stopping him at “n***a”: “You’re not one of them!” she shouts. “What do you mean them?” he asks, indignant.)

Brief, shining moments of something approaching self-reflection come when the gang catches itself in moments of implicit bias, like when Charlie wistfully looks into his reflection and sings about how neither he nor the little boy staring back know their fathers. “Oh, unless he knows his dad,” Charlie says suddenly. “Oh shit, that was racist.” Dennis has a similar epiphany when he assumes the black man whose body he’s in has prior arrests. “Let’s draw good conclusions,” he vows after realizing that was racist.

Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap gamely cameos as a singing janitor in a nursing home, shortly before Mac decides to take the gang’s fried VCR to an electronics store called The Wiz in the hopes it will restore them to their original bodies. Unfortunately, this gang of five desperate, singing black strangers creeps the storeowner all the way out and he calls the cops. When they show up, Charlie volunteers to do the talking, since they just gave him a toy train and he thinks he has a relationship with them. He even reaches into his pocket to show them the toy.

Horrific real-life images of the past few years, now emblazoned into our national psyche, make what happens next a bit too real to laugh along with. Still, the show doesn’t back down from it. Mistaking his toy train for a gun, a cop shoots Charlie in the chest multiple times as the rest of the gang, now handcuffed on their knees, loses their minds. Happily, it turns out this was all a dream the old black man had on the night of the thunderstorm. Everyone is fine—and still perfectly terrible.

“The Gang Turns Black” tries spinning perhaps too many plates at a time. Its central premise, a group of five white people living as black for a day, unearths a few moments of insight about privilege, but mostly ends up muddled by the musical and Quantum Leap elements woven in throughout. (One or the other, The Wiz or Quantum Leap, might have been better to spoof than both. But I say that selfishly: I want another It’s Always Sunny musical episode, and a deep-dive Quantum Leap riff would be fun, too.) As it is, the episode feels like three disparate glimpses into three different, potentially great ideas.

Still, the reasons to rejoice at the whimsy of this episode far outnumber its flaws: There’s the cast’s effortless-as-ever knack for timing and physical comedy—not to mention the palpable warmth between the main players (all real-life friends and spouses), which always adds an extra layer of comedy to their nastiest moments. There’s the sheer weirdness of it too, evidence of a brazen experimental streak still running strong twelve seasons in. (The Wiz plus Quantum Leap plus white privilege as a half-hour musical comedy sounds laughably impossible on paper—you gotta commend them for trying.)

Perhaps best of all is the simple fact that twelve seasons in, It’s Always Sunny is still wholly dedicated to making us laugh. In a post-Louie TV landscape, brilliant half-hour comedies that pack gut-punches of heartfelt emotion—BoJack Horseman, Transparent, You’re the Worst, to name a few—have become the norm. That’s a wonderful thing. But so is laughing at this bunch of degenerates who never learn, never grow, and never stop producing transcendent comedy out of humanity’s worst instincts. Here’s to another year at Paddy’s.