The 13th season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia opens with a voice we’ve never heard before on the long-running comedy. “What an awesome night it’s been!” exclaims Mindy Kaling in her signature upbeat chirp, her fuchsia and grass-green outfit brighter and more joyful than anything we’ve ever seen on this beer-soaked, shit-stained, can-never-feel-clean-again grimefest of a sitcom. And yet more jarring still might be the crowd that Kaling’s con artist Cindy has managed to draw to the usually empty Paddy’s Pub. New patrons have flocked to Cindy’s “Night of Liberal Conversation and Liberal Drinking”—a scheme that, like so many of the Gang’s, is destined to implode by the end of the episode. Hilariously playing on internet rumors about Kaling’s supposed conservatism (long ago disavowed), “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” finds Cindy in a red cap making fun of “liberal morons.” In the end, though, she’s just as happy peddling wine bottles labeled “Liberal Tears” as she is pushing “Conservative Whine.” Eager to exploit the hostile tribalism of the current political climate, her only loyalty is to her personal gain.
Cindy’s extreme cynicism, combined with her elaborate ploys, makes her the perfect replacement for Dennis (Glenn Howerton), who we last saw departing for North Dakota to parent the son he didn’t know he had. (Howerton’s casting on NBC’s A.P. Bio fueled speculation that the actor might be leaving the FXX show for good, and the Sunny team dumped its share of gasoline on that fire by, among other things, leaving Howerton’s name off the opening credits in the premiere.) Like Dennis and his father, Frank (Danny DeVito), Cindy is a stupid person’s idea of a smart person: Her personality mostly consists of condescension and a taxonomic vision of the world that divides people into hustlers and chumps (or, uh, winners and losers). And yet she’s an indubitable improvement over Dennis: She doesn’t compulsively put down the rest of the Gang, especially Dennis’ sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and she doesn’t seem to need constant affirmation that she’s superior to everyone around her.
But when Dennis abruptly reappears, the Gang quickly casts Cindy aside. In some ways, he never left. The presence of a horrifying sex doll made in Dennis’ image, its open mouth seemingly mid-rant, is all that’s necessary for the Gang to hear in their minds exactly what their absent friend would have said: Dee is ugly, Mac (Rob McElhenney) is fat, Charlie (Charlie Day) is dumb, Frank is embarrassing. Cindy pleads her case for the new, Dennis-less Gang hardest to Dee: “They’re just going to go back to treating you like shit the minute I leave. Us ladies, we’ve gotta stick together.” Dee’s response is utterly, pathetically true to herself: “I kinda like being the only woman, because it makes me feel special.” And so the show returns to its equilibrium, with Dennis back to lead and shame his friends and family.
The return to the starting point is a cliché of the sitcom format, as well as a key source of the genre’s low stakes and unchanging appeal. But as an uncommonly smart series with a tendency to lacerate pop culture tropes, Sunny treats its own characters’ relapses to square one not as the usual concession to formula, but as pointed commentary on their lazy and ultimately self-defeating refusal to change. At this point in the series, no one in the Gang particularly likes or respects the others, and yet they continue to stick it out in the toxic stew that is their group relationship, willingly boiled to death in their own dysfunction and inertia.
Threats to the Gang’s membership have often come in the form of foils for the main characters, of which Cindy is only the latest. As Dennis and Dee’s father, Frank had his relatively late entry into the high school friends’ close-knit circle challenged when a kindly philanthropist played by Stephen Collins turned up and announced he was the twins’ biological dad, though it turned out the siblings’ degenerate lifestyle better aligns with a father whose professed goal for his final years is to wallow in the gutter. Mac would have lost his place in the Gang to his exactly-like-him-in-every-way-but-better cousin, Country Mac (Seann William Scott), if it weren’t for the latter’s sudden death from being such a “badass.” Schmitty (Jason Sudekis), a high school bud free of the psychosexual hang-ups that render his old friends sexual pariahs, is the guys’ Platonic ideal, but he only thrives, by townie standards anyway, once he’s gotten rid of them.
But Cindy isn’t just any foil. As she herself puts it, she’s a “brown-skinned girl,” and so her eventual ejection from the Gang, while inevitable, feels different from previous iterations of this storyline. The Sunny writers know that their morally grotesque characters are uncomfortable around black people, routinely stereotype other people of color, and mistreat women on a regular basis. (One of the show’s most remarkable aspects is its high-wire ability to engage in politically incorrect humor that seldom feels like it’s punching down.) But women and people of color are rarely suggested as substitutions for one of the Gang’s members, so Cindy’s ousting becomes one of the show’s most forceful reminders that, while the group regularly brushes off outsiders, that closed-mindedness includes a refusal to treat anyone who’s not a white man as a potential coequal. If the Gang previously seemed like dirtbags whose actions largely happened to be racist and sexist, Cindy’s expulsion suggests that their uglier qualities were meant to be the text, rather than the subtext, all along.
Fans of Sunny know that it’s not just the Gang that’s insular. For a show so attuned to its characters’ blind spots, the creators didn’t seem particularly aware of their own until recently. It took until the 130th episode for the series to have its first female director, for instance—a statistic all the more glaring because of the much-touted campaign by FX, Sunny’s original network, to hire more women and/or people of color as directors.
The question that’s greeted every new season of Sunny in the last few years has been: Will the show keep up its shockingly high quality for another year? After watching the new season’s first four episodes, I’m not sure. But those early installments certainly suggest that the show is reaching for freshness through topicality and self-examination. The third episode tackles female reboots, and the surprisingly introspective fourth episode reacts to #MeToo by re-evaluating its own storylines in the context of contemporary mores without relinquishing the characters’ creepiness one bit. If certain episodes in later seasons can feel a bit too insidery by relying on callbacks to more than a dozen years’ worth of plotlines, at least the show is proving extremely adaptive to the fact that our goal posts for decency, and for the jokes dependent on deftly dancing around them, are rapidly moving. Thankfully, it’s catching up fast.