With “The Gang Broke Dee,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is back for its ninth season on FXX, and thankfully the gang is as nihilistic and amoral as ever. Famously called “Seinfeld on crack,” this has always been Always Sunny’s draw: Its characters are unabashedly self-interested, self-obsessed and megalomaniacal, long ago having eschewed any semblance of ethics in favor of the kind of narcissism that can only lead to a rock bottom that never seems to come. It is, in effect, the anti-Breaking Bad.
Wednesday night proved that, with the season opener starting out with Sweet Dee sipping Wild Turkey and snacking on a cake she had trash-picked from behind the bar (or, as Dennis says, “trash cake”). Depressed and despondent, Dee has finally accepted her role as the gang’s perpetual punching bag, filling in the guys’ usual ugly bird insults for them and seriously ruining their fun. Dennis, ever the rapey pseudo-alpha male, decides Dee needs an “average-to-below-average” man to turn her life around, or at least “take [her] off [their] hands forever.”
Mac, Charlie and Frank, on the other hand, sign Dee up for an open-mic comedy night at Helium, with Charlie noting that her newfound crushing depression could be the key to her lacking performance because she is “between that sweet spot between suicidal and actually dead” where most comedians thrive. Dee listlessly agrees to both plans, leaving the guys to wait for the gig and Dennis to make his “selects.”
Kaitlin Olson’s hilariously unfunny standup performance nails the schticky anti-comedy trend, channeling the perfect amount of Maria Bamford and Aubrey Plaza into totally flat vagina jokes and robot noises that the crowd unexpectedly eats up. One fat talent agent shtup later (which, as Dee says, wasn’t all bad because “he has all his skin still”), and Dee snags another comedy gig opening up for a comedian known only as “Landslide.”
This, I promise, is where Breaking Bad comes in. Even casual Breaking Bad fans will immediately finger Landslide as Lavell Crawford, aka Saul Goodman’s mountainous enforcer Huell, who actually has funny standup IRL. That, however, is just a red herring.
Following his exhaustive search for a suitable mate for Dee, Dennis settles on a quivering mound of awkward dubbed Walt because, like Dee, he has no self-esteem. But there’s something weird about Walt: That facial hair, that coif, those thick rimmed glasses and darty eyes—if there were a Vince Gilligan look-alike contest (or biopic!), the actor behind Always Sunny’s Walt has a lucrative future. Not likely a coincidence, given Glenn Howerton’s recent Reddit AMA in which he admits to having a special place in his heart for Walter White and Co. Likewise, Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul called Always Sunny one of his favorite shows in his own AMA.
Beyond that, the first episode of season nine is essentially Breaking Bad encapsulated into 20-odd minutes of comedy. Dee, the Always Sunny version of Walter White, finds herself listless and meek, taking one last stab at making something of her life before she ends up in a box. Along the way, though, Dee, like Walt, stoops ever lower, starting with sleeping with talent agent Snyder for a break, to abandoning him for a Hollywood agent, to cutting out the rest of the gang from her success when said Hollywood agent gives her a chance to perform on Conan. Great success, after all, requires great sacrifice.
The show spares us from having to see Dee bomb so badly on a national stage with one of the greatest reveals in the show’s history, proving that, even after eight seasons, the show’s writers are still able to throw us the comedy equivalent of a well-done Shyamalan twist. Ready to take the stage, Dee walks in front of the curtain only to find the gang and dozens of extras on the other side with a “The Joke’s On Dee” banner (echoing her uninspired catchphrase) and an explanation of the show’s greatest long setup yet. The whole thing, from the laughs at Dee’s first performance to the six-hour “flight to LA” that was actually just a random holding pattern over Philly was a ruse to show Dee that “she could go lower.” The only genuine behavior in the episode comes from Dennis, who wasn’t in on the scheme.
And this, essentially, is why Always Sunny is the comedic foil to Breaking Bad’s austere drama. Where Breaking Bad shows a man’s journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface and all the subsequent consequences, Always Sunny’s universe has no lessons to offer, no higher truth, and no bottom to the desperation which fuels its characters exploits. Breaking Bad’s characters are collectively breaking bad only now, and consequently dealing with a nuclear-level fallout. The Gang, however, broke bad long ago and never really had the self-awareness to figure out that they did—and so doing stuff like faking a person’s budding entertainment career to get them to react to being mocked again just seems normal.
Ostensibly, this episode is about poking fun at the comedy scene in general, but in some small way it seems to be an admission that Always Sunny is happy to be the jester hat to Vince Gilligan’s philosopher’s stone. But just as Breaking Bad’s self-imposed ending this season is a function of its story structure, so too is Always Sunny’s projected 10-season run a function of its moral compass-less plot. The same moral-less fate for Breaking Bad’s characters would undoubtedly be much worse than whatever Vince Gilligan has planned out for the White family. Similarly, any morality imposed on the gang would stunt Always Sunny’s over-the-top humor.
But with the tone of this season’s opener as outrageous and satirical as season one, it doesn’t look like we’re in danger of that happening any time soon. So, at least the Joel Mathis crowd is in luck.