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It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Review: Racial Disobedience

This week’s guaranteed cult hit episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fired on all cylinders to make for the most admirably multi-tasked effort from The Gang in recent memory. By acknowledging the loose ends left in the wake of last Thursday’s riotous installment and fully integrating an inside joke only alluded to in preceding episodes, most loyal Sunny fans will surely mark “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth” as a new classic in the canon. I, however, am left wanting more.

Picking up shortly after last week’s cliffhanger, we begin at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning at the same Philadelphia high school where Dee has taken over Dr. Meyers’ drama class pending his recovery from hip surgery. Charlie has apparently taken a liking to his new vocational path as the popular, winking janitor – he’s shown strutting down the locker-lined hallways with a spring in his step as he high-fives and waves to nearly every student who walks by. The kids call Charlie “The Professor,” and the fact we never know why or how this nickname came to fruition only adds to its comic ingenuity.

Dee, on the other hand, is desperate for her students’ approval and impulsively, unwisely informs them she’ll be organizing a field trip to Broadway to expand their theatrical horizons. When this announcement is matched with a cricket-chirping silence, she quickly specifies, “I’m taking you to New York City.” The self-assuring whoops and hollers Dee was looking for immediately ensue. Let the educating begin.

Charlie interrupts a group of hoodlums bullying a student in the boys’ bathroom. The victim of the merciless taunts is Richie, a self-proclaimed “Juggalo” who paints his face in support of the Insane Clown Posse — a douchetastic pseudo-rap duo of galactically incomprehensible underground success. Side note: for those blissfully ignorant readers, the Insane Clown Posse and their followers are actual entities. These people have not, I repeat, have not been invented for the sole purpose to serve as entertainment value on a sitcom. I know. Yikes. I digress. Richie is unaware his ICP makeup may as well be in the design of a bullseye considering the negative attention it gets, and Charlie is just plain unaware who the Insane Clown Posse are. “You have a posse? Well, that’s good!” he tells chronic outcast Richie. The unlikely twosome bond when Richie admits his obsession with ICP has caused all his friends to ditch him. Well, yeah. “I lost all my friends, too,” Charlie quietly sniffs. Aww.

Meanwhile, Mac, Dennis and Frank are growing tired of prank calling Dee at school and are looking for a new way to amuse themselves. Reasoning, “We don’t need Charlie and Dee to have fun,” the guys bring up the possibility of finishing the long-overdue reshoots for their interpretation of Lethal Weapon 5. This unleashes a hilariously off-color debate among the trio over the appropriateness of blackface in modern cinema. Only Sunny would prompt such a sentence describing the antics of a television show’s main characters without attaching a single disclaimer. Dennis regrets he and Mac’s decision to switch roles in the middle of filming in order for Mac to make like Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder (minus the intentional satire) and tackle the role of Murtaugh in, um, full Danny Glover regalia — if you’ve seen Sunny, you surely know what I mean.

Mac thinks the job of an actor is to “create an illusion” that matches the character’s physical appearance and persona, regardless of any racial juxtaposition. He tells Dennis there are plenty of examples of white actors donning blackface in order to properly engross themselves in their roles. Dennis sarcastically agrees, listing C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man and the Wayans brothers in White Chicks (which is actually “reverse blackface,” Dennis notes) as particular instances of interest. Mac isn’t amused and tells Dennis it’s actually more offensive for him to play Murtaugh in “whiteface,” since that would be both inaccurate and disrespectful to the race of the character. Of course.

Frank pipes in with the surprisingly astute observation that renowned actor Laurence Olivier had once played Othello, but ruins his spark of insight by bringing up the importance of “getting the lips right” when making a racial transformation. Citing The Jazz Singer as an archetype, Frank adds, “The whole idea is getting the right color shoe polish.” Sigh. Dennis continues to think he’s the politically correct one of the bunch when he points out how even the great Laurence Olivier’s turn as the African prince of Shakespearian lore surely offended African-Americans of the time. He punctuates his argument by shifting his voice into a brazenly stereotypical voice meant to depict the speech patterns of African-American males: “What that white man doin’?” When Mac points out Dennis’ blatant hypocrisy, Dennis blindly retorts, “That’s just how black people talk. That’s not racist.”

Mac continues to insist blackface is just another method an actor uses to reach creative Zen – if the accuracy of the performance depends on it, why should it be considered controversial? Besides, he adds, it is just acting. “In The Lord of the Rings movies, Ian McKellen plays a wizard,” Mac says. “Do you think he goes home at night and shoots lasers into his boyfriend’s asshole?” Duly noted. The guys also take note of Tom Cruise being able to “play normal-sized guys” despite being “a midget” in real life – that one had me howling – but run into a snag when Frank lauds James Earl Jones’ remarkable use of blackface. When Mac and Dennis explain James Earl Jones is black, Frank points out that Darth Vader is white, and calamitous confusion commences.

Dee, meanwhile, has encountered a snag of her own when Principal McIntyre informs her with near slack-jawed incredulity (Dave Foley’s incredible deadpan delivery is award worthy) that, as a substitute, she isn’t permitted to transport students across state lines. Besides, he adds, public school funding for arts education is virtually non-existent anyway; even if Dee were permitted to chaperone such an excursion, the money, sadly, just isn’t there. Cut to Plan B, which involves Dee ringing up the three amigos at Paddy’s to let them know she’ll be bringing the kids by for a private movie screening. Mac, Dennis and Frank suggest showing Othello in order to get some outside input on the blackface debate. Charlie, having also been spurned by the principal’s no-nonsense rule following, will arrive with a newly fresh-faced Richie in tow.

Once Dee corrals the kids inside the bar and unsuccessfully tries to impress them with their decidedly adult surroundings (“I’ve been to a bar before,” one girl spats. “I’ve been to this bar before!” another student scoffs), the guys surprise everyone by abandoning Othello and screening their own Lethal Weapon 5 instead. “It’s a better, modern day example” of blackface, Mac explains. With a considerably more reliable barometer with which to gauge the audience’s reaction, the guys hope to put an end to their hot-button debate once and for all.

While die-hard Sunny fans were surely squirming in their seats with excitement, the entire third-act devotion to an exclusive viewing of the Gang’s Lethal Weapon 5 brought the episode to a screeching halt for me. I loved certain aspects of the “movie” itself – Dennis’ Aussie accent when playing Riggs was a nice touch – but felt it should have been shown independent of this episode. Despite incorporating the kids’ awestruck reactions (“This is the greatest movie ever made!” exclaims one lad) to the eventual firing of Dee and Charlie from the high school, the screening of Lethal Weapon 5 only interrupted an already riotous episode brimming with scathing social commentary. Frank’s horrifying sex scene aside, Charlie’s hysterically bad acting and the Gang’s inept production skills make their presentation of Lethal Weapon 5 absolutely worth seeing, but I would have rather been treated to a more detailed conclusion to the blackface debate within the episode. Instead, we’re still left wondering whether or not Charlie has been fully accepted back into the Gang and if they ever decided whether or not Mac’s Soul Man approach to the character of Murtaugh is pushing the envelope. Regardless of their conclusion, at least one person was clearly influenced by what he saw: the last scene of the episode shows Richie in Principal McIntyre’s office displaying – you guessed it – full blackface.

Season 6, Episode 9: “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth” (originally aired November 11, 2010)

For more on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, click here.

Thursdays at 10pm on FX

Photographs courtesy of FX and IMDbPro

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