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It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's race swapping shows the limitations of white writers tackling black perspectives

“The Gang Turns Black” is more insightful on body-swap clichés than racism.

Frank (Danny DeVito) and Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) consult a fellow black person (Chad Coleman). It’s ... a long story.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 31 through January 7 is “The Gang Turns Black,” the season 12 premiere of FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia knew exactly what it was doing when it kicked off its 12th season with an episode called “The Gang Turns Black.”

The FXX comedy has known how to cause a scene for more than a decade now, flinging its hedonistic characters into bizarre and increasingly ridiculous situations that plumb the depths of human decency. With every passing year, the dirtbags of It’s Always Sunny keep finding new ways to horrify their audience into the kind of relieved laughter that goes hand in hand with “at least it’s not me” schadenfreude.

At this point, It’s Always Sunny expects its viewers to expect the outlandish, and so it keeps having to up the ante.

Still: Having the gang get struck by lightning and wake up in black bodies was, uh, pretty surprising (though thankfully not because the show used blackface, which this storyline eschews … though It’s Always Sunny has let its proud degenerates go there before when shooting their unauthorized Lethal Weapon sequels.)

It was also … well, fine.

“The Gang Turns Black” — co-written by creators Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney, plus their co-star Charlie Day — doesn’t say anything particularly new, or even all that interesting. What it does, though, is confirm where It’s Always Sunny’s strengths and limitations lie.

As per It’s Always Sunny tradition, “The Gang Turns Black” is best when the cast is making self-reflexive, “can you believe this shit?” jokes

In the minutes after the gang wakes up from their collective electric shock — beware electric blankets in a thunderstorm, kids — they’re less concerned with the fact that they woke up as black people than the fact that they woke up as different people, period.

It’s Always Sunny knows you’re confused at this point, so it lets the show’s resident jerk-in-charge Dennis (Howerton) play devil’s advocate. “Forget the how,” he tells his friends. “It is happening. It just is.”

But again, It’s Always Sunny knows that probably isn’t enough, so it lets the others challenge that idea head on — and in catchy song form, no less, the better to honor the fact that the body swapping happened during a group viewing of The Wiz with their erstwhile group member “Old Black Man.”

“Give me one good reason,” Charlie counters, eyes widening at the fact that, you know, he’s singing. “Whoa!”

Since the only references the gang has for body swapping come from TV and movies, they all immediately start running through the different scenarios.

“I wonder why we’re singing every word that we say,” Mac muses. “Maybe we’re living out The Wiz in some way!”

After they dismiss 13 Going on 30 and Face/Off, Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) guesses it could be a Quantum Leap thing. But nothing is exactly accurate to their situation — even after Sweet Dee runs into the actual Scott Bakula later on — and so they spend half the episode singing the refrain, “What are the rules?!”

This song crops up again and again throughout the gang’s misadventures, and is the best part of the episode by a long shot. “What Are the Rules?” lets the It’s Always Sunny cast do what it does best: bounce self-referential jokes off each other with bonus depraved asides, calling out the episode’s concept and each other in equal measure.

As you’ll note, this standout song has very little to do with the actual racial body swap. That’s because when this episode veers into tackling race head on, it becomes obvious that It’s Always Sunny just doesn’t have all that much to say about it after all.

Points for trying, It’s Always Sunny, but tackling race isn’t exactly your forte

“The Gang Turns Black” hits all the beats you’d expect from an It’s Always Sunny episode about racial inequality. The gang goes out into the world in their new black bodies — played by black actors, but only when the It’s Always Sunny core cast sees their reflections — and realizes that the world is a different place for them. They get arrested, and come out of the experience far worse off than they ever had in their previous decades of illegal debauchery. Frank (Danny DeVito) spends the entire episode dying to say “the n-word.”

Eventually, the gang lands in real hot water thanks to a white storeowner calling 911 on them, leading to the cops shooting an eager Charlie (Day) — whose black alter ego is an actual child — full on in the chest.

“We’ve learned our lesson,” the gang sings in a panic, as the cops cuff them and Charlie bleeds out on the sidewalk. “We’ve learned our lesson, and we want to go home!”

Of course, this being Always Sunny, the gang learning their lesson turns out to be a total misnomer — though in this episode’s case, it’s because the entire adventure turns out to be a figment of Old Black Man’s slumbering imagination.

It’s clear throughout the episode that Howerton, McElhenney, and Day wrote it to highlight the obliviousness of their characters, and the clear and present disparity between how their white dirtbags get to skate by under the radar while their black counterparts would have a hard time pulling off a single one of their shenanigans without putting themselves in serious danger.

But it’s also clear that they’re, well, white. They don’t — and can’t — speak to the actual black experience they tried to write for their characters, however brief. The best they can do is highlight the basic inequality they see, but because they can’t feel it, “The Gang Turns Black” is just a surface-level experiment.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs Wednesdays at 10 pm on FXX.

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