It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia returned to television Wednesday night, kicking off its 12th season with what may be the series most controversial episode of its run, even for a show that's pulled off blackface in the past.
Titled “The Gang Turns Black,” Always Sunny’s season 12 opener is a racially charged musical episode with a focus on body swapping, a la Freaky Friday or 13 Going On 30. The Always Sunny crew filmed portions of the episode here in Philly back in July 2016, the first time they had filmed locally in two years.
This one, however, is no "The Nightman Cometh," and is much more pointed than the Gang's first musical episode. In the episode, the Gang “turns black” after being shocked by an electric blanket while watching The Wiz with Old Black Man (played by Wil Garret), who previously appeared in season 11’s “Mac & Dennis Move to the Suburbs.”
Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Charlie (Charlie Day), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), and Frank (Danny DeVito) wake up to find that Old Black Man, who they begin to refer to as “Old Man,” is gone, and that they’ve switched into the bodies of a group of African Americans. Charlie finds that he has turned into a young boy (played by AJ Hudson), while Dennis finds himself in the body of an obese man (Jamal Mixon). Mac and Frank's new bodies are similarly aged (Anthony Hill and Farley Jackson, respectively), while Dee is a middle-aged woman (Leslie Miller).
At that point, the episode turns into a musical, with Charlie sing-demanding “one good reason” why the Gang became a different race overnight.
After discussing whether their situation is more like Quantum Leap — a show “from the coke-fueled era of '80s television,” as Dee puts it — or Rob Schneider’s The Hot Chick, the gang decides they “don’t know the rules” of being black. So the Gang sings that they will find out “the rules when you’ve just turned black and you can’t switch back,” and fix the situation before heading off into Philadelphia to try and become their old, white selves.
Charlie, Mac, and Dennis head to an alleyway by Second and Chesnut to get into Dennis’ car, which he doesn’t have keys for because he switched bodies with someone named Reggie Williams, as he discovers after finding his counterpart's wallet. The boys, who now appear black to the outside world, try and get into Dennis’ car anyway, and are arrested, with the group singing “I think we just found out a new rule” from the back of a police cruiser to end the scene.
Dee and Frank, for their part, head to a bridge in Center City, though the exact location is unclear. Frank explains to Dee that the location is where he previously found Old Black Man, who Dee insists he refers to as “Old Man.”
The pair attempt to find Old Black Man so they can put him in nursing home and stop paying for the service “when we turn white again,” as Frank explains.
Frank goes off the rails, singing to Dee that he’s going to say words he hasn’t “had the chance to say before” now that he is black, like “homie,” “bro,” and “my man.” Dee draws the line when Frank says he’s also going to say the N-word, which Frank laments because “it’s probably the only chance I’ve got to say it.”
After Dee explains to Frank via a song why they can’t use that word (“we’re not saying the N-word”), the group finds an African American man under the bridge who knows where Old Black Man might be. The man uses the N-word himself, and tells the pair “you’re talking about Old Black Man” before pointing him out.
Charlie, meanwhile, is holed up at a police station being questioned as he plays with a toy train. To explain his life to a social worker assigned to his case, Charlie sings that he “lives in a walk-up in some Section 8 housing where I sleep with a man named Frank.” When asked if Frank is his father, Charlie sings “No, he’s just some guy that banged my mother.”
Dennis and Mac are also being held at the police station, and begin to assume that their black counterparts have prior convictions. Before long, Dennis sings that the pair should “not draw conclusions, they’re only just illusions.” He convinces Mac to be positive, with the pair then assuming they are “good men with houses, kids and wives.”
Mac and Dennis then find out via a detective at the station that they are a reverend and a deacon who have contributed extensively to the Philadelphia Police Department’s athletic league. Overjoyed, Mac and Dennis squeal, “We’re church blacks,” before high-fiving.
Dee and Frank, for their part, continue their quest to give Old Black Man a home, taking him to a nursing home as agreed upon. There, Old Black Man sees his wife, Ruth, who uses his name, Carl, for the first time in the episode. Dee realizes that the Gang had turned into Carl and Ruth’s kids after she refers to Dee and Frank as her children.
Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula then makes a guest appearance as a down-on-his-luck version of himself. Employed as a janitor at the nursing home, Bakula sing-wonders, “How did they know that my wife took it all?” Frank, meanwhile, thought Dee was excited over seeing Blacula, a black vampire.
The Gang meets up in an Old City alleyway to discuss their next steps. After another rendition of “What Are the Rules,” Charlie joins the group with Dee’s busted VCR, and suggests that they can get it fixed to get shocked again while watching The Wiz, which might turn them white again.
That sets off a lightbulb for Mac, who remembers “that electronics store on Market Street, The Wiz.” The Gang agrees to head down to the shop as a last-ditch effort, and sings out the scene wondering “what are the rules of being black in America” and “who can say the N-word.”
The Gang dances their way to The Wiz at 11th and Market for the final exterior shot of the episode, which features a Philly electronics store dressed up as It's Always Sunny’s The Wiz. The store, however, is closed, and the group pleads with a man to fix their VCR, to which he responds by calling the police. With that, Charlie believes he has learned the lesson the group must learn to turn white once again.
“Maybe that’s the lesson here,” he sings. “Things are not always that clear. We have a lot in common, but too much of it is fear.”
Charlie’s revelation, however, is cut short after Philadelphia cops approach the Market Street location. Mistaking the toy train Charlie is holding for a gun, the police shoot him four times in the chest. Switching between actor Charlie Day and his young, black counterpart as the shooting happens, the scene is among the most shocking in the series' decade-plus run.
“We just learned our lesson,” the gang sings in unison as Charlie lies bleeding out on the ground. “A horrible lesson. We just learned our lesson and we want to go home.”
Whatever that lesson is, however, fades away as the next scene arrives to reveal that the entire body-switching mess was a dream in the mind of Old Black Man, who had fallen asleep while watching The Wiz. He is the first to realize that the gang didn't learn any lesson in the episode.
“The only thing we learned is that you have terrible taste in movies,” Dennis tells Old Black Man. “He wants me to learn a lesson from his dreams.”
In typical body-switching move form, though, it turns out the episode wasn’t entirely made up. As Old Black Man passes by a mirror in the apartment, Scott Bakula’s reflection appears.
“Oh, man,” Bakula says to conclude the episode. “What are the rules?”
The next episode of Always Sunny, “The Gang Goes to a Water Park,” airs Jan. 11 at 10 p.m. on FXX.