If pressed, I would say that 80% of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes sound shocking in theory. “Charlie Gets Molested.” “Mac and Charlie Die.” “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer.” But after eleven seasons, the show is still consistently funny and much, much smarter than most other television comedies. Always Sunny has produced some of the best TV satire of the last eleven years, inspiring a new generation of fearless storytellers that dominate comedy today. I’m one of its biggest fans, and it inspired me to go into comedy myself. And yet, by the end of last week’s “The Gang Turns Black,” I found myself shaken and deeply unsettled.
The well-reviewed twelfth season premiere begins as the gang settles in for a movie night with Old Black Man, the homeless man who has slept in Dee’s apartment since season eleven. While defending the gang’s movie choice—The Wiz, naturally—Dennis asserts that everyone’s having a hard time in America, not just black people. Suddenly, a surge of electricity from a storm hits the building and electrocutes the gang. When they wake up, they find themselves transformed into black people—in Charlie’s case, a young black child. In song, they conclude that they’ve become part of a classic body-switch story like “The Hot Chick” or “Quantum Leap,” and spend most of the episode trying to figure out what the rules are “when you’ve just turned black / and you can’t switch back.” In other words: what lesson must they learn about race so they can go back to not caring about race?
By the end of the episode, they’ve learned no lesson worthy enough to lift the spell. There were a few false starts—don’t assume black kids are fatherless, don’t assume black people will ruin your credit—that were mostly tempered by one or more of the gang suggesting the lesson only applied to their particular circumstances. Then, when they’re approached by a group of cops, Charlie steps forward, having had a good rapport in an earlier interrogation scene. But, of course, this is a Race Episode, so when Charlie holds up a toy train, the officers—who see him as a young black boy—think it’s a gun. They shoot him four times in the chest.
We see the first two shots hit Charlie before the scene cuts to his black counterpart, knocking the boy to the ground, bloodied, still holding onto the train. It’s a blatant evocation of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and countless others. After a moment of freakout—literally, ten seconds after the first shot—the gang, including White Charlie, are singing again: “Let’s click our heels together / and pray we leave forever / ‘cause we just learned our lesson and we want to go home.” “White home!” Frank clarifies.
The scene is disturbing for several reasons. For me, the most astounding is that a group of writers, producers and a network signed off on a scene depicting the police shooting of an unarmed black person. I can’t help but question the coopting of this very real, pervasive and current tragedy for a pretty obvious joke. Worse, it’s not just a joke—it’s a product. These people are making money, lots and lots of money, off the image of a black child’s murder. Yes, it was part of a larger piece of satire, but to what end? At the episode’s conclusion we learn that it was all Old Black Man’s dream. The gang hasn’t actually learned any lesson. We just watched a black kid get murdered by the police for nothing.
Could this piece of satire really justify the commodification of one of our greatest modern injustices? What exactly is gained by Always Sunny replicating the horrific, stomach-churning images that have flashed again and again across my social media feeds and every news station?
Full disclosure: I am black. I am a woman. I am a TV writer on a network comedy. Always Sunny is the show that made me want to write for television in the first place, largely because it threw out all of the rules and standards of the shows I was watching. When it premiered in 2005, it was the funniest thing that my tiny 13-year-old brain could conceive of. I’ve watched it enough to know I shouldn’t expect a decisive moral takeaway from any episode. And as a writer I understand the impulse to heighten the episode’s central tension—“maybe it is hard to be a black person, maybe it’s not!”—to the highest level, but this ultimately rings hollow. That police shootings are bad and disproportionately affect black people isn’t a particularly bold thesis. In fact, I think it’s probably entirely uncontroversial to Always Sunny’s viewership. Nobody needs to get shot by police for the gang to realize that black people sometimes get shot by the police. In this light, the shooting reads more as an attempt to shock than a gesture toward any clear, conclusive point about race.
And sure, the episode doesn’t need to make any clear, conclusive point about race. But it also doesn’t need to climax with the played-for-laughs murder of an unarmed black child. I hope it’s fair to say that when writers wade into this sort of charged territory, they have an obligation at least to treat sensitive issues with sensitivity. Even when the characters themselves are amoral monsters, a story still offers a moral viewpoint that requires care and consistency. Yes, we will always be arguing about where to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s unequivocally not okay, but here’s my take: For many black people, the reality of being murdered by the police is exactly the line you’re looking for.
Maybe a staff with more black writers would’ve started with smaller examples of discrimination. Maybe the gang getting arrested is the climax. Maybe there’s a trial, exposing less visible but no less shocking and insidious flaws in the criminal justice system. Maybe there’s a trip to a white neighborhood. I don’t know—it’s not my show to write. But I do know that there are uncomfortable and scary things that black people experience every day which don’t end in our deaths.
When the Guardian asked him about the episode, including whether there were any black writers on staff during its writing, Glenn Howerton said, “One of our assistants… is black, and I think this year, he was the only one in the room… we don’t mind pushing boundaries, but it’s never our intention to be insensitive or offensive.”
As someone who has been the only black person in the room for most of my life, I can attest to the fact that it can be nearly impossible to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Consider the basic facts of being an assistant: You don’t want to rock the boat, you want to impress your bosses, you’re usually hoping to get promoted to a writing job. Had I been, as Howerton says, “the only one in the room,” I don’t know that I would have spoken up. Writers’ room are intense, insular places, where crazy ideas can go off the rails incredibly quickly. It is isolating to be the one to pump the brakes. There’s safety in numbers, and that safety is especially alluring when you’re in that special category of “the only one”—whether as a person of color, a woman, queer, or anyone else who doesn’t usually end up in a writers’ room.
“The Gang Turns Black” is also surprising given FX’s recent efforts to increase representation, in creators and directors, of women and people of color. These efforts paid off most recently with Atlanta and Better Things, two nuanced portrayals of underserved points of view. But Always Sunny has always been FX’s rogue show, existing on the fringes of the network’s control. Its creators wear this status as a badge, but in this case, maybe some network intervention might have helped.
The lack of respect at the end of “The Gang Gets Racist”—the cooption by white people of a black child’s murder in the service of an entirely convoluted point about race relations—is, in a word, shitty. It’s truly gross to imagine three white men pitching this story to their network and their writers’ room. It’s a fucking bummer to think about their sole black assistant, called upon to represent every black viewer but also agree with his employers or lose his job. Though just a little more restraint could have resulted in a powerful, meaningful story, it looks like “The Gang Turns Black” will be remembered simply as a “bold” and “brilliant” musical episode. In art as in life, the murder of an unarmed black child by the police will be little more than a footnote.
Julie Mandel-Folly is a television writer based in Los Angeles.