“It this our trash?” Mac asks Dee and Dennis in the beginning of “The Gang Recycles Their Trash.” Dennis responds, “We generate a lot of it.” Dennis isn’t just talking about the trash that covers the front, back and inside of Paddy’s Pub, or even the rest of Philadelphia due to a trash strike. It’s also Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney, the episode’s writers and of course the show’s stars, commenting on the way their show has recycled ideas consistently over the last eight seasons. The way these three do this makes it one of the most interesting episodes It’s Always Sunny has ever done, throwing references to the die-hard fans, while most likely confusing everyone else.
From the very beginning of the episode, there seems to be a sense of déjà vu afoot. When their conversations seem to be familiar, what with the gang creating a door-to-door scheme and talking about getting blasted in the ass by politicians, only Dee seems to be the one that recognizes all of this as happening before. When the title card comes up stating the episode’s title “The Gang Recycles Their Trash,” it’s already been made abundantly clear this is going to be a meta episode of It’s Always Sunny, where the show takes elements from its past and throws them into one big reference fest.
The episode is less interested in this week’s scheme, which is The Gang trying to replace the trash men by picking up trash door-to-door with a limo, but more into playing with the bits and pieces that create an episode, while also messing with them slightly in a way that feels awkward, yet familiar.
In the season four episode “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis,” Mac says if they don’t stick to their basic formula, they get in trouble. Each person has an identity, and they should stick to that. There’s The Brain (Dennis), The Looks (Mac), The Muscle (Frank), The Useless Woman (Dee) and The Wildcard (Charlie). What this episode does is messes with this idea, giving each character a chance to play the part of another character. For example, when Dee and Frank take the gay politician to a strip club, much like Frank and Dennis did in “The Gang Sells Out,” Dee takes the place of Dennis, explaining the various types of gay men to Frank. There’s plenty of recasting this time, such as Charlie playing the reasonable Sweet Dee character near the episode’s end, or Dennis mocking Mac’s laugh. We’ve seen all of these elements before, but not in this same way.
By the episode’s end, the idea of independent door-to-door trash men in a limo hasn’t worked out, and as they understand, none of their ideas ever work. The gang moves on to the next idea, which escalates from getting rugs for the bar, to them making rugs, to finally ending with putting on a show where they play rug salesmen. Charlie stops them, saying that with a couple of adjustments, they could get out of this funk. Instead of moving from one failed idea to the next, why not fix what’s broken in their original idea and make it successful? When they do this, back in the van playing the Ghostbusters theme from “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis,” Charlie announces he’s cut the brake lines, puts on his cowboy hat and yells, “WILDCARD BITCHES!” before jumping out the back of the van—exactly like he did in “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis.” However this time, Mac checked the brakes before they left and had them fixed. They let Charlie jump out, because as they mentioned earlier, a wildcard is never useful.
So what are Howerton, Day and McElhenney trying to say here? It’s been quite some time since the show has felt like it’s just recycling the same idea over and over, and many of the episodes referenced are from that period. Is it them saying that they’ve moved on from those ideas, or that they still believe the current episodes have that sort of repetitive quality? Or was it just these three trying to make their own version of a clip show, but in a fresh way?
Who knows? But “The Gang Recycles Their Trash” is a fascinating deconstruction of the show’s history, while also playing with the character types and plots that the show has become known for. The episode isn’t funny in the typical way It’s Always Sunny is known for, rather being hilarious just for the ideas it tries, but it also does throw in some of the typical It’s Always Sunny humor, like watching Mac, Dennis and Charlie sing. To say it’s a weird episode of It’s Always Sunny is an understatement, but it’s also one of the most intriguing episodes of its entire eight years.