Replacing a main character is a time-honored tradition for TV sitcoms. Kirstie Alley replaced Shelley Long after the fifth season of Cheers; The Office tried to fill the Michael Scott-sized hole left by Steve Carell’s seventh season departure with James Spader; mid-flameout, Charlie Sheen was replaced by Ashton Kutcher on Two and a Half Men in 2011; 11 years earlier, Sheen had replaced Michael J. Fox for the final two seasons of Spin City. The lifespan of a TV series sometimes outlasts an actor’s desire—or ability—to continue to portray a character they’ve become synonymous with, and showrunners are left with no other choice but to move on. Those shows do go on—Rebecca arrives as the new bar operator; Robert California takes over as the weird boss terrorizing the Scranton offices—and while they still resemble themselves, they are unavoidably changed.
After the final episode of its twelfth season in 2017, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was set up to join this group of sitcoms. Dennis had left Philadelphia and gone to North Dakota to face the consequences of his actions for the first time in the show’s history. Meanwhile, Glenn Howerton, the actor who plays Dennis, had signed on to star in the NBC comedy A.P. Bio. “I might be [leaving], but I might not be … It has nothing to do with my relationship to anyone on the show or Rob [McElhenney] or Charlie [Day] or anyone like that. It’s partially a creative and personal decision,” Howerton told Alan Sepinwall after the Season 12 finale aired. For both narrative and logistical reasons, Dennis’s departure appeared to be more than just a gag.
Dennis looms over the entirety of Wednesday night’s Season 13 premiere. Literally. Because Mac bought a sex doll that looks just like him.
The gang once again finds themselves on the edge of success; this time through the guidance and business savvy of a new friend named Cindy—Always Sunny’s apparent Robert California, played by Mindy Kaling. Cindy is a worthy replacement for Dennis, as morally reprehensible as Mac, Charlie, Frank, and Dee, but smarter, kinder, and actually not a likely serial killer. And yet, Sex Doll Dennis can’t be ignored. The memory of Dennis and the hold that he had on these characters—and on the audience, the episode implies—is so powerful that they begin imagining what Dennis might do or say, to the point that the doll practically does and says those things. Dee gets called a bird, Mac’s body issues return, The Waitress cheats on Charlie with Sex Doll Dennis.
“The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” initially addresses the loss of Howerton with a futile sigh: We know he’s gone, and no, we haven’t figured out how to overcome that. Towards the end of the episode though, a potentially new mission statement emerges. “Things are different now,” says Mac. “Dennis is gone and he’s never coming back, and we have to accept that.”
“It’s time to move on from that guy,” Charlie agrees, more or less talking through the TV before propping up Dennis’s replacement: “If I’m being perfectly honest, I like Cindy better.”
And that’s how it’s done in the sitcom world—actors move on, but TV shows continue, and find ways to smoothly transition from one era to the next. And now Mindy Kaling is playing a main character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, filling the vacated role as group leader in a way that maintains the original cast’s chemistry while also helping them evol—
Just kidding. Dennis is back. And faced with an ultimatum to pick between him and Cindy, the gang of course chooses the former.
This outcome was more than hinted at. The tone of certainty that colored Howerton’s initial, post-Season 12 comments waned more and more as we approached the premiere of Season 13. In January of this year, Howerton told Entertainment Weekly, “I would like to dispel any rumors that I left It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to do A.P. Bio. They are two completely different projects. We’re currently discussing what we want to do next season, but we haven’t started the writers’ room yet. So I haven’t left It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” In April, Kaitlin Olson told The Wrap, “I do know that Glenn Howerton is coming back for some episodes.” And then, at the TCA summer press tour in August, Rob McElhenney pulled the cat all the way out of the bag: “He’s in pretty much every episode,” the star and cocreator admitted.
Perhaps the scheduling conflicts caused by A.P. Bio weren’t so conflicting; perhaps the Always Sunny triumvirate of McElhenney, Howerton, and Charlie Day just wanted the end of Season 12 to have an added weight to it. It also feels just as possible that Howerton’s departure was one big con; just a stunt to rile people up and inject new life into a long-running show. After all, Always Sunny is the show in which a main character once gained 50 pounds in between seasons for no actual reason. (Mac is mindblowingly ripped in Season 13, a fact the rest of the gang is amazingly loathe to acknowledge.)
Whatever the reason, everything is in its right place as the credits roll on the premiere of Season 13—nothing has changed, and no one has learned anything. For 12 seasons, that has been the unifying theory of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. These are characters who have failed to sell gasoline door-to-door … twice; characters who have gotten addicted to crack multiple times. This is a show that has repeatedly thumbed its nose at the notion that it’d have to eventually mature, with Charlie once singing “Go fuck yourselves” while high on spray paint fumes.
For years, Always Sunny has violently resisted growth and change. Why start embracing it now?