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It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Kicks Off Season 12 By Turning Black

Yes, they went there, and it was hilarious.

Malcolm Venable

Ever wondered what it would be like to be black? (If you are black, just go with it.)

It's fair to guess that you have. It's human nature to fantasize about being anything we aren't: president, an astronaut, a rock star. (And rest assured, as Dave Chappelle and the Wayans have suggested in TV and film, many black people do daydream about being white.)

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But fantasizing about being black is a whole 'nother thing. Because it implies being suddenly able to play spades, rock cornrows, give a "Sup" head nod to strangers and really feel Jay-Z lyrics and generally be cool and exotic and soulful and - let's go ahead and be really honest - have a perceived level of danger attached to your being that not being black does not afford. Yet the very notion of being able to "try on" black identity - particularly in our PC, frequently volatile racial environment - sounds highly insensitive and taboo, which is exactly whv It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's Season 12 premiere episode "The Gang Turns Black" is pretty brilliant.

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If you've watched the show even once during its 11 seasons, you know that the demented, anti-social but lovable freaks Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Frank (Danny DeVito) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) have done some really offensive things: get people in recovery drunk, use a baby to get money, make terrible rape jokes, mock addiction and much, much worse. They're very well the most deplorable people on television. And thank goodness for them. As the show premieres Season 12 Wednesday, we're reunited with the monumental a-holes we can't help but love -- people who let us explore the shadow selves we never get to indulge in real life by fighting strangers, taking drugs in the middle of the day and yes, becoming black for a day.

AJ Hudson as Black Charlie, Farley Jackson as Black Frank, Leslie Miller as Black Dee, Anthony Hill as Black Mac, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

AJ Hudson as Black Charlie, Farley Jackson as Black Frank, Leslie Miller as Black Dee, Anthony Hill as Black Mac, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Patrick McElhenney/FXX

In the Season 12 premiere, the gang is sitting around watching The Wiz when a freak storm sends a surge through an electrical blanket and Shazam! (or perhaps more appropriately, TaDow! ) they're all black. They spend the rest of the episode trying to figure out how and why, as well as exploring and discovering what being black is actually like. Without spoiling too much, Frank is thrilled to be able to use new language like "Fo sho" and, naturally, the "N-word"; as you'd expect, there's a run in with police (a few, actually) and singing and dancing.

Obviously, this is a premise fraught with landmines, even for a show that's pulled off blackface without backlash. But it works. It's quite funny, mostly because their new identities allow us to swim in the thick, uncomfortable muck of the ways we think (and overthink) about race. Having gone from white to suddenly black, they have to figure out what kind of black they are; they're stumbling to figure out their credit standing, if they know their fathers, if they have a criminal record. (It only enhances the irony and humor that these horrible white people are broke criminals with awful family histories.) Obviously, all their "legitimate" questions are based on ignorant, stereotypical generalizations, but in watching them wrestle with them and their own reactions to their own prejudices, we witness the head-spinning, tail-chasing confusing logic we all endure while fumbling over what's okay and not okay to ask, say and, in effect, think.

Better still that the "lesson" they're looking for never comes. It's just a messy, confounding and ridiculous trip that ends, as so many Sunny episodes do, in appalling violence with them basically learning nothing. The episode is risky, to be sure. But despite its illusion of being ribald, the premiere has a dirty secret: meticulous, thoughtful commentary, cleverly snuck in between low-brow antics. If anything doesn't work, it's the singing; doing this highly meta work as a musical feels like a slight cop out, a way to dial down the searing, awkward exposition unfolding so rapidly. It's a winner though, and a great way to kick off yet another season of totally inappropriate insanity.

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia premieres Wednesday Jan. 4 at 10/9c on FXX.