‘The Mick,’ ‘It’s Always Sunny,’ and the Magic of Kaitlin Olson
During the Rashomon-esque, ninth season episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “The Gang Saves the Day,” we get a brief glimpse of what each member of the Gang envisions their lives being like after surviving a robbery attempt. In Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds’ (Kaitlin Olson) daydream, the rest of the Gang is dead (by her own hand) and she’s the star of a sitcom where she plays Mr. Covington, a butler to a wealthy family in a mansion far away from Philly. It lasts less than two minutes and is one of the funniest things the show has ever done.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Fox helped creators Dave and John Chernin (writers of said episode and producers on Sunny) realize their vision in the darkly funny The Mick, which finished its first season last week. Of course, this is not, in the most literal definition, a spin-off. The DNA of Sweet Dee is clearly flowing through Mickey’s veins, with rash decision-making and little to no regard for consequence a driving force. But Mickey is much more confident and prone to empathy — the way one would imagine Sweet Dee would be if she wasn’t constantly being condescended to as a “stupid bitch” by her monstrous family and friends. And despite the similarities, Olson lives and breathes as a completely different person as Mickey, showcasing her ability to turn from hilarious, quick-witted and foul-mouthed shuckster to vulnerably wounded pseudo-matriarch and back again on a dime. It’s actually more of an accomplishment that she can play two such similar characters while never giving us a reason to confuse them.
The Mick finds Olson’s Mackenzie “Mickey” Molng relocated from her drinking, drug-ingesting life as little more than a con artist in Rhode Island to a drinking, drug-ingesting life as a guardian to her very wealthy niece and two nephews after their father and mother, Mickey’s sister, flee the country for fear of prosecution of white collar crime. The eldest, Sabrina (Sofia Black-D’elia), has a delicate ego and a constantly fluctuating social standing that fuel her need to challenge Mickey but also begrudgingly accept her help and guidance. Middle child Chip (Thomas Burbusca, continuing his tyrannical reign over every white male 12-16 role in entertainment) oscillates from typical know-it-all, above-it-all spoiled brat to a young adult with a tragic misplaced sense of pride of his family’s now tarnished name and still holds out hope that his parents love him and will return. Rounding out the cast is youngest sibling Ben (Jack Stanton, the show’s not so secret MVP), Alba (a game Carla Jimenez) the family’s housekeeper, and Jimmy Shepherd (Scott MacArthur), Mickey’s unofficial boyfriend, each bringing their own amalgam of heart, naivete, and insanity.
One of the show’s few emotional moments comes at the conclusion of episode 6, “The Master,” where Chip keeps waiting for his parents to call only to get a voicemail (of them having sex and arguing about the contents of each other’s “go bag”) after a butt dial. Sabrina reassures Chip that he doesn’t have to keep waiting for his parents, because he has her. In an act of accepting Sabrina, Chip throws his phone to the feds camped outside the house who immediately get a voicemail from the parents sending their love. The Mick earns these moments by having its characters demand satisfaction of their wants and needs by way of a sense of entitlement at first, only to reveal it stemming from sheer emotional frustration later.
Early reviews of The Mick found critics complaining that show wasn’t dark enough. They were, understandably so, comparing it to Sunny, and all seemed to hold the opinion that if Olson was going to be playing a version of Sweet Dee, they wanted the version who tricked people into incestuous situations (a plotpoint of Sunny) rather than helping them deal with incestuous situations they’ve found themselves in (a plotpoint of The Mick). It was a somewhat fair assessment at the beginning (if you think three minors in the hands of a perpetually drunk felon isn’t “dark enough”) but by the end of this season, it seems unfair to expect something from The Mick that it’s not trying to give. This isn’t a show about five of the most awful people you’d never want to meet tearing each other and everyone around them down in order to get what they believe to be theirs. The Mick is about five people making lemonade from lemons pelted at them from a world that thinks it’s better than them.
In recent years, comedy has been going in a new direction: instead of uprooting a character from a show, have the actor simply play a very similar character in a new setting. With the sheer amount of talent out there and the ease of its availability, comedic actors have been forced to carve out a very specific niche for themselves and are rarely trusted to break out of that shell. By never playing against type, we more often than not find ourselves referring to characters in film and television by the actor’s name rather than the character’s. In lieu of having a character’s history and quirks built up over several years before getting their own show, they are now being built into the actor’s performance. Characters are no longer spunoff, actors’ performances are, and it’s this high-wire act that Olson, the producers, and writers perfect throughout the first season. Considering more than a few of the staff are Sunny alums (Olson, the Chernin brothers, and executive producer Randall Einhorn), there’s every reason to believe that when breaking the plot of any given episode there would be talk of how Sweet Dee vs. Mickey would react. Free of the four albatross around her neck as Dee, Mickey is allowed to dive, headfirst, into every impulse. And, despite herself, she often accomplishes her ever-changing goal, though usually in a roundabout way. One of the core differences between Mick and Sunny is you don’t feel bad rooting for Mick’s characters.
One of the most emblematic scenes of this is the ending of episode 14, “The Heater,” where the characters agree there isn’t really a lesson to be gleaned from Mickey’s gambling addiction. That despite her treatment of Alba, which includes theft of more money than Alba’s ever possessed then getting her kicked out of the casino, everything ends up okay because Aunt Mickey hit a hot streak after losing all but one $5 chip and won all their money back and then some. Nothing is learned, selfishness is rewarded, and there are no emotional consequences, since Mickey then uses a small part of the money to fix Ben’s science project, which she destroyed in the first place.
This season’s finale ended on a cliffhanger, with the parents finally arrested, the money gone, and Mickey, along with the kids and Alba, standing in shock as the family mansion burns down. When the show returns for another 13-episode run this fall, it really could be anything. In typical Mick fashion, everything may just return to “normal” with the family simply living in a new mansion paid for by a secret trust fund or offshore accounts that have simply never been mentioned. But here’s hoping the show adopts a new concept (after a year of Mickey adjusting to their lifestyle, perhaps a year of the children adjusting to hers?). Not that there’s anything wrong with what the show has done, but it would be interesting to watch The Mick change into a completely new and different animal, a different arc for each season to hang its stories on. Either way, there will still be twice as much Kaitlin Olson on our televisions, and that is always a good thing.