What’s With All the TV Episodes Set in Dave and Buster’s?

"Barry" isn't the only show to prominently feature the arcade chain

April 21, 2023 7:01 am
TV characters at Dave & Buster's
These characters love a D&B Power Card.

On Sunday night, the two-part season premiere of Barry featured a scene where druglords-turned-lovers Hank and Cristobal host a summit between warring street gangs to discuss putting aside their differences and going into business together. The location for said meeting wasn’t some dirty, abandoned warehouse or a basement guarded by armed men; instead, it was at what Cristobal describes as “the bestest place on earth”: Dave & Buster’s.

Naturally, seeing these hardened criminals huddled around a big table at the arcade made for some great comedy. At one point, a waitress interrupts Cristobal’s ceasefire pitch to ask if they’d like to order any appetizers. “Ah, yes, we’ll have some jalapeno poppers for the table, please,” he responds, before diving back in without skipping a beat. “THE KILLING MUST STOP.” Later, we see these ruthless assassins gleefully clutching the stuffed animals and other prizes they’d won as they gather to hear more from Cristobal and Hank in the establishment’s private party room, which is covered in banners advertising the chain’s buffalo chicken flatbread and “spicy taco dippers.” At one point, a Dave & Buster’s employee pokes his head in, and Hank snaps, “Excuse me, we’ve got this room for like another hour, please.”

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It’s all very funny, but interestingly, it’s hardly the first time the Dave & Buster’s brand has been featured prominently on a TV show. A 2018 episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley features a $50 Dave & Buster’s gift card being handed out almost menacingly as a way of pressuring a character to hang out, and a 2021 episode of TVLand’s Younger sees a group of characters headed out to D&B’s together for “an hour of fun” after their boss, Quinn, decides she wants to ditch her fancy surprise birthday party at the Rainbow Room for something significantly folksier. And way back in Season 5 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the 2009 episode “The Great Recession” featured the gang visiting their local Dave & Buster’s not once but twice, as Dennis tries to use the Dave & Buster’s Power Card as an example while explaining a “self-sustaining economy” to Mac before the pair decide to start handing out “Paddy’s Dollars” to customers to lure them into their bar.

It’s a weirdly specific choice, until you consider that in all likelihood, it’s the result of paid product placement. (Through their publicist, Dave & Buster’s declined to comment for this article.) Generally speaking, TV shows avoid displaying logos or mentioning any real-life brands by name for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that they don’t want to hurt advertising potential. If they feature a McDonald’s in a show, for example, Burger King won’t want to advertise with them, and McDonald’s won’t either because they were just featured for free. Occasionally, there are legal issues like copyrights that come into play as well, resulting in situations like the characters on Always Sunny repeatedly referring to the “Philly Phrenetic” instead of the Philly Phanatic to avoid being sued by Major League Baseball. If you see a brand like Dave & Buster’s featured prominently on a show, chances are it’s because they paid for placement.

We know for sure that was the case with Always Sunny‘s Dave & Buster’s episode, at least, because co-creators/stars Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton discussed it on a recent episode of their podcast. The trio spoke candidly about the way FX came to them with an offer for a paid Dave & Buster’s placement and the challenges that it presented for them.

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“Ad sales really boned us on this one,” McElhenney recalled on the podcast. “They reached out to us and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing some kind of product placement?’ Which we’ve done in the past. Coors…we’ve done a ton of them. And they said ‘Dave & Buster’s’ and we said, ‘Sure, it would be funny if we didn’t just say Dave & Busters, but actually made an episode about it,’ kind of making fun of it but also kind of embracing it.”

“My memory too was it wasn’t like a light suggestion,” Day chimed in. “We were early in our game, and it was like, ‘Guys, you have to do this because Dave & Buster’s is going to give the show a lot of money’ and it was like ‘Of course we can’t force you, but we really strongly suggest you find a way to work it into an episode.’”

When the episode aired live back in 2009, however, Sunny fans were upset thanks to an unfortunate mistake. “What we didn’t know was that they also made a massive ad sales buy, so it was the sole sponsor of the evening, and you were watching the show where the characters were talking about Dave & Buster’s, and then they’d cut to commercial and the first commercial you’d see is a Dave & Buster’s commercial,” McElhenney recalled. “And people went ballistic. We called FX and we were like ‘What the fuck? You completely hung us out to dry. You asked us to be your good partner, and then you did something like that.’ And to their credit they came back and said it was just a miscommunication and a mistake and they apologized.” (As Howerton noted, “That seems foolish on their part. You’re actually getting less for your money because you’re enraging people.”)

It’s a shame, because when you remove the commercials from the equation, “The Great Recession” is actually a perfect example of how to flawlessly incorporate a product placement into a show without sacrificing tone or voice. There’s a self-awareness — and perhaps even a little biting the hand that feeds — when we see the Sunny gang at D&B’s. The first words we hear them utter at the table come from Frank (Danny DeVito), who declares “This is terrible” with a mouth full of food (accompanied, naturally, by a beverage in a Dave & Busters glass with the logo conveniently facing the camera) before later clarifying he’s talking about his financial situation when an aghast Dennis rushes to the defense of the chain, saying, “If you’re looking for a better steak in an arcade setting, you are shit outta luck.”

The character says it earnestly, but of course in real life we understand it to be a back-handed compliment. Dave & Buster’s is essentially an adult version of Chuck E. Cheese; dining on a steak in their arcade setting is a bit like buying sushi from a gas station. It’s funny that these characters would love it so much, but it also fits with what we know about them.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Barry, Silicon Valley and Younger were also paid to work Dave & Buster’s into their episodes, but it seems likely, given everything we know about how the Sunny placement went down. Like Sunny, these shows all work the chain into their plots in a way that pokes fun at it and almost demeans it. On Barry, it’s a place that attracts hardened gang members and literal murderers. On Silicon Valley, it’s depicted as a sad place that only a loser with no friends would want to pressure someone into visiting with him. And on Younger it’s basically presented as the opposite of The Rainbow Room — cheap, tacky, unsophisticated but ultimately still a fun time. And after all, isn’t “tacky yet still fun” the best we can really hope for when it comes to paid product placement on our favorite shows?

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