The gang turns 10, and we’re still watching.
After 10 seasons and 114 episodes, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia turns ten years old this week. For a sitcom that follows the exploits of a group of depraved, horrible people, this is quite an achievement. Most descriptions fail to highlight what makes it such a smart and funny show, and had I been told that it’s about the offensive behaviour of a group of relatively wealthy white bar-owners, I would have never started watching. There’s an attention to detail that means these characters can be believable as human beings, even when they’re taking part in bizarre schemes motivated by outrageous beliefs. Every storyline is put into motion by each character’s egotism, greed and ignorance, and in return their failure to succeed or grow in any significant way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their unity is never solid – any of them would quickly drop another for personal gain, but they tend to realise that they need each other, simply because no one else will have them. While they rarely are adequately punished for their misdeeds, we see the destruction left in their wake. It’s a compelling indictment of those whose privilege allows them to operate on their own terms, and oppress anyone that they have power over, out of some misguided sense that they are the ones being wronged. It’s Always Sunny accomplishes the difficult task of making a show about awful people who never really change and have it still feel fresh ten years on.
It is always challenging to create characters who proudly proclaim their offensive views and engage in unethical behaviour in comedy, without it coming across as if the issue at hand is unimportant or merely an object of mockery. It’s Always Sunny walks the thin line between plainly stating the creators’ moral stance, and making light of societal problems that affect a huge amount of the audience. One of my problems with irreverent shows like South Park is that they often have a character outline the lesson to be taken from the debate – that both sides of the issue are equally stupid, and situating yourself anywhere but the middle-ground makes you a fool too. While this is seen by a lot of people as a balanced approach without bias, the lack of dissent will tend to support the status quo, rather than bring public opinion into a neutral middle. It’s Always Sunny often mocks the self-interest that is behind a lot of pernicious views, and how they are likely to crumble under any pressure. It helps that they have cultivated a dynamic in which different characters shift in and out of the role of the “straight-man”, and so objectionable remarks are condemned, assuring the audience that the joke is on the characters, and we’re in on it.
It is also important that there is no particular character that takes on the role of moraliser within the gang. In the first season it seems that Dee (Kaitlin Olson) is meant to fulfil this role, but the casting of Olson and her insistence on being included in their shenanigans changed the minds of writers Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day. Howerton has said that:
“We were already writing for an entire season before she even got cast, so her part was a little under-written. It was like that same trap it’s easy to fall into with female characters a lot of the time, where they just stand around and say “You guys are terrible” then we get to do funny things because someone is telling us we’re terrible”
Her audition turned out to be a scene that had already been filmed, and the jokes she believed were her own were taken away. Since then, they have bolstered her character, and she has proved that she is one of the funniest actresses on television. It’s great to see an actress get the chance to play the screw-up who makes poor life decisions, instead of being relegated to the nagging voice of reason. It’s notable that Dee being shunned by the rest of the group throughout the show simply because she is a woman, and supposedly useless to their group dynamic, works as a great meta commentary on their own initial treatment of Olson.
There is also plenty of self-aware commentary being made on the format of the show. The writers’ feelings towards other comedies as well as their own are communicated through the gang’s need to be successful conflicting with how weird they all are. The structure of the sitcom means that, for the most part, things return to normal at the end of each episode. There is an inciting incident that brings to light a larger issue, they split into different factions which become their own small narratives, then through chaos and humiliation they are returned to the same point again. It’s within their nature to return to the codependent, toxic, yet familiar group, rather than put effort into developing as people. Their awfulness is given context – bad parenting, childhood trauma – but they are never excused. Every chance they get to change their lives for the better is inevitably thrown away, and so the resetting to the same environment at the end of each episode makes complete sense.
Forgetting the subtextual elements for a moment, on the surface are well-formed characters that are held up by great performances. Kaitlin Olson endows Dee’s constant search for validation with such depth that her despicable behaviour sometimes gives way to the heart-breaking need for validation she can barely conceal.The constant subjugation she faces from the gang is a source of great humour and tragedy.
McElhenney’s performance as Mac as evolved from amped-up dudebro to a mess of confused and fractured masculinity, unwilling to face his repressed sexuality. His father’s refusal to treat his son with any affection (Gregory Scott Cummins is terrifying in the role) doubled with his mother’s grumbling apathy implies a tragic upbringing. His denial and blind optimism is perfectly encapsulated in one cold open in which he declares “I’m going to save my dad’s life”, before we cut to the title card ‘Mac Kills His Dad’.
Danny DeVito was intiailly included as a network mandate to keep the show running after low ratings in the first season, but his talent blended in seamlessly in season two, and the show has been better for it. Frank is a character that tests the boundaries of what DeVito will do for the sake of comedy, and how much we can be pushed as an audience. In ‘Mac and Dennis Buy a Timeshare’, his sensible financial advice is rendered ridiculous by the fact he is inexplicably trapped in a piece of playground equipment, in his underpants. When he is asked to take down his ‘Talk American’ sign when the bar inspector is due to arrive, he candidly responds “Are you sure? Maybe he’s a racist too”. His debauchery and commitment to absurd politics and outdated views means he’s often the most reprehensible of them all. His years of business experience means he can be used to reprimand the reckless actions of the others, while his own wrongness is on full display.
In any other show Charlie would be the outcast, but here he’s the heart of the group. His immoral actions are much less out of self-interest than others in the group, but from a particular madness that often proves to be endearing. He brings a sweetness to the group with his odd friendship with Frank, his musical talent, and his perseverance under hardship. His over-bearing mother and absent father, possible childhood abuse, and ostracization during high school has shaped him into someone who eats catfood, sniffs glue and searches the sewers for gold. Somehow a balance is struck between him as an object of ridicule, a sympathetic figure, and the one being condemned. His constant rejection by the Waitress is never rewarded, even after ten seasons. His creepy persistence isn’t deemed okay by her, or anyone else, at any point.
Glenn Howerton’s part as Dennis may be my favourite thing about the show. In season 1 he was just some womanizing asshole, but by the most recent season he’s become a barely-restrained psychopath, constantly trying to break away from the group but always coming back to once again be the one in control. While he’s given plenty of huge moments of rage and frustration to work with as the show has developed, it’s in his minor expressions and reaction to the ludicrous behaviour of others that has me in fits of laughter. His small but funny turn in the Fargo TV Show showed he has range too. I honestly can’t think of a better comedic actor on television right now.
While they’ve talked before about not wanting to outstay their welcome, season 10 turned out to be one of their strongest seasons in their whole run, and FX have renewed them for seasons 11 and 12. I tend to want shows to show restraint and end when they feel that their story has been told (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos) rather than keeping it going infinitely (The Simpsons) – but I think it will be a while before I get sick of the gang. Seeing these horrible people get older without maturing (and often getting worse) makes the joke funnier and more tragic each time its told. Characters weren’t as clearly defined in the first season, and there’s a lot more straight-faced, under-played moments. Many shows exaggerate characteristics of their characters as the show goes on, often to levels of self-parody (looking at you, Scrubs), but here it feels like a natural development. These guys are becoming worse people in each other’s company, and their privilege and wealth keeps them from working on their issues. In season 10’s ‘The Gang Misses The Boat’, their self-awareness strikes again, as they all start to wonder whether their formula still works, Dennis exclaiming “I used to be just a cool guy who hung out and had a cool car. All of us have just become so goddamned weird!”
The show has maintained such a high quality for this many years largely because of how its creators appear to be critical of what works in the show and what doesn’t. They are confident that they are offering something different, and want to continue to do that without ever getting too comfortable. ‘The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award’ shows their dislike of the superficial comedies that get the highest ratings, but also their recognition of their inherent weirdness. It was their mission from the start to never let the gang win in any of these situations, or allow their edges to be smoothed out for the sake of catharsis. Charlie’s Randy Newman-type crowd pleaser eventually becoming a wail of “go fuck yourselves” is a fitting image for a show that doesn’t want to betray this premise.