It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and its irresistible irreverence: 15 years on, why the Gang remains endearing
Like any comedy that has endured for so long, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia too has grown and evolved with its audience.
2:30pm. On a Friday. Philadelphia, PA. Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Charlie (Charlie Day) are arguing about proper sanitation when Frank (Danny DeVito) comes in to announce that Paddy's Pub has been snubbed once again for the Bar Association’s Best Bar Award. They take turns to feign indifference at awards, but admit a curiosity over why they never get nominated — let alone win. “I want to be very clear about something; This literally means nothing to me,” declares Dennis, setting up the irony in the episode title that follows on screen: “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award”.
The episode frames the metatextual joke as to why It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has never won an Emmy. Fifteen years since its inception, the FX comedy hasn't got the same love from the Emmys or the Golden Globes as it has from critics and public alike. It has been nominated thrice at the Emmys so far — oddly all three of them for stunt coordination. Yet, this show about a quintet of grade-A assholes endures in its irreverence, walking the tightrope between offensive and off-limits. It has now been renewed for a 15th season. What began as a $200 pilot shot on a camcorder by three friends (Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton) will soon become the longest-running live-action comedy series in American television history.
Sunny is an atypical, irreverent beast of a sitcom — for how do you describe a typical day in Paddy's? Dennis executes a fool proof system — The D.E.N.N.I.S. System — to seduce and then dump any woman, which includes steps like “Nurture Dependence” and “Neglect Emotionally.” Dee and Mac try to exploit a baby they find in a dumpster by turning him into a child star. When the talent agency tells them they're only looking for Hispanic babies, they paint the baby brown with shoe polish after the tanning salon refuses to tan an infant. Charlie is busy cleaning toilets, sniffing glue, eating cat food and walking around naked in the sewers. Frank is running sweatshops and hosting games of Russian Roulette in the “anything goes” establishment of the pub's basement.
And anything goes in Sunny. In addition to developing and starring in the show, McElhenney, Howerton and Day are also involved at the production and scriptwriting levels. This has afforded them the creative freedom to cross the line as they please. No topic is off limits: Gun control, abortion, pedophilia, incest, prostitution, Nazi memorabilia and cannibalism have all got the Sunny treatment. The Gang's ignorance, wilful or not, acts as a flippant counterpoint, undercutting the inherent seriousness of these topics. Even though the treatment isn't moralistic, it doesn't justify or excuse their behaviour. Through irreverence, Sunny demystifies these topics and puts the viewer at a distance. Irreverence defines these topics as any other situation in a sitcom to be analysed and satirised before identifying its contrarian viewpoints.
If Seinfeld was “a show about nothing”, Sunny gazes long enough into the abyss of nothing until the abyss gazes back into you. If Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are narcissists trying to navigate the intricacies of polite society, Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie and Frank are narcissists trying to destroy every institution that hampers their hare-brained capers. Over the seasons, their schemes have involved kidnapping, torture, arson, breaking and entering, dealing drugs, doing drugs, and doing drugs to apply for welfare among others. These schemes bring out the worst in each other, and often to their detriment. Perhaps, it’s best to let Dennis the know-it-all explain the usual Sunny hijinks: “Somebody comes in with a preposterous plan or idea. Then all of a sudden everyone's on the gas, and nobody's on the breaks. Nobody's thinking, we're just talking over each other with one idiotic idea after another. Until finally, we find ourselves in a situation where we've broken into somebody's house, and the homeowner is home.”
As they throw themselves headlong into their schemes, they fail to see what's wrong in exploiting other people for their own personal gain. So, watching Sunny not only helps us recognise the worst parts of ourselves, but somehow teaches us to be better people. “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” highlights the insidious ways in which men emotionally manipulate women into complying with their desires. When Dennis is educating the Gang about the system, only Dee seems shocked and sees him for the “complete sociopath” he is. Mac, Charlie and Frank are impressed, and commend Dennis: “Very smooth stuff, very classy”, “This is what men do”, and start cheering “Man stuff” in unison. It makes us revaluate our opinions of a popular sitcom trope: the resident Casanova. The Sam Malones, Joey Tribbianis, and Barney Stinsons have been idolised by teenagers and young men in a culture which continues to glamourise the playboy. If “Frank Reynolds' Little Beauties” exposes child pageantry in all its ugliness, “Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack” does the same with the American healthcare system.
Like any comedy that has endured for so long, Sunny too has grown and evolved with its audience. Previously, it punched up and punched down in its comedy, taking aim at subjects most comedies and comedians consider off-limit. In recent seasons, the showrunners have however tried to make amends for its past blindspots (Remember “Sweet Dee's Dating a Retarded Person” or Fat Mac, anyone?). In “The Gang Turns Black,” Sunny illustrates what it is to be black in America as the Gang finds themselves in the bodies of a black family after a freak storm incident. It doesn't take long for them to get arrested, and Charlie — whose alter-ego is a young black child — gets shot when the police mistake his toy gun for a real one. But the showrunners can't make any pointed observations about racism in America.
In a more searing #MeToo indictment, “Time’s Up for the Gang” brings to light each of their sexual misconduct history as they attend a seminar. “Mac Finds His Pride” sees Mac finally come to terms with his latent homosexuality, and come out in a glorious contemporary dance duet. In an otherwise typical Sunny episode, it sneaks in a five-minute sequence dripping in emotion and sensuality. In an America experiencing a crisis in facts and truth, “Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense” presents an all-too-American partisan reaction to arguments contradicting one's own. “I can't change their mind, I won't change my mind,” say Mac. “Because I don't have to, because I'm an American. I won't change my mind on anything, regardless of the facts that are set out before me. I'm dug in and I'll never change.”
Sunny has thus started to build a narrative infrastructure where its showrunners' progressive ideas fit in more organically. In a Slate article, David Canfield discusses Sunny's recent progressive shift: “The show is not fundamentally changing its comic philosophy so much as investigating why its inhabitants make for such specific, funny, pathetic reflections of society. Indeed, it’s precisely because Always Sunny depicts such a defiantly anti-PC group of people that its turn toward sharper social criticism feels so rich. Its observations about racial sensitivity, the significance of slurs, and the shadow of trauma resonate all the more strongly because they’re reinforced by characters who strive to reject them.”
Sitcoms like Cheers, Friends and How I Met Your Mother build on the kinship among friends outside the traditional but dysfunctional family unit: think the Bunkers (All in the Family), the Bundys (Married...With Children) and the Bluths (Arrested Development). In Sunny, the Gang's relationship dynamics can clearly be seen as one of toxic co-dependency. With Dennis' sociopathy, Dee's gagging, Mac's latent homosexuality, Charlie's illiteracy, and Frank's “donkey brains”, their solidarity is anything but solid. If a scheme requires them to screw over another person, they do it with little hesitation. Nowhere is it more obvious that they become worse in each other's company than in Dee's case.
Each one of the Gang has been the scapegoat or butt of the joke in one episode or the other. But Dee almost always gets the worst of it (take “The Gang Broke Dee” for example). Call it peer pressure or a natural inclination for awfulness like the rest, she quickly goes from a possible moral beacon in the first season to just as twisted and perverse as the rest in the following seasons. In “PTSDee”, as she tricks her ex-boyfriend into stripping for his estranged daughter, it becomes clear she's been sucked into the abyss with the rest of them.
Devoid of common sense and conscience, the employees of Paddy's Pub are simply irredeemable. In “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” they all seem to go through personal breakthroughs in the session, but the ending reveals they haven't really learnt anything and don't intend on changing. The non-evolution of these characters thus puts them in a bubble that excludes them from the consequences of the real world. Their actions present a clear antithesis to every socially acceptable convention. There is a twisted form of catharsis in seeing the Gang indulge in amoralities, most of us wouldn't. But they remain endearing despite their faults.
As The AV Club's Dennis Perkins writes, “While it’s easy to found a comedy on unremittingly terrible behaviour, it’s hard as hell to sustain one.”
But why can't the Emmys see it? Perhaps, Dennis is right. “We’re too fringe. It’s given us a lot of street cred, but we’ve alienated a lot of people in this town...We know we’re cool, and our customers know we’re cool, but the industry doesn’t get it yet.”
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