Last December, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia aired a record-breaking fifteenth season. Having usurped The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ran for the previous record of fourteen seasons, It’s Always Sunny has another three confirmed. Creator Rob McElhenney told Rolling Stone in 2019, “just by function of…. the characters themselves, [most shows] have to start following those emotional evolutions, which we just don’t have to do. We get a blank slate every episode.” Running since 2005, the show’s long-standing appeal is founded on its continual and increasingly self-aware approach to storytelling. I also think that makes it one of the smartest TV shows in history, using the format of long-running TV (namely sitcoms) for its own ends.
The initial pitch for Sunny is four entitled and ignorant friends running a dive bar, Paddy’s Pub, in south Philly. It’s immediately reminiscent of Cheers, if less wholesome. The production and airing slots that sitcoms tend to fill, made to be shown in syndication (out of order) means that characters and situations don’t change. There may be changes in the format – relationships or characters are written out but replaced by functional copies. Developments never alter characters in their attitudes or personalities. And they run for years. It creates a liminal state for the world – take Cheers, which ran for eleven seasons on NBC. It’s also set in a bar, with regular customers who turn up weekly at this fictional pub. After a while, that starts getting sad. You have to wonder what’s going on with these wise-cracking losers who seem to spend every waking second of their lives drinking. Or why these barmaids are still working at the same establishment after ten years.
It’s Always Sunny capitalises on this liminality. It stars Charlie Day as janitor Charlie, Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney as co-owners Dennis and Mac respectively, and Kaitlin Olson as waitress, and Dennis’ twin sister, Dee. Charlie is fun-loving, if somewhat childish. Mac is crass, thinking he’s cooler than he is, which sits at odds with his Catholic preaching. They’re both working-class, which fits with their reckless behaviour. Dennis is arrogant and selfish, and Dee quickly reveals herself as similarly selfish and ridden with insecurities (after Olson complained at being reduced to the “wet blanket” in scripts). Their upper-class upbringing supports the callous ways in which they often act, how they view themselves as above the others. It’s a conventional sitcom set-up, the characters having a clear reason for spending all day in a bar despite being an unconventional friendship group.
Season two introduces Danny DeVito as Frank, Dennis and Dee’s estranged father, whose recent divorce from their mother, and his subsequent realisation that what he wants to do is “live in squalor”, ties him back into their lives. His endless flow of cash aids them in their strange schemes, often revolving around getting rich or laid. The characters (aside from Frank) were in their late-20s at the inception of the series, at the point in life where thinking and acting in those ways has become a little sad.
A worse show, one with less lofty ideas than Sunny, would’ve shown these characters learning to grow. For the first two seasons, the notion that these people could start to mature, leaving those selfish and self-destructive tendencies behind, feels possible. “The Gang” never do. In season two’s “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare”, the siblings attempt to leave the bar behind them, get on unemployment benefits in order to follow their dreams, which ends with them addicted to crack. It’s a fairly risqué joke for a sitcom, and would be a throw-away plot in any other show. But in season seven’s “Frank’s Pretty Woman”, Dennis reveals to Mac that what he really wants in life is to smoke crack again. In season eleven’s “Frank Falls Out the Window”, in which Frank sustains a concussion meaning he thinks he’s back in 2006 (season two), Dennis and Dee have a chance to fix the mistakes they made a decade ago. They end up relapsing and getting addicted to crack again.
Sitcom characters, and their world, are liminal. They exist in some sort of timeless place, where all of the events that befall them are forgotten by the following week. Dee, for example, has been set on fire, locked in a freezer, hit by cars, and is so worn down by the Gang’s constant berating of her (as the only woman) that she threatens to kill herself in “The Gang Broke Dee”. She resorts to one-night stands with random men for a sense of self-worth. In “PTSDee”, a male stripper says that sleeping with her was “rock bottom” – instead of using that revelation for self-reflection, Dee hatches a plan to show him what rock bottom means, having him give a lap dance to his estranged daughter. Season seven sees McElhenney gain sixty pounds of fat, which Mac claims is “cultivating mass”. The amount of physical harm these characters go through is extraordinary, but they’re inevitably set back to square one for the next episode, whilst all the grudges and damage fester inside of them.
Sitcom protagonists often undergo ‘Flanderization’, in which a once-realistic character becomes more obnoxious, their behaviour more exaggerated, as audiences grow used to their antics. By season five of FRIENDS, for instance, the once-self-centred Ross Geller seethes with palpable rage after his boss eats his sandwich. It’s Always Sunny deconstructs that. In “The Gang Gets Analysed”, Dee’s therapist is subjected to the Gang and their malformed psyches – Dennis seems to enjoy the idea of ‘being in someone’s mind, being in complete control’. Whether or not Dennis is a serial killer has become a running joke. The show, thankfully, never goes far enough to say – that would be missing the point that they’re implying he is, in what’s still ostensibly a sitcom. Dennis and Dee simultaneously see themselves as Golden Gods (Dennis, after undergoing sensory deprivation, comes to the conclusion that he actually is God), despite both being riddled with insecurities. Dennis and Mac are codependent on each other, whilst Dee is constantly berated about her body and personality by the rest of the Gang.
We’re shown that Dennis has a system of sleeping with women, “The DENNIS System”, by psychologically manipulating them. This is turned around in “The Gang Goes to Hell” and “Dee Day”, to show that Dennis has become as insecure (and physically degraded) as Dee, to the point where his expertly-curated system doesn’t work anymore. He even requires make-up to appear healthy (his tendency to starve himself probably doesn’t help). The Gang get weirder, but the world around them stays the same.
Charlie goes from fun-loving and gullible to living in a world of pure fantasy – he was abused as a child by his uncle, who he views as ‘the Nightman’, a strange mystical being who visits young boys and turns them into men. He believes that “ghouls” and leprechauns are real, abuses stimulants and noxious chemicals, and stalks a woman known only as “the Waitress” (in an inversion of long-running will-they-won’t-they storylines). He’s illiterate in English whilst reading, writing, and speaking Irish fluently. He shares a sofa bed in a rancid one-bedroom apartment with Frank, who for the longest time was implied to be his father.
Mac and Frank, though, are the most extreme examples of this. There are implications that Mac is gay, which explains his ultra-conservative Catholicism and his co-dependency on Dennis. In “Hero or Hate Crime?” Mac finally comes out, and the scant moments of genuine growth in the show tend to be centred around him – “Mac Finds His Pride” ends with a professionally-choreographed interpretive dance routine showing his inner-turmoil, and throughout the episode there are peaches scattered around his apartment (a confirmed reference to Call Me by Your Name). It’s not as though Mac betters as a person through any of this, and his increasing insecurities after coming out lead to him straight up asking whether the other members of the Gang actually like him. They don’t, obviously, but they have no other friends in the world by this point. Mac becomes obsessed with his various ‘identities’ (gay, Catholic, Irish, “badass”) to give him a sense of self-worth.
Frank goes through years of mental and physical degradation – in “Being Frank”, it’s implied he has a serious (possibly terminal) illness, and “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” jokes he’s in the early stages of dementia. The show rarely capitalises on these implications, but they’re always there, hanging over the Gang as they grow weirder and more pathetic with each new season. By season twelve, they’re incapable of tending to their own bar. Not even the initial pitch of the show is within their grasp anymore.
There’s no better example of this than season 15’s “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink”. Set in 1998, it recounts the Gang (still played by the cast, which makes it all the funnier) deciding to go into business together. They’re young and foolish – Dennis is working for Frank, Dee’s about to go to Hollywood, Mac’s dealing drugs – so their actions make sense. The “palpable sadness” of the show is brought to the forefront, as we know that these wide-eyed kids are only going to get worse.
None of these people like one another, but they’re so codependent on each other, so worn down by the years and all their backfired schemes that they have no other friends in the world. It’s through their own insular loneliness, not plot-driven necessity, which means they always end up at Paddy’s Pub at the start of the next episode. Shows such as South Park, which thrives on the philosophy of ‘we make fun of everyone and everything’, will always seem hollow in comparison to Sunny, because the hard groundwork of making the joke on the characters is never done. Instead of simply taking a sensitive or upsetting idea and treating it irreverently in the hopes of a cheap laugh, Sunny loops all of these topics back into how selfish, dumb, and insular these people are. It gets to have its crack and smoke it too.