With the announcement of an upcoming fifteenth season, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has cemented its status as the longest-running live-action sitcom on air, having stuck around for fifteen years to date. It boasts a hundred and fifty-three episodes, ranging from the heights of classics such as the musical “The Nightman Cometh” (Season 4, Episode 13) and technically impressive “Charlie Work” (Season 10, Episode 4) to the comparative lows of the unfocused “A Cricket’s Tale” (Season 12, Episode 7).
But how long can it keep going?
Speaking to NME this year, creator Rob McElhenney said: “I’ll do it forever. If people keep watching it and we keep having fun, why would we ever stop?”
He has a point. It’s Always Sunny’s quality has remained remarkably consistent over the course of its run, thanks in part to its simple, malleable premise. In season one, the show was essentially an offbeat workplace comedy about three morally questionable, politically incorrect dudes who owned a bar. There’s a simplicity to that first season when the show was still finding its groove: the gang deals with underage drinking in the bar, debates hot button 2005 issues like abortion and gun ownership, and seems like a relatively normal friendship group, albeit one that encourages the worst tendencies in one another. The show began to ascend to the level of great television when the gang startled hurtling downwards into a chasm of moral depravity and – vitally – deep, existential sadness.
Each member of the gang has spent over a decade getting very close to the worst possible version of themselves. A season eight episode in which the gang goes to a therapy session delves into the deep-seated emotional issues that inform who the characters have become. Mac (Rob McElhenney) goes first, immediately exposing the therapist to wild mood swings, repressed sexuality, and religious trauma; Charlie (Charlie Day) reveals a pigeon stashed in his jacket that he killed by ‘hugging it too hard’; Frank (Danny DeVito) breaks down after remembering his time in a mental institution as a child; Dennis (Glenn Howerton) puts his narcissism, control issues and general creepiness on full display, and perhaps the episode’s most uncomfortable laugh is drawn out as Kaitlin Olson’s Dee begs the therapist to, “Tell me I’m good.” The episode also explores how unhealthily co-dependent the gang has become. All of them are trapped together in freefall.
The show’s greatest strength – could also be its weakness going forward…
This co-dependence – the show’s greatest strength – could also be its weakness going forward. None of the gang can leave, and so none of the main cast can, either. Even more so than if one of the friends had left Friends, one of the core four leaving It’s Always Sunny would create an implosion from which the show would be unlikely to recover. In something like Friends or Cheers, it’s conceivable that one of the main characters could move on with their life and go somewhere else. Not so with It’s Always Sunny: the gang is a fragile ecosystem and none of the members have a life beyond it. Various episodes have explored the concept of the gang trying to go their separate ways (season five’s “Mac and Dennis Break Up”, season ten’s “The Gang Misses the Boat”) but they always end up crawling back to each other, longing for a return to ‘normal’. It seems as though Glenn Howerton (Dennis) attempted a more permanent separation, appearing to leave the show at the end of season twelve for the greener pastures of NBC’s AP Bio. His absence for even just four episodes (out of the thirteenth season’s ten) left the show feeling off-kilter and wrong to many viewers. Taking IMDb ratings with whichever sized pinch of salt you normally would, it’s clear that something went wrong with season thirteen: it is the only season where the average user rating dips below 8.0 (and the episodes without Dennis seem to account for the slump).
But season fourteen got back on track while proving that there is always more for It’s Always Sunny to do and explore. One episode is a film noir homage; another riffs on Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. And the characters continue to have just enough humanity to make them bearable, while also representing what most people pray they’ll never become. After (literally) years of repression and guilt, Mac finally came out as gay in season twelve, providing the show with a new avenue to explore. In the same season, Dennis admitted to experiencing human emotions, a big step for him. Dee got to experience the rest of the gang’s approval in the second episode of season thirteen, and Charlie remains just childlike enough to make some of his worse actions, like ripping a mall Santa’s throat out with his teeth, seem almost forgivable.
Going forward, it will be essential for creators McElhenney, Howerton, and Day – as well as newer writers such as Megan Ganz and Erin Ryan – to balance the darkness of the gang with their remaining slivers of light. They’re past the point of redemption, but that doesn’t mean that sincere, sweet moments like Mac giving Dennis a rocket launcher for Valentine’s Day (this is what passes for sweet in the context of the show) can’t still be welcome and impactful. Many LGBT+ viewers have responded to Mac’s coming out story, which culminated in a gorgeous interpretive dance played not for laughs, but for genuine emotional catharsis. Moments like those are doubly impactful for their scarcity, and leave the characters feeling like more than grotesque caricatures of evil.
Staying funny for so long…
Then there’s the fact that It’s Always Sunny has managed – against all odds when one considers other sitcoms that ran for over ten seasons – to stay funny. The five lead performers are all hilarious in their own distinct ways, the kind of talented where even a flicker of a facial expression can draw a laugh out of a viewer. A benefit of McElhenney, Howerton, and Day’s dual acting-writing roles is that each episode exudes an intrinsic knowledge of how to play to everyone’s strengths. The hilarity is often drawn from the gang escalating seemingly benign situations (Charlie yelling, “People will choke! People will DIE!” about the bar having thick limes instead of thin, for example) but also from wry social commentary and characters’ interplay. There seems to be no danger of the show running out of jokes to make, or running out of new registers for Day and Howerton’s vocal cords to hit.
It’s Always Sunny benefits from a surprisingly broad appeal. Some of its humour finds an audience with the sort of Internet guys who have a lot to say about Captain Marvel; a large number of the jokes have become popular memes, and a small but dedicated part of the fanbase are young members of the LGBT+ community (thanks in part to Howerton’s 2011 statement that “all of our characters are a little ambiguously gay”). Keeping that range of people happy seems like an impossible task – and there are certainly some who bemoan that the show has become too progressive – but the team has managed well so far. Long may they continue.
- Ellie Burridge