It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a show about five of the worst world people in the word. They are rude to everyone, shamelessly arrogant, so self-centred that they are almost entirely ignorant of the world outside their own little bubble and have absolutely no regard for the rest of humanity. The five of them collectively own and staff a grotty bar in Philadelphia called Paddy’s Pub. The show chronicles the adventures they have in the city. There is nothing appealing as human beings about any of them.
And yet they are the central focus of a show that has been running on FX – and FXX since it hit season nine – for twelve years now.
The most recent season concluded with a ton of cliff-hangers that suggests the creators have no intention of wrapping things up any time soon. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t, as FXX renewed the show in April 2016 for two more seasons. When those two seasons are done, the show will tie with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ran for fourteen seasons between 1952 and 1966, as the longest running live-action sitcom in American TV history – and there’s no telling it’ll end there.
So, for a show that revolves around a bunch of douchebags with no basically redeeming features, it’s done pretty well for itself. And it can’t all be because of Dennis’s pecs.
It all started with a funny short film created by Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, who are all executive producers on the show and play Mac, Dennis and Charlie respectively.
This pilot was shot on a budget of basically zero for no other reason than the three of them thought it was fun. That attitude persists to this day and it is integral to the show’s appeal.
They showed the pilot to a number of studios and was picked up by FX in 2005, with McElhenney, Howerton and Day signed on as executive producers and given full creative control. This was a genius move on the part of FX as it ensured that the people who are fundamentally responsible for the quality of the show are genuinely passionate about making something they proud of.
In the same way that Trey Parker and Matt Stone – creators of South Park and Book of Mormon – approach their work, the creators of Always Sunny made a show that they found funny. They weren’t trying to impress anyone, they weren’t thinking about what would best appeal to a national audience. They were having a laugh and enjoying themselves. That genuine love for what they do is evident in every scene and it welcomes viewers into their gang, to be ridiculous with them and just enjoy the ride.
In the original script, the character of Sweet Dee Reynolds, Dennis’s twin sister, was supposed to the voice of reason. She was going to be the theoretical ‘straight man’ – the sensible, reasonable character who, for some reason, stuck by the crowd of assholes she called her friends. The part was meant for McElhenney’s girlfriend at the time the pilot was shot. By the time it came to make the series for FX, the two had parted ways.
Kaitlin Olson has said in interviews that she wondered why she auditioned for the part of Sweet Dee even as she was there, as the character seemed … boring. But she clicked with the rest of the cast immediately and they offered her the part.
She turned it down. Partly because she thought the part was dull and partly because they didn’t offer her a lot of money. She negotiated with them and eventually agreed to take the part, once they promised her a fair amount of pay and also a role that was at least as funny and crude as her male counterparts.
While this insistence might have put off a lesser team, the Always Sunny creators clearly had an eye for talent. By giving Olson the chance to recreate Dee in her own way, they allowed her to flourish the same way the three of them did when they first came up with their characters.
The lack of a voice of a reason in the main group of characters has not had a negative impact on the show. There are enough people in Philadelphia that there are plenty of secondary characters that can step in and out of this role as and when it is needed. This freed up Dee’s character from what could have been an all-too-common cliché: the tired woman desperately cleaning up after the mess of the men in her life who didn’t appreciate everything she did to keep them safe and together.
By allowing Dee to be as disgusting as the other characters, a wealth of new possibilities was opened up. The show was not restricted by reason and could plough the depths of humanity’s debauchery and depravity as freely as it liked, limited only by the creators’ imaginations.
The immediate connection between Olson and the original trio helped too, as they’ve all spoken in various interviews about how easily she fit into the group from the first time they met.
The on screen chemistry between the four of them is what gives the show its heart. They’re so easy around each other that it’s easy to get caught up in their ribbing and repartee. The humour works because they are so natural in each other’s company. The dialogue feels real because it likely is. Their shared sense of what works makes it easy for them to bounce jokes off each other in a way that makes it easy to fall into the rhythm.
No matter how good an actor is, when a show goes on for so long, you start to notice the friction between them and their co-stars if they don’t get along off screen. Eventually part of their distaste for each other will seep into their interactions.
If anything, the team behind Always Sunny have managed to hide the exact opposite. Kaitlin Olson and Rob McElhenney, whose characters frequently point out how repulsive they find each other physically, got married in 2008. Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis, who plays the waitress that Charlie is obsessed with and who explicitly loathes him in return, are also married off screen. (Incidentally, once you know this, their on screen bickering becomes all the funnier.)
But while their romantic affection for each other is well hidden, the chemistry between such a close group of friends makes for an infectiously funny atmosphere. They’re enjoying being in each other’s company and you enjoy being invited to be a part of it, even if you only get to watch.
If you need proof that they are loving every second of they what they do, just watch them crack up in the blooper reels.
But that can’t explain it all. No matter how infectiously funny you and your mates are, it’s never easy to sell controversial humour to a broad audience – which is exactly what Always Sunny does. The real appeal of the show is far more intelligent than that.
The truth is that the show is very cleverly written. The protagonists may be stupid and so self-obsessed that they are ignorant of anything that doesn’t have a directly impact on them, but the actors and writers are very smart and clearly conscious of what is going on in the world around them.
Charlie Kelly may have written The Nightman Cometh, but first Charlie Day had to know about Eugene O’Neill’s classic play The Iceman Cometh, which explored the meaningless of reality.
The series is peppered time and time again with references like this to literature and art and philosophy and science that provides it with an intellectual undertone. It effortlessly blends this kind of intelligent humour with the gang’s aggressive, impulsive behaviour and foul mouths and attitudes, creating a show that reflects society’s flaws without skimping on the dick jokes.
It makes for a show that equally appeals to people looking for a critique of the world around them and people who want to watch the dregs of humanity cause chaos.
The intelligence in the writing is clearest when the show directly tackles controversial topics, in many episodes over, from the argument surrounding gun control to America’s problem with systematic racism. They took on abortion as a central theme as early as the first season, with the gang becoming polarised by the issue when they found that protest groups were picketing a health centre that provided abortion services.
What is so clever about the way these topics are handled is that the episodes never get patronising.
The issue usually splits the gang in one way or another, with a couple of characters taking each side of the argument. This allows the episode to explore the issue from both sides and always ends up satirising the extremists of both points of view, critiquing the way legitimate discussion turns so easily into shit-flinging competitions between otherwise reasonable adults.
This means that at no point is the audience expected to agree with anyone. They can side with whichever argument they choose, or just take a back seat and enjoy the drama without having an opinion at all.
What is most refreshing about the way Always Sunny broaches these controversies, though, is that the episodes rarely – if ever – come to a satisfying resolution. They don’t wrap up having come to a comfortable middle ground that has eluded the rest of the world. They don’t come up with a solution that will cause world peace and patronise everyone working tirelessly solve real world problems. The gang comes to the end of the part of the argument that has caught their attention and then they just … lose interest.
Like most of modern society, the hot topic stops getting coverage in the news and people forget about it. The gang, like so many people who act like they care about popular issues but only while they’re popular, get riled up and angry and they fight, and then they get distracted by something else. They laugh at a waiter tripping over holding a plate of spaghetti and forget what they were bickering about.
They get on with their lives. They adamantly refuse to learn or to grow, comfortable in the ruts they have built for themselves.
No matter how much they might say they want to be an actress or a bodybuilder or to marry the waitress, they don’t want to put the work in to achieve those things. They don’t really want the things that they want. They want to talk about their failure as if they are victims of the world’s innate unfairness, as if perpetually sniffing glue is an unavoidable consequence of life. Trying to make changes to their miserable lives is out of the question.
This differs from the typical sitcom format, where a group of people who you ultimately care for almost always get a happy ending after each twenty-minute story arc. This can only happen so effectively with a group of utter assholes at the centre of the story. Twelve years seeing the same people fail at everything they try, never get any more successful in their careers, never enter into a satisfying relationship, never see their business take off for any reasonable length of time, would stop being funny and start to get upsetting if the story revolved around a group of good people who tried hard and were honest and kind, if you actually liked them.
The show’s longevity would get irritating if it was about nice people. It would feel like the writers were forcing the characters to fail so that they could push the show on for a couple more seasons.
In Always Sunny, the gang’s failure is always because of their own actions. They ruin the lives of almost everyone they come into – breaking up Bill Ponderosa’s marriage, blowing up a building belonging to a neighbouring business owner and destroying Rickety Cricket’s entire livelihood by tempting him away from his commitment to the priesthood and abandoning him to a life of homelessness, sex work and PCP.
Who would want to see those people succeed at anything? Their failure, their total lack of resolution, is satisfying for viewers because they deserve it and because they bring it upon themselves with their selfishness, laziness and arrogance.
The writers and actors manage to perfectly capture the way that people who are blind to their own ignorance behave. The specifics of the situations the gang gets into may be on the more extreme ends of things, but their behaviour is so recognisable that you believe every second of it.
The gang even functions under their own particular logic, so that – no matter bizarre their decisions – you can easily follow along with their twisted idea of reality. You understand their unusual reasoning and it’s possible to get so sucked into it that you forget how stupid it all is.
Through this, viewers are able to identify with them just enough to keep people watching, without having to ever like them. You can be completely aware that these are horrible excuses for human beings, and still relate to them just a tiny little bit.
Admittedly, there aren’t all that many people who would be comfortable admitting that they see any of themselves in the gang. After all, the show was very nearly called – simply – Jerks because the gang is just that awful. But, deep down, they do connect to the douchebag inside each one of us.
They say the things that we would never, ever dare to say, or even think most of the time. But, on the rare occasion that some insensitive person out there pisses us off enough, in a moment of rage we might hope we had the gang’s confidence in yelling them down. Only for a moment, until you’ve regained composure, of course.
Because what is relatable about them isn’t their behaviour or their attitude – it’s not the way they’ll gladly take a baseball to a hobo shamelessly masturbating in their bins – it’s their raw, unadulterated emotional reaction to the shittiness of reality.
In yet another subversion of traditional sitcom form, Always Sunny doesn’t gloss over how awful life can be. It doesn’t force happy endings onto the world. Instead, it is brutally honest about so many of the world’s problems – about political corruption, about rampant drug abuse in underprivileged areas, about the inherent sexism and near rape apologetics of contemporary dating culture. The show is honest about how bad life can be and the gang is honest in their reactions to those problems.
They are bitter people in a bitter world and the show’s gallows-eseque humour, in an increasingly terrifying political and social climate, appeals to the nihilist in each of us wishing that we could end our therapy sessions smashing plates on the floor and screaming.
The gang is just awful enough that you don’t mind that it is them having to confront all of these problems. But their gut reactions to everything are understandable when you put yourself in the position of someone who has no hope of changing the world and only wants to make it work for them in whatever way they can, whether that means drinking yourself into an emotional numbness every day or trying to taking out a life insurance policy on an acquaintance attempting to drink themselves to death.
It is refreshing to see such total honesty, even if it is a bit gross at times.
The gang are their authentic selves 100% of the time. They don’t think before they speak, they don’t care who they offend or why. They can be dishonest and manipulative to get their own way, but they don’t put on airs to live up to anyone’s expectations, no matter how minimal a requirement it may be to be a part of civilised society.
But while the abhorrence of their behaviour – arguably – should repulse a discerning audience, the way it is presented does the exact opposite because the producers know exactly how to handle controversial humour.
The gang might say racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, horrible things, but you are never expected to laugh with them. You, the viewer, are expected to laugh at them. The show doesn’t punch down at the unfortunate and less privileged. The gang themselves are the butt of near enough every joke. The humour is found at the expense of these awful people who have no understanding of how grown adults are supposed to behave.
You laugh at their ignorance, at their failure, at their inevitable comeuppance when someone – who may well be a more depraved character, may be less deserving of our respect even than the gang, may be a McPoyle – calls them out on their bullshit and makes them suffer for it.
In this respect, the show offers a sense of relief by giving its audience an outlet to express just how much people like Dee, Mac, Charlie, Frank and Dennis frustrate us in the real world. If you came across of them in your own life and had to deal with their ignorance and selfishness and rudeness in the flesh, you’d want to weep for the state of humanity.
Too often assholes of this exact breed get swathes of media attention and even elevated to absurd positions of power because they can yell louder than their more reasonable opponents. The gang even acknowledge that they do not solve problems using logic. Their one attempt to allow reason to prevail frustrated them all so much that the only thing they ended up agreeing on was that they were better off going to back to their original method of screaming over each other until the problem goes away of its own accord.
In a world where yelling over other people, dismissing their points without providing a sensible opposing view and generally being a pompous buffoon in place of making a reasonable argument is increasingly becoming an acceptable form of debate, it is all many of us can do not to weep for the state of civilisation. By providing society with a show in which these people fail miserably time after time, we can choose to laugh at them instead, and ease a bit of the existential angst that comes hand in hand with modern culture.
The show does not need to be particularly realistic to achieve this. Its real world setting, current themes and generally recognisable situations ground it enough that the gang can go way overboard in their behaviour and the viewers don’t have any trouble following along. The escalation is so believable that you only stop to think about how ridiculous it all is when you’ve got way past the point that things stopped being reasonable. It is only through incredibly well written twists and turns and complete overhaul of how logic works in the real world that some episodes make sense, with unnecessarily complex plots becoming easier to follow and you fall into step with the gang’s unique reasoning.
Dennis Reynolds himself summed up this recurring habit in the season 7 episode, The Gang Gets Trapped:
“We immediately escalate everything to a ten… somebody comes in with some preposterous plan or idea, then all of a sudden everyone’s on the gas, nobody’s on the brakes, nobody’s thinking, everyone’s 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!”
This is where the actors’ dedication is most evident.
Not only can they make absurd behaviours feel like a logical next step, but they commit to their parts in a way that deserves recognition. Kaitlin Olson has famously injured herself during stunts for the show on multiple occasions and was even rushed to hospital after slicing her leg open so that it exposed the bone while shooting one episode. Incidentally, this happened during the filming of the season 9 episode The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6, which meant that Olson’s husband Rob McElhenney accompanied her to the emergency room in full blackface.
McElhenney has shown admirable commitment to ongoing jokes, even going to so far as to gain a full fifty pounds in order to subvert typical sitcom tropes. He had noticed that in many shows, the main characters stayed at least as attractive as time went on as they had in their debuts. Some, with the help of the kind of fitness programmes famous TV stars can afford, have even got more attractive as they aged. This is common despite the fact that most average people tend to show typical signs of ageing as they pass into middle age, gaining weight and getting wrinkles and losing touch with fashion.
In an attempt to reflect this, McElhenney got purposely fat.
The joke was originally meant to be that all of the gang got fat and unattractive – except for Danny DeVito’s Frank, who would get inexplicably fit – except that no one else wanted to. So McElhenney did it on his own, consuming 5,000 calories per day until he weighed 200 pounds, and maintained that bulk for a full season. He later lost the weight because his co-stars were concerned for his health, dropping 23 pounds in just a single month after they finished shooting the series starring fat Mac.
With central characters this out of control, it takes a roster of incredible supporting actors to maintain the premise of the show. The slightest misjudged reaction to some absurd comment could shatter the viewers’ suspension of disbelief and wreck an entire episode.
But that never happens – not once in twelve seasons has a secondary or even background actor failed to be a fully convincing part of the gang’s world. When the characters around them call them out on their awful behaviour, they are very believably horrified but in a way that shows a sense of resignation about humanity’s flaws and infinite stupidity.
Anyone who tries to educate the gang about the proper way to behave soon gives up and storms out. Or gives up and becomes a part of their peripheral, getting sucked into their awfulness and often ending up worse even than them.
Almost everyone who doesn’t immediately abandon the gang for good ends up on some kind of drugs, whether they’re huffing glue, spiking milk bowls with bath salts or just drowning their sorrows at the Paddy’s bar. Those that get stuck with a substance abuse problem – but don’t end up with a broken family or some kind of permanent and hideous scar – are the lucky ones.
These characters whose lives are torn apart by the gang’s antics react exactly as you would imagine they would. They take out restraining orders. They beg to be left alone. Eventually, they realise that the gang are a force that can never truly be escaped. They succumb as the gang draws out the dark side in them that wants to drink and smoke and snort and exploit a bad situation to their advantage in whatever they can.
As the seasons go on and the gang’s schemes get ever more ridiculous, it is the supporting cast that give them believable surroundings in which to act. They show the justified outrage of being manipulated or strong-armed by the gang, but they cave in a way that is all too familiar for anyone who is used to being around someone whose bossiness is only outweighed by their stubbornness.
Eventually, everyone just comes to accept that one of life’s few inevitabilities, along with death and taxes, is that the gang will drag them into something else and there is no restraining order in the world that can stop them.
What makes these secondary characters so convincing, though, is how fully fleshed out they are as people. It’s evident that they have lives outside of their interactions with the gang – they don’t exist only to react. This is shown most clearly in the most recent season, which has an episode devoted to what Rickety Cricket gets up to when he’s not being hassled by the gang. It lines up perfectly with the times he drops in and out of episodes throughout the rest of the season and exemplifies how much effort has gone into creating a detailed and well thought out Philadelphia community.
This adds to the foundation of the show. It simultaneously establishes a sense of normality – after all, most of the secondary characters, when you meet them at least, are respectable professionals with responsibilities and families – which lulls you into a false sense of security before you, too, get dragged with them into the gang’s debauchery. Before you know it, it feels strange going back and watching those early episodes where Cricket still had all of his teeth.
Reality gets redefined as you sink deeper and deeper in the gang’s world.
And then when the episode (or marathon, now that the first eleven seasons are on Netflix) is over, you can step back out into the real world and it doesn’t seem all that bad. You don’t have any rats you need to bash to death. No one tricked you into digging up your dead mother’s corpse as petty revenge for a snide comment. No one has set you on fire because it’s easier than having mature discussions about your problems.
Your life, in comparison, is actually alright.
For all the passion and talent and intelligence that goes into every episode of Always Sunny, being able to escape from your own life and return to it feeling blessed that it isn’t so much worse will always bring the crowds flocking to watch.
The finale of the most recent season saw the gang finally hit some of the milestones that have eluded them for so many years. Dennis had a feeling strong enough that he wanted to act on it at the end of the last episode. It has left the gang hanging in limbo, with only the knowledge that FXX has guaranteed two more seasons to comfort fans that this is not the end of the gang as we know it.
What we can depend on, though, is that with the world in its current state, the creators will have no shortage of controversies from which to draw inspiration. The team are still famously as passionate about their work as they ever have been. With the freshest chapters yet being teased by that finale, there is no better time than now to binge watch the twelve seasons so far so that you are fully caught up with Dee, Dennis, Charlie, Mac and Frank by the time the thirteenth season hits screens.