In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the first 11 seasons of which are now streaming on Netflix. (New episodes air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on FXX.)
When it airs its pre-ordained 14th season in 2019, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia will tie the record for America’s longest-running live-action sitcom. Befitting the band of miscreants at the show’s center, that distinction is a bit of a cheat: The current longevity champion, The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, aired upwards of 30 episodes per season, and Charlie (Charlie Day), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Frank (Danny DeVito) still have a long way to go to catch up with the episode counts of shorter-lived primetime staples like Cheers, M*A*S*H, and My Three Sons. Regardless, that’s a remarkable tenure for a low-budget cable comedy about terrible people behaving terribly, a Seinfeld-on-steroids premise that didn’t just prove elastic—it wound up defining the comedic voice and tone for a fledgling FX and its eventual spin-off, FXX. With such a backlog, diving into The Gang’s misconducts, delusions, and surprisingly plentiful musical performances can be an onerous task. Any of the following episodes should provide a good introduction, as well as an explanation for why, against all odds and municipal regulations, the doors to Paddy’s Pub remain open.
Kyle’s pick: “The Gang Gets Invincible” (season three, episode two)
“The Gang Gets Invincible” packs a few favorites—the McPoyles, Green Man, Artemis—into some of the series’ most inspired lunacy. When a publicity stunt has the Philadelphia Eagles holding open tryouts for a day—which inspired 2006’s Invincible, released the year before this episode aired—Mac and Dennis are typically overconfident. But it’s only Sweet Dee—pulling a Just One Of The Guys by pretending to be male—who has any skill, though she inevitably fails like Mac and Dennis. Dee in drag and Dennis getting a comeuppance are funny, but the B-stories make the episode. The Gang’s nemeses the McPoyles (led by the great Jimmi Simpson) show up so their Neanderthal brother can try out, and Frank and Charlie doing acid in the parking lot leads to the return of Green Man and a funny hallucination with Dee’s unhinged friend Artemis. That it all culminates in someone getting shot is practically a given.
LaToya’s pick: “Sweet Dee’s Dating A Retarded Person” (season three, episode nine)
As far as all-time classic episodes of It’s Always Sunny go, “Sweet Dee’s Dating A Retarded Person” is understandably but unfortunately overshadowed by its spiritual successor, “The Nightman Cometh.” But never forget that there would be no Nightman musical without the introduction of the sexually depraved Nightman, his all-powerful rival Dayman, and Charlie’s surprising musical brilliance in combination with his total illiteracy. It’s a classic Gang scam, with Mac’s proposal for a band stemming from seeing how a simple man like Dee’s boyfriend-of-the-week Lil’ Kevin has achieved local celebrity status as a rapper. It beautifully shows just how little talent this group of terrible people have. So while the plot that eventually creates Sunny’s most famous episode is based on a misguided fame attempt and an intensifying glue and spray paint huffing habit, the titular plot is driven by an inappropriate score count between Dennis and Dee in terms of “Retarded” versus “Normal.” Dennis’ insistence to Dee that her backwards T-shirt wearing, juice-box-sipping, possibly little-hand-having rapper of a boyfriend is mentally retarded serves as the perfect continuation of the piling on of Dee after the previous episode, “Frank Sets Sweet Dee On Fire.” It’s also definitive proof The Gang doesn’t need to ruin other people’s lives: They can so easily do that to each other.
Kevin’s pick: “Frank Reynolds’ Little Beauties” (season seven, episode three)
The appeal of It’s Always Sunny is that it doesn’t just approach the line of cable television propriety: It crosses over and tramples on it. The writing staff doesn’t test how far they can push things; they work backwards from taboo. Case in point, this episode where Frank is tricked—from a stranger at a strip club, of course—into investing in a children’s beauty pageant. All the gross, absurdist hallmarks of an It’s Always Sunny episode make an appearance: Blood, diddlers, morticians, kids swearing, etc. As they do in their most memorable episodes (“The Nightman Cometh,” “The High School Reunion”), this one ends with musical numbers, performances that are wholly inappropriate, and a bemused and aghast in-show audience.
Molly’s pick: “Thunder Gun Express” (season seven, episode 11)
“Thunder Gun Express” is not in any way the best episode of It’s Always Sunny. If you were going to do a top 10, this might not even make the cut. But as a lifelong Philadelphian, “Thunder Gun Express” speaks to me because you actually get to see the city, as opposed to a few exteriors and some L.A. backdrops that pretend to be South Philadelphia. The plot starts simple and in Sunny fashion gets complicated: The Gang wants to see the biggest movie of the summer, called Thunder Gun Express, and chaos erupts as they try to get to the theater. In the process, we see places like historic Jeweler’s Row (there aren’t actually trolleys in Center City, but that’s just semantics); the Schuylkill River (you’re not a Philadelphian until you can spell that without looking), where Frank hops a river boat tour and hijacks some tourists; and Locust Bar, one of the city’s great dives (you can still smoke inside!), where Charlie and Dee ditch Fat Mac for being too fat. But the best bit comes when you figure out the movie they want to see happens to be playing at the TLA, the South Street concert venue that used to house a theater that employed a pre-fame Danny DeVito. There are some other great Philadelphia-centric entries—“The World Series Defense,” “The Gang Hits The Road,” “The Gang Gets Invincible”—but it warms my cold, cold Philadelphia heart to see the city that gave the show its soul onscreen.
Ashley’s pick: “The Gang Broke Dee” (season nine, episode one)
Kaitlin Olson is It’s Always Sunny’s hidden weapon. While the men of the show have certainly provided some of its best moments, few can deny Olson’s dedication to the horror show that is Dee Reynolds. She elicits a rare combination of sympathy and disgust, and no episode showcases this better than “The Gang Broke Dee.” The episode starts with Dee at her lowest—she’s finally taken The Gang’s years of abuse to heart and has accepted her status as a trash-cake-eating bird. With no more fucks (or dry heaves) to give, Dee finds a new confidence in stand-up comedy. Olson’s turn from pathetic garbage-eater to a diva-like comedian on the rise showcases an important skill she brings to It’s Always Sunny—the ability to change motives and behaviors on a whim among a cast that tends to stay fairly static. It’s not hard to guess how Charlie, Mac, Dennis, and Frank will react to a certain situation, but Dee is the show’s true wild card, as she moves between despising the other members of The Gang and desperately seeking their affection. The episode’s stellar twist ending is only the icing on the cake and provides one of the best Sweet Dee breakdowns the show has ever seen.