Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s wheel of awfulness spins cruelty into comic gold

Illustration for article titled It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s wheel of awfulness spins cruelty into comic gold

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its debut on August 4, and has run for 114 episodes and 10 seasons on FX and FXX.


While it’s easy to found a comedy on unremittingly terrible behavior, it’s hard as hell to sustain one. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the creation of Philly native Rob McElhenney (with creative and producing assistance quickly assumed by McElhenney’s co-stars Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day), is a small miracle of television comedy. Without careful tending, cringe comedy curdles into boorish cruelty, and Sunny has shown an astounding ability to steer a course through some of the most scabrous adventures in television history, while remaining not only consistently funny, but paradoxically endearing. (This is not to be confused with “loveable.”) It’s a comedic balancing act so deft and consistent that the whole gang (as Sunny’s five main characters are known in the show’s parlance) should be up for some sort of Nobel Prize for comedy. Instead, while the series has garnered enough critical praise and ratings victories to remain on the air, it’s only ever been nominated for two Emmy awards—both for stunt coordination, neither of which it won.

From the title of the very first episode, “The Gang Gets Racist,” Sunny’s agenda was clear enough: Like Seinfeld, with its famous “no hugging, no learning” philosophy, this show was going to drop its four (soon five) protagonists into awkward situations and watch them react very, very badly. With their relative wealth and bulletproof karma, the main Seinfeld quartet looks positively cuddly in comparison to the Sunny Gang, however. Operating out of a filthy hellhole of a bar, Dee, Dennis, Charlie, Mac, and Frank are the worst people in the world, a rotating wheel of reprehensible humanity where some are on top, some are on the bottom, but they’re always rolling over the show’s Philadelphia, crushing unfortunate outsiders in their tracks.

The show’s first season saw Sunny emerge into the world already fully formed. If there’s any difference in the show now, it’s that the characters’ awfulness—to each other and in general—has a decade’s worth of backstory to draw upon, lending the invariably terrible things they do context, but never excuse. In that seven-episode first season, the gang’s dynamic was remarkably pure, and was prodded into its present and permanent shape by the beginning of season two, when TV vet Danny DeVito joined the cast as Dee and Dennis’ deadbeat dad, Frank Reynolds. There used to be more conventional cringe comedy in the mix: The gang were victims of circumstance, acted upon by people even worse than themselves. Like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the gang were also at the mercy of their own weaknesses. The key difference being that David, for all his irascibility, is usually right. If any member of the gang is right about anything, it’s that other members of the gang are even worse. In her initial review of the show for The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley cited Curb alongside Chappelle’s Show as examples of contemporary comedies that she felt superior to the freshman Sunny, saying, “irreverence toward sensitive issues is not uncommon. Funny is much harder to find.” As Sunny quickly found its comedic feet, fewer critics could exclude the show from the ranks of the best, and darkest, comedies on television.

Sure, the gang reacted in inappropriate ways to being blackmailed into potential statutory rape by a manipulative 17-year-old, or joining in on false molestation claims against an old gym teacher by a pair of psychotic old schoolmates (Jimmi Simpson and Nate Mooney’s hilariously gross McPoyle brothers). The first season saw the show more actively trying to push the audience’s buttons, provoking outrage by having the gang engage with issues like abortion, race, and gun control. The debates raised were always red herrings in the end, any social satire defused by how the gang invariably superseded the issues through their own ignorance and self-interest. While bold, these episodes, relying as they did on more external factors for their comedy, took away from the character comedy that quickly became Sunny’s black heart. But starting in season two, there was never as much competition in the terrible person sweepstakes.

Following a low-rated first season, McElhenney, Howerton, and Day were presented with an ultimatum from FX president John Landgraf: Add a marketable name to the cast, or be canceled. After mulling several (unrevealed) names, the guys finally agreed to meet with Danny DeVito. Already familiar with the show thanks to his kids, the former Taxi star joined Sunny in the season two premiere “Charlie Gets Crippled.” DeVito’s availability was such that all of his scenes had to be filmed 20 days before production on season two actually began, resulting in a structurally choppy introduction for Frank Reynolds. Nonetheless, he cannonballed into It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia with an infusion of chaotic energy, clarifying the conception of the characters and their uniquely destructive relationship—to each other and to Philly.

An egregiously crooked and wealthy retired businessman, Frank acted as the gang’s capricious bank, freeing the audience from wondering how Paddy’s Pub could stay open in the face of the gang’s managerial negligence. This brought a freedom to the show as well. Frank’s rutting filth-monster antics often exist in their own grubby little subplots, but his emergence catalyzed the gang. Dee and Dennis’ particular awfulness finds a partial explanation in Frank, the worst father in the world. Strongly hinted to be Frank’s illegitimate son, Charlie found both a soulmate in squalor and an outlet for the loneliness underlying his insane actions. Mac, beset with his own absent father issues, ceded most of his early right-wing tendencies to Frank, whose old-school prejudices and crudity were used as foil for the gang’s more multifaceted ignorance and self-interest.


Thus Dennis’ self-regard was built up to such an enormous level that he exploded at the barest hint that his obvious physical and intellectual superiority wasn’t being acknowledged. (His egomania has swelled to the point that the rest of the gang occasionally entertain the possibility that he may be a serial killer.)

Dee’s initial role as the lone, downtrodden woman of the group loaned her viewer support at the onset. The guys’ unending stream of abuse only increased with time, but it was overwhelmed by Dee’s mean-spiritedness and crazy-eyed fury when crossed.

Mac’s tangle of Roman Catholic self-righteousness and macho posturing inevitably collapses in the face of any actual threat to his safety or comfort.

And Charlie, by default the most affectingly vulnerable of the gang, harbors such concealed oceans of madness as to be arguably the most dangerous of all. The object of his affection/obsession, a hapless former classmate of the gang’s known only as The Waitress (played by Day’s real-life spouse Mary Elizabeth Ellis) finds herself in continual misery because of Charlie’s unwanted and terrifying devotion.

Frank is Frank. Freed from all responsibility, his retirement consists entirely of grunting, drooling self-gratification.

With all these pieces in place, Sunny began to explore the nuances of human depravity with dizzyingly deft comic inventiveness, as the gang discovered deeper wells of lunacy—and the barest snatches of empathy. The keys to keeping Sunny palatable through all the sordidness is that the gang can never win, and that the show can never allow them to be truly sympathetic. The gang are all underdogs, which should lend them pathos. Yet they all harbor delusions of enormous self-worth, which causes them to act superior to each other and the rest of the world, and they lash out in unpredictably destructive ways when those delusions are punctured. If any member of the gang comes out on top in a particular episode, it’s at the expense of one or more of the others, and their victory only comes about through actions viewers can never truly get behind. It’s a high-wire act, a delicate construction of sledgehammer awfulness and broad, often wildly physical comedy.


For the Sunny formula to truly work, the gang can never be entirely beyond the reach of viewers’ understanding. One strategy there is to have each member of the gang point out when another has gone too far. No one is ever right for very long on this show, any character’s horror at what another member of the gang is doing subsumed by self-interest, or their own plain stupidity. A prime example of this dynamic is season nine’s “Mac And Dennis Buy A Timeshare.” Frank quite sensibly uses his business acumen to explain why Mac and Dennis should not fall for what’s clearly a scam—but he does so while inexplicably trapped in a piece of playground equipment. In his underpants. For the entire episode. Even when a member of the gang is right about something, his own wrongness is invariably on full display.

Sunny keeps its reprehensible characters relatable by dangling empathy just out of the audience’s reach. This is the show’s crowning achievement. The gang’s individual failings and pain are identifiably human enough that it draws us, at least, within compassion range. Dee and Dennis, the product of a loveless marriage between two loathsome people (Ann Archer appeared in three early episodes as their judgmental, manipulative mom), carry a sense of unwarranted entitlement they go to desperate lengths to sustain. Mac, similarly the product of familial awfulness (albeit a more low-rent variety), heartbreakingly clings to the illusion that his terrifying convict father, Luther (Gregory Scott Cummins), actually loves him, and that the hardcore religion he was raised in will put everything broken back together. And Charlie is simply the accidental refuse of his parents’ sordid dalliance—an abortion that didn’t take. Possessed of a soul but unschooled in what to do with it, Charlie scrabbles in the filth of Philadelphia looking for the love he wants but has only the most irrational ideas how to express. The actors, all of whom essentially live the show some 10 months of the year (McElhenney and Olson married early in the show’s run), inhabit these characters so completely by this point that they make the balancing act here look simple.


When It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has taken a step back to truly examine the gang, it’s resulted in some of the best episodes in the series’ 10-year run. Sometimes it’s an outsider who points out the dysfunction, as in season six’s “The Gang Gets A New Member.” When Jason Sudeikis’ Schmitty—formerly one of the gang, but jettisoned (out of a moving car) in favor of Charlie—is readmitted to the group, he finds the gang’s codependent rituals childish and ridiculous. (The gang settle for leaving Schmitty on the side of the road this time, as Frank proves too weak to push him out the car door.) Other times, there’s a brief flash of self-awareness from inside the gang itself. In season seven’s “The Gang Gets Trapped,” where most of the gang winds up stuffed into a suburban closet on an ill-defined mission to steal a rare vase, Dennis has the scales fall from his eyes, ranting:

We immediately escalate everything to a 10. 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.


Similarly, in season 10’s “The Gang Misses The Boat,” it’s Dennis again, this time calling out the group’s hair-trigger decision making (he’s just impulsively driven his Range Rover into the ocean) with a blistering rebuke that splits the gang apart for the duration of the episode: “I used to be just a cool guy who hung out and had a cool car. All of us have just become so goddamned weird!”

In the same episode, Charlie and Dee, the gang’s most frequent targets for abuse, have a quiet lunch and discover that, away from the gang’s constant escalation, they’re capable of actually being decent to each other. Charlie says:

Sometimes those guys make me do things that aren’t really me. I kind of feel compelled to call you a bird and throw my glass of water in your face. But I’m kind of realizing that I only do that stuff because I don’t want the guys to do it to me first.


Mac has his moment of clarity back in season eight’s stellar “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” when, with only the barest prodding from a therapist, he blurts, “Sometimes, I feel like they don’t even understand me, and we’re not even that good of friends.”

As unexpectedly affecting as these moments are in themselves, the aftermath is even more so. In each case, the characters retreat from their epiphanies almost immediately, returning to the codependent, degrading, but familiar status quo. As readily as each member of the gang turns on each other at the barest glimmer of benefit to themselves, they ultimately realize that no one else will have them.


In the past few years, there have been rumblings that the creators were looking for an exit strategy. In interviews prior to the 10th season, Howerton spoke of not wanting to overstay their welcome, and the show’s move to FX’s sister network FXX cost it enough viewers to be discouraging. And while Day has certainly had the most success outside of the show, garnering praise for his turns in Pacific Rim and the Horrible Bosses films, Olson, Howerton, and McElhenney have all found time outside of Sunny’s consuming schedule to take on guest spots on shows like New Girl and The Mindy Project. (Howerton also scored a lead in the little-seen indie comedy Coffee Town.) But season 10 turned out to be one of the strongest in the show’s history, and, in 2014, FX announced that the show had been renewed for seasons 11 and 12 as part of an overall deal which will also see McElhenney, Day, and Howerton helming a new sitcom starring Tracy Morgan. For all the rancor inside Paddy’s, behind the scenes, Sunny remains as harmonious as it is creatively vital.

And, as for the show’s prospects for respect? While the Sunny’s critical reputation has only grown over time (with Time’s Eric Dodds asking “Why has the best comedy on television never been nominated for an Emmy?” in 2013, for example), the show’s singularly profane brilliance keeps it seemingly forever locked out of award shows or mainstream acceptance. Charlie’s song from the transparent broadside to its critics that is the season nine episode “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award,” sums up the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s attitude toward its ongoing marginalized status in signature Sunny style.

United in defiant awfulness, the gang, for better or worse, will always have each other.


Next time: A horse is a horse of course, of course. And no one can talk to a horse of course. That is of course unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed. In which case you can talk to the horse, and Erik Adams can write all about it.