The Smiling Nihilism of IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA

We talk a lot about ‘jump the shark’ moments on TV shows, those moments when a long-running program clearly runs out of ideas and so the writers and producers just start throwing out crazy crap. Like, remember when 24 had a nuke go off in the middle of LA? And within three episodes nobody seemed, you know, put out at all by that? But a lot of shows, specifically sitcoms, don’t blow up so much as fade away. The characters which may have once begun as dynamic and undergone evolution and development become stagnant and chase their own tails around and around again. They repeat the same mistakes over and over and every attempt to branch out ends up circulating back to the same status quo.

Different shows approach this stagnation in different ways. Shows like Cheers and The Office turned their final seasons into reflections of that resistance to change (Cheers found melancholy beauty in this reflective place. The Office found shit [at least until the finale, which was excellent. But man, you gotta wade through a lot of Ed Helms to get to that finale. Blergh.]). A show like Seinfeld completely embraced the notion that its characters were caught in a constant loop, damning the selfish monsters at the center of the show to endless retreads of their own narcissistic failings as a kind of karmic grand statement (which the finale then stepped on and kind of ruined).

But I don’t know if any show in the history of the medium has used the innate stagnation of a sitcom universe to such devastating ends as the recent seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The cult oddity has been on the air for over a decade, and its last few seasons have used that advanced age as a means to comment on just how utterly wretched and reprehensible the characters within the world of the show truly are. Sunny uses the sitcom form to mask one of the most acidic commentaries on human nature, maybe ever, and the show’s fangs are only growing sharper as it goes.

But that’s par for the course for It’s Always Sunny, which has always used a format that is familiarized to almost all modern TV viewers over hours and hours of casual watching (try and think about how much time you have spent with Friends or Modern Family or Boy Meets Worlds or any of the countless others playing, even if just in the background while you do other things) only to make cheerful bloodsport out of ideas like decency and good taste.

If you somehow managed to not hear about the show before now, Sunny’s premise is simplicity itself: Four ‘friends’ and Danny DeVito own and run a bar in Philadelphia. They engage in wacky schemes and date a revolving door of guest stars and get mixed up in a whole lot of farcical situations.

The early seasons of the show gleefully embraced the most familiar tropes and archetypes of the sitcom form in order to subvert the entire idea of such a show. Gone were the squeaky clean soundstages where the Friends avoided all signs of poverty (or people of color), replaced by squalid streets which brimmed with crime, drugs, racism, potential for violence, and all manner of illicit subject matter.

But the real anger at the heart of the show came down to the way the central characters actively perverted sitcom tropes, revealing the diseased and destructive nastiness at the heart of such tropes. Perhaps the sickest joke of this sitcom was that Mac (creator Rob McElhenny), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) clearly modeled themselves after their perceptions of ‘normal’ as presented by pop culture, creating layers of delusion that routinely crashed against the brick wall of reality.

Howerton’s Dennis, for example, refers to himself as a sort of charming lothario, the kind of lovable cad always hopping in and out of bed with a string of women, like Joey on Friends or Barney on How I Met Your Mother, etc. He’s the “Cool Guy,” molding his life in the image of decades’ worth of slick playboys that millions of young men have grown up idolizing. But It’s Always Sunny wrings giant, bleak laughs out of revealing Dennis as a sociopathic monster who repulses just about everyone he comes into contact with, save the women he lies to and emotionally manipulates into his bed.

Like other characters on long-running sitcoms, the ‘punishment’, such as it was, for “The Gang” and the trail of destruction that they left across Philly was damnation to always end up back at square one. No matter how the characters schemed, no matter what gimmicks or ideas they tried or dreams they chased, their behavior always landed them right back at Paddy’s Pub, with only layers of delusion protecting them from realizing just how horrible an existence it was they were eking out.

Something has changed in the last couple years though. Age has crept in, and rather than run from it, the cast and crew have really dug into the idea of just how pathetic it is that these people are still pulling this crap, even as they are now nearing their 40s. The reprehensible behavior was, you know, reprehensible from people in their late-20s, yeah, but now that the characters are nearing middle age, there’s an extra-special bite to their inability to ever improve their lives.

Sunny first really started hitting this beat back in season 8, a season that was very self-conscious of how much material it was recycling from previous seasons. I mean that literally, the writers tried to open up the season with an episode titled “The Gang Recycles Their Garbage” an episode constructed almost entirely out of callbacks, redoes, and remixes of multiple other episodes (due to schedule fuckery, this did not end up airing as the season premiere, but it still stands as a mission statement for the season). Most every episode that season was littered with references to previous seasons and episodes, in everything from plots to wardrobe choices. Some episodes remade entire scenes, with elements reversed and messed around with, all serving to remind the audience just how often these characters have gone through these sort of shenanigans (which, on this show, includes faking cancer for profit) and how resolutely they refused to learn from any of it.

That self-referential nature continued all the way up to the current season (11), which is in the middle of airing on FXX. A recent episode saw Frank (DeVito) sustain a head injury that left him thinking it was still 2006. The rest of the cast schemed to use this “do over” as a chance to right the wrong turns they took all those years ago, but their selfishness and stupidity climaxes with everyone making the exact same mistakes and ending up in the exact same positions (which, on this show, includes addiction to crack).

I’ve been watching It’s Always Sunny since it first premiered back in 2005, and I’ll admit that I found myself growing away from it in recent seasons. Besides just not finding it as funny as it once was, I was frustrated by what I saw as the show running out of ideas and endlessly retreading familiar stories and jokes. But recently I started realizing what McElhenney, Howerton, Day, and their writers and producers were doing. They were once again taking the sitcom form and laying bare its ugliest heart, and what I took to be creative exhaustion/laziness was actually part of the joke.

It’s Always Sunny has constructed one of the most nihilistic universes in the history of television, crewed by a bunch of cockroaches that will forever cling to the very edge of the toilet bowl. Our ‘heroes’ try to live their lives by the same culturally-enforced example we are all exposed to, and have succeeded only in building a hell-on-earth for themselves to live in. There are still years’ worth of laughs to be gained from looking into that mirror and watching them burn.

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.