Ever since the late 1940s, sitcoms have dominated the world of television. From The Honeymooners, to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to Friends, to How I Met Your Mother, countless sitcoms have reached iconic status. The late ‘80s gave rise to the animated sitcom with The Simpsons. And, as sitcoms grew in popularity and variety and times kept changing, humor changed as well. And sitcom writers had to make a determination: when do you push the envelope and when do you rely on tropes?
Some shows, like Family Guy, choose to rely on controversial humor in order to garner a following. But this leads to making shocking jokes for the sake of being shocking. Other shows, like How I Met Your Mother, rely on tropes. But this makes character development tricky, especially when a show boxes itself in so early.
And that’s where It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia shines above the rest. Because, more than anything, Sunny is a sitcom about sitcoms. It’s a satire that takes human life and television tropes and splays them wide open for the world to see. Moreover, it holds its characters responsible. With clever writing and a deep understanding of people, showrunners and stars Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton have created one of the smartest shows on television.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows five assholes who run a bar and don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves. Despite the characters’ lack of self-awareness, the show is careful to show that they are, in fact, terrible people.
In fact, one major goal of the show is for these characters to never grow as people. They’re stagnant because they’re awful. They can’t change because they don’t realize they need to. Meanwhile, they screw over anyone and everyone (including each other) and hatch harebrained scheme after harebrained scheme. They put themselves in ridiculous situations and make big things out of small ones. In this way, it’s no wonder this show is often referred to as “Seinfeld on crack.”
Upon first watch, you might make the assumption that Sunny relies on shocking humor too. But that’s not quite the case. The joke is never the racial humor or the jokes based on gender or sexuality. The joke is about how clueless and awful these people are. And, to be fair, even these jokes are few and far between. It’s typically a much broader joke, the gang judging others for something they themselves do. It highlights the hypocritical nature of the average person (and how much of a shithead each of these characters is).
Interestingly, this show actually has a lot of commentary on gender roles. Through Mac, toxic masculinity is examined. The other characters always harp on the ridiculousness of this. He is obsessed with anything he deems “manly,” constantly trying to force himself to be what he thinks a man is. However, he is also the character most open with his emotions. He wears his heart on his sleeve.
Dennis occasionally wears makeup and he feels no shame or embarrassment. Along these same lines, Mac goes on a long journey to discovering he is gay and coming out. Once again, however, the joke is on his cluelessness and not on his gayness. All his friends know he’s gay, but Mac is so deep in the closet he doesn’t let himself realize it. (That is, until season 12 when he comes out in order to get a lottery ticket he doesn’t even know will be a winner— it’s a long story.) This show is honestly more progressive than it gets credit for.
Sunny actively dismantles some of televisions most overused tropes. Through Dennis, the concept of the “player” is examined. His system of getting women to sleep with him (which he calls The D.E.N.N.I.S. System) is an alarming exposé on the player trope.
Through Charlie, the “break the girl down until she says yes” trope is discussed. Rather than his obsession with the waitress being portrayed as cute or quirky, it is openly called out as creepy and wrong. There is never an expectation that the waitress should or would ever go out with Charlie. Her dislike of him is always shown as justified.
The show also openly calls out the classic will-they-won’t-they trope and the static group dynamics trope (the brains, the looks, the muscle, the wild card, and the useless chick). Once you’ve plunged yourself into the world of Sunny, it’s hard to take other sitcoms seriously.
The true icing on the cake that makes the use of “offensive” humor work is that these characters never have their actions excused. So many shows (and movies and books) use things such as a tragic past or mental illness in order to excuse bad behavior. These characters had troubled childhoods and have mental illnesses, while also being total assholes. Though these things may factor into why the gang does what they do, it is never shrugged off as, “Well, this happened to them, so they can’t help it.” The fact that they’re fucked up is only ever addressed matter-of-factly.
Dennis is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in season ten, but this is never used to justify his serial killer-like behavior. They are just both parts of who he is. The fact that Charlie never knew his dad and thus never had a positive male role model is never used as a reason why he stalks the waitress. Even Dee, the butt of everyone’s jokes, never has her selfish actions excused.
The psychological damage these characters suffered is inconsequential to their douchebaggery and selfishness. So when they’re being dickweasels, the joke is in their lack of self-awareness (highlighted in their dance number in “The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang’s Revenge”). Hence, why they never win.
I will never stop singing the praises of this truly genius show. Rob McElhenney— along with Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day— have truly created the underrated masterpiece of modern television and I can’t wait to see what seasons 13 and 14 have in store. Philadelphia may not really always be sunny, but the future of this show sure is.