It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Season 5, EP 1-4
Starring Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny De Vito
On the eve of the fifth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I am sitting here wondering how this show can still be on the air. I am not talking about the blatant irreverence. The question comes more from the curiosity behind how a show like this can survive as long as it has without becoming monotonous and boring. At its heart it is the very definition of a one-trick pony.
If you tried to tell someone who hasn’t seen the show what it was about, it wouldn’t sound like much. It’s a group of underachievers who run a dive bar in south Philly who try to scheme their way into their vision of success. What they are trying to succeed at differs with each episode but it usually comes from a part of their brain that is poorly lit and with little thought of consequence. The truth is they are unsuccessful at just about everything they are involved in, business, relationships, sobriety; pretty much life in general. The only people that seem oblivious to their limitations are each other. You can gussy it up all you want, but at its core that is pretty much what you have. They don’t tell jokes, they don’t have extravagant thematic elements or running storylines, it just is what it is. We are four years into the sport of watching these characters flail around their little fishbowl and there is only one reason anyone in their right mind would still watch it — it’s still funny.
Unlike other shows where there may be one or two likable main characters and a bunch of throwaways, the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pull their own weight and play off each other perfectly. The central characters of the show or “The Gang” as they are referred to, remain unchanged. Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Frank (Danny DeVito) are still as depraved and antagonistic as they ever have been. The complete absence of anything resembling a moral compass has been the soil from which the show has grown since the beginning.
With such a simple premise, priority one for the writers (mostly comprised of its stars) is keeping the show relevant by staying on top of current events. In the season’s first episode, “The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis”, which premiered last night, two of the country’s hot button issues are tackled head on: the suffering real estate market and our country’s fascination with multiple birth families. Frank, Mac, and Dennis attempt to buy and flip a house, with the previous family still living there of course, and Dee decides to become a surrogate mother. Both for money and both to try and outdo the other.
It still feels sometimes like the show is trying too hard for the sake of reaction but the best moments are still the organic ones born out of simplicity. Episode 02, “The Gang Hits the Road”, is nothing more than The Gang attempting to take a road trip. Of course an idea this simple never is with this group but in an episode that takes place almost exclusively inside a vehicle, the idea may be simple but the execution easily yields the funniest of the group of episodes I previewed.
While the skewed perspective through which they view the world goes unnoticed within the group, it is magnified to others through their interactions with the rest of the world. They see the rest of the world as crazy for not understanding what they perceive to be basic rights of passage. For example, in episode 03, “The Gang Gives Frank an Intervention,” they attempt to curb Frank’s drinking and reckless behavior not from a place of genuine concern, but because they are annoyed with him. After they seek the help of a counselor to assist them and she realizes the groups’ intent, as well as their own crosses to bear, they decide to take the matter into their own hands, which involves all of them getting drunk, cornering their target, and actually screaming the word ‘intervention’ at the person they are trying to save while mocking them into submission.
A couple of seasons ago I wrote about It’s Always Sunny for this site and mentioned my concern for the show’s lack of mythology and my fear that without it, the show could fall victim to weaker episodes quicker. I don’t think that is the case anymore. Far too often when sitcoms start to grow stagnant, the writers try to liven things up by throwing in big sweeping changes to the characters or events unfolding in their lives, where It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is starting to find its groove is in its simplicity. The structure of the characters’ universe is firmly in place while the topics are where the range comes into play. I suspect this is no secret to the show’s creators but rather it has taken this long for everyone else to realize it isn’t going to change. So long as they can keep it fresh, the alternate reality that these characters live in will be what continues to carry the show.
If watching the first few episodes of the new season confirms anything, it is that the formula and the show are not getting old. It’s not the kind of show that must be watched from the beginning to appreciate. You don’t even need to have seen last week’s show. The approach is almost agonizingly simply. There are a few running gags throughout the series but nothing that is going to prevent you from understanding or admiring what it is that is being accomplished. The truth is that these characters couldn’t care less about anything and it’s just plain fun to watch them cannibalize each other and everyone around them.
For a show that owes its existence to the groups of people who discovered it and passed it on through word of mouth praise, it has finally shed the erroneous Seinfeld comparisons and grown into a show with its own identifiable culture ready to be ripped off by the next wave of people trying to make a name for themselves. How’s that for mythology?
And there’s the rub.
Catch Season 5 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Thursday’s at 10pm EST on the FX Network.