It’s Always Sunny: The Perfect Anti-Sitcom? – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If traditional sitcoms are defined by progressive character development, saccharine moralism, and sentimental romance, then It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is unique in how it lampoons each of these tropes and presents us with an ensemble that deliberately avoids any sign of growth. Drawing from pioneering sitcoms like Cheers, Friends, and How I met your Mother, we’ll explore how Always Sunny isn’t just an anti-sitcom, it’s the perfect anti-sitcom.
Written by: Michael Burns
Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
It’s Always Sunny: The Perfect Anti-Sitcom? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, it’s time to chug some Fight Milk and crank your favorite Steve Winwood CD, because today we’re talking about It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s Always Sunny is great, in part, because of what it’s not: a traditional sitcom. Unlike the satisfying and sentimental narratives used in classic sitcoms, ‘It’s Always Sunny’ has spent much of its twelve seasons exploring what happens when a group of narcissistic sociopaths have their insane ideas bankrolled by a troll-shaped millionaire. Rather than following traditional tropes used by shows like Cheers,Friends, and How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny actively subverts them, making it the perfect anti-sitcom. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s Always Sunny follows ‘the gang’, 5 individuals who each serve a particular purpose in the steadily collapsing ecosystem that is Paddy’s Pub. There’s: Charlie: Paddy’s janitor, and a walking combination of bleach fumes, illiteracy, cat food, romantic obsession, and surprisingly impressive musical abilities.
Mac: the official ‘security of Paddy’s, and a man that balances his thinly veiled homosexuality with an aggressively dogmatic catholic moralism. Dennis: Paddy’s lead bartender, and the Patrick Bateman of South Philadelphia. Equal parts sociopath, narcissist, and sex addict. Dee: failed character actress, twin sister of Dennis, and the target of the collective rage and hatred of the rest of the gang. And Frank: if the spirit of nihilistic greed was a four foot eleven bald man who spent his weekends having sex in a dumpster behind a Wendy’s, this is what it would look like.
One of the key characteristics of It’s Always Sunny is its lack of normal character development. Most sitcoms follow a simple formula: take broken, shitty people, and watch them develop into loveable grown-ups. In ‘How I Met Your Mother’ we see Barney Stinson go from a borderline sociopath to a moralistic single father who shames young women for their attire. In ‘Friends’, we see Joey develop from a struggling actor with the intellectual capacity of an unplugged Sega Genesis, to a successful actor who could potentially test out of ninth grade English. And who could forget Rachel’s journey from worst barista on the eastern seaboard to a key player in the fashion industry. Progress indeed… Unlike its predecessors,‘It’s Always Sunny’ chooses instead to focus on a group of people who believe that personal development is for quitters. “Quitters,” in this context, also means anyone whose personality isn’t shaped by a mix of functional alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, and the occasional crack binge.
Throughout twelve seasons, the gang doesn’t develop insomuch as they play a game of chicken with all attempts at purpose and growth. The show has, for the most part, managed to spend twelve seasons exploring the life of the gang without any positive character development. When Frank first encounters the gang, he is a recent divorcee attempting to reconnect with his children and donate some of his massive wealth to charity. However, within hours of this, Frank ends up pretending to be a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic to get attention from strippers. Frank soon becomes a man without limits, spiraling further, further, and oh so much further into the depths of depravity. During season six Dee ends up pregnant, and lets the guys know that one of them put the baby in her. Even though it turns out this was just a ploy for attention, Dee’s pregnancy leads the gang to re-consider their lives. Dennis shows signs of genuine care for his sister’s child and Charlie and Mac contemplate raising a child.
This all leads to a beautiful slow motion scene of Dee holding her newborn child. But right as we think beer soaked nihilism has been replaced by baby vomit colored sentimentality, Dee lets the gang know that none of them are the father. The gang quickly snaps out of it. Rather than falling into the traditional trope in which a baby magically changes people,apologies to Barney Stinson, the gang remains the same. By season seven it seemed as if the show had run out of ways for the characters to avoid growth. But instead of showing some form of personal or emotional growth, they instead decided to focus on Mac’s, uh, physical growth, all because Dee said that he didn’t look like a real bodybuilder. Aside from the veritable buffet of ‘Mac got fat’ jokes,this also satirizes the standard sitcom model in which characters somehow always look exactly the same from season to season, even as we are meant to believe that they are aging.
Instead of remaining an ageless sitcom trope, Mac instead eats his way to disease. The show confronts this lack of development in the season ten episode ‘The Gang Misses the Boat’, in which the gang literally misses out on an exclusive boat party and leads the rest of them to reflect on the ways in which they’ve missed out in life. This leads Dennis to acknowledging the hard fact about what they’ve become, while Frank finds a silver lining to their collective madness. This continued failure isn’t just for the gang; in fact, it’s their friends and associates that often deal with the worst consequences of their antics. Take Rickety Cricket. When he first enters the world of Paddy’s Pub, he is a handsome young priest. After the gang takes advantage of his lingering love for Dee, he ends up alone and out of the priesthood.
Cricket quickly ends up homeless and takes the fall for the gang’s misadventures with the mafia, gets hunted by Mac and Dennis, has half his face burned off, and ultimately ends up a Paddy’s bathroom regular.
Then there’s Bill Ponderosa whose affair with Dee sets him on a downward spiral, and eventually asks his AA sponsor, Frank, to let him drink himself to death. And to add good measure, Bill’s son ends up becoming a goth cocaine dealer. Even a character that usually beats the gang at their own game, the Lawyer, eventually has his right eyeball devoured by a bird. The Lawyer’s fate as a Cyclops shows once and for all that no one can flirt with the gang for long without being irrevocably changed for the worse. Moral messages are a common theme in sitcoms. From Cheers’ early episode about bar-based homophobia, to Friends’ explorations of the space between being in a relationship and cheating, the sitcom has a tendency to periodically become an afterschool special. ‘It’s Always Sunny’ explores a group of friends with a collective moral code that is somewhere between Bernie Madoff’s financial principles and Lil Wayne’s views towards substance abuse.
And whenever morality comes up, it’s usually as a means to their own nefarious ends. In its first season the show wasted no time in tackling the abortion issue when Mac, while on one of his catholic crusades, meets a pro-life activist. Mac protests Planned Parenthood with her, mostly as a means to get laid, before she tells him that she’s pregnant. In season seven Dennis attempts to find meaning in life after opening up about the God-shaped hole in his heart. This search for meaning ends with Dennis giving an emotional, but bogus, eulogy at the funeral for Dee’s baby. And in the case a baby funeral makes you sad, don’t worry, the casket was actually filled with the corpse of a dead dog that Frank found. And the child never existed. Dennis is left accepting his own moral nihilism and lack of emotion. That is until Frank tricks him into digging up his mother’s corpse. Throughout the series the gang explores a number of pertinent ethical issues, consistently robbing them of any inherent goodness: rescuing a dumpster baby, only to take it to a tanning bed , exploiting welfare by becoming crack addicts, using a job as a children’s basketball coach to teach lessons about physical assault and getting Mac’s Dad killed by trying to prove his innocence. The gang even uses Bill Ponderosa’s attempt at a booze-induced suicide for their own gain when they take a life insurance policy out on him.
At no point are the gang’s moral failings clearer than when Mac takes them all on a Christian cruise organized by a gay-friendly congregation. Though Mac fails to realize this, even after joining their musical theater show. The trip ends with the gang defending themselves from the prospect of an eternity in hell. In one day on the boat, Dee breaks a woman’s nose at the cruise talent show, Frank and Charlie get busted for sneaking a bar’s worth of booze onto the boat and then getting drunk on boat fuel, Dennis attempts to sexually entrap an eighteen year old girl, and Mac (finally) realizes that this cruise is being hosted by two gay men and begs God to reign down lightning on them. The gang then almost drowns to death in an act of collective suicide while in boat jail, and later we learn that their reckoning with God was just a post-cruise meeting with insurance adjusters.
If there is one trope that we’ve learned to expect from the comedic sitcom, it is the classic ‘will they or won’t they’ -romantic tension drawn out over multiple seasons. For ‘Scrubs’ it’s the constant back and forth of JD and Elliot, for ‘Friends’ we have nausea-inducing decade of Ross and Rachel (and Chandler and Monica. And Joey and roasted poultry), and of course in ‘How I Met Your Mother’ we have the romantic saga of Ted and Robin. And Barney and Robin. And Ted and the Mother. And Ted and Robin, again. Not to break from the subversion of standard sitcom tropes, the gang pushes romance to the limits of dysfunction. Let’s take a quick tour of the romantic exploits of the gang: After his divorce from Dennis and Dee’s mother, Frank indulges in the pay-for-play romance offered by prostitutes and strippers. Frank also has a recurring romance with Artemis, who shares Frank’s proclivities towards ‘getting weird’. Mac’s romantic journey is a string of attempts to assert his masculine heterosexual image against the gang’s overt acknowledgement of his homosexuality.
This journey in sexual identity includes a relationship with a transitioning woman , and a non-sexual PCP fueled fling with party-girl Dustee, until Mac finally admits to being gay in the most recent season. But rather than turning this into a cathartic moment, Mac only comes out for the sake of a scratch-off ticket worth $10,000. Dee’s romantic exploits might be the most pathetic of the gang. Largely a series of hook ups that end with her being mocked by the gang, the show collects all these men together for her child’s birth, including favorites like jean shorts guy, the mentally retarded white rapper, Bill Ponderosa, and the old Korean man from the back of Mr. Kim’s restaurant. Dee’s one flirtation with sitcom romance is in the episode ‘The Gang Misses the Boat’ where her and Charlie hook up. This is quickly acknowledged to be a huge mistake.
Dennis is the only member of the gang that experiences any romantic success, if success is evaluated by the metrics of his own horrifying system of seduction. If Dennis has a slightly less pathetic, if a significantly more criminal, romantic life than the others, this is largely due to his absence of emotion and inability to love. Though in the finale of season twelve it seems like he may have finally give up his system for the life of family man, but more on that later. Charlie is the only member of the gang that flirts with monogamy, if we take monogamy to be a fifteen-year obsession with a waitress who has filed multiple restraining orders against him. While a traditional sitcom would make this obsession seem ‘sweet’, It’s Always Sunny shows the darkside of rom-com love. Charlie’s stalking of the waitress is a full-time job, and leads him to eventually write and produce a musical that he uses to propose to her. While his efforts to win her heart seem to be doomed, the show actually uses the trope of two people finally getting together in the most recent season. However, the show quickly gets back on course when Charlie finds himself annoyed with the waitress only hours after consummating over a decade of romantic desire. And soon after, Charlie is accusing the waitress of stalking him: While for any other sitcom Charlie’s sexual victory would signify a Rachel and Ross level of romantic consummation, It’s Always Sunny brutally subverts standard sitcom logic and give a realistic take on what happens when obsessions become reality. At Paddy’s, there is no happily ever after. For the gang, any romantic achievement is just a reminder of their fundamental lack of ability to ever be truly happy.
After spending eleven seasons avoiding reliance on any classical sitcom tropes, season twelve might have many thinking that the gang has finally been forced to grow up, especially as we have Dennis embody Sam Malone’s closing moments on ‘Cheers’. And at this point, the gang finally growing up feels like your long-term drug dealer all of the sudden inviting you to the local bible study. Luckily, the show has figured out how to critique the outside world while letting the gang stay the same. And instead of selling out to network style tropes, they manage to offer hilarious critiques of moralistic musicals and our recent obsession with true crime shows. They even get a little meta when they make a sitcom out of Mac and Charlie’s moms, all while taking a jab at canned laughter. So rest assured, your drug dealer won’t be inviting you to church anytime soon. While there is no indication if Dennis is actually going to move to North Dakota to raise his son, the logic of the Paddy’s universe seems to indicate a low possibility of actual growth.