By Pranay Dewani Nov. 20, 2019
Now officially the longest running live-action sitcom in the history of television, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, entered its 14 season this year, and remains as topical as it was when it first aired in 2005. It has never hesitated to address sensitive and pertinent subjects such as #MeToo and climate change.
T he mainstream television comedy landscape has changed drastically over the last two decades. Comedies these days no longer aim to provide a mindless half-hour of entertainment with a pre-recorded laughter track, but serve a greater purpose — to hold up a mirror to society. A majority of the nominees contesting for the Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards this year hint at the genre’s elastic progression. With shows like Fleabag, which taught us the art of female coping, and Barry, a series about a hitman-turned-actor suffering from an existential crisis, it’s clear that limits of what could be categorised as comedy are ever-changing.
But even with this shift, there is one show that doesn’t get the mainstream recognition it deserves. Now officially the longest running live-action sitcom in the history of television, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, entered its 14 season this year, and remains as relevant and evergreen as it was when it first aired in 2005. Often regarded as “Seinfeld on crack” for its cast of deplorable characters, Sunny also happens to be one of the most criminally overlooked satires of the decade, having received zero Emmy nominations over the years, despite its cult status.
In a world polarised by a constant “us vs them” debate, Sunny manages to perfectly capture the essence of “them”. “The Gang” — around whose lives the show is based — is the perfect representation of the average Joes and Janes of America, who sit on barstools and claim to know the answers to life’s toughest questions. This cynical characterisation has made the show so popular, BBC once called it the best US sitcom.
From the very first season, we see “The Gang” tackle America’s gun epidemic, jihad, solve the North Korea crisis, turn into racists and exploit the mortgage crisis. We also see the sole homosexual character of the show — Ronald MacDonald, or Mac (Rob Mcelhenney) — leading a crusade against gay marriage because, as a devout Christain, he doesn’t know which side to pick. Almost every episode follows the same template; the gang invents newer and more outrageous ways to talk about some of the most sensitive issues of our times.
In a world polarised by a constant “us vs them” debate, Sunny manages to perfectly capture the essence of “them”. 3 Arts Entertainment/ RCG Productions/ FX Productions
In a world polarised by a constant “us vs them” debate, Sunny manages to perfectly capture the essence of “them”.
3 Arts Entertainment/ RCG Productions/ FX Productions
“The Gang” has always been willing to push the boundaries of what it’s okay to laugh at, while also making sure to never stray from the target of the joke. Charlie Day, who apart from starring in the show also co-writes it, explains their brand of humour by saying, “If it’s funny, it’s not offensive and if it’s offensive, it’s not funny.” That is the true philosophy of the show — there is no “too far” in comedy provided the joke targets the right people, and lands on time.
This take on comedy has made it possible for The Gang to broach sensitive topics that other shows usually tend to avoid laughing about. This is best seen in the episode titled, “Time’s Up for the Gang”, a sardonic look at the #MeToo movement, written by Megan Ganz, who was sexually harassed by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community.
The Gang learns that they have been placed on a “shitty bar” list, and that they must attend a sexual harassment seminar if they want to be exonerated. In the following 20- minute lesson on consent and harassment, we see each member of the gang being called out for their actions in previous seasons. The formerly married Frank (Danny DeVito) has a long history of sleeping with women and shutting them up. Mac’s repressed homosexuality has left him expressing his lust for men through unwarranted touches. Charlie (Charlie Day), who has spent 14 years stalking “The Waitress” is described as “a sad, pathetic wretch of a man so desperate to be loved that he’ll actually go rifling through somebody’s garbage”. Even the only woman in the group isn’t spared, after Dee (Kaitlen Olsen) is told that she had assumed Charlie’s consent during a previous sexual encounter.
But, in a twist worthy of an M Night Shyamalan movie, by the end of the episode, it’s revealed that this entire seminar was orchestrated by the hyper-masculine sociopath Dennis Reynolds, who despite being the most likely member of the group to commit a sex crime (it’s “the implication”), somehow manages to take charge of proceedings and escape unharmed. It’s a great way of acknowledging how the men in power continue to remain unaffected by the movement.
“The Gang” has always been willing to push the boundaries of what it’s okay to laugh at, while also making sure to never stray from the target of the joke.
A Buzzfeed article titled “Why Hasn’t Cancel Culture Come for ‘It’s Always Sunny’?” notes that the writers’ ability to make the central characters of the show the butt of all its jokes is what ensures that it remains relevant in today’s charged political climate.
“The longer the show has gone on, the more thoughtful It’s Always Sunny has been about the target of its jokes. While other people suffer at the hands of The Gang, the writers have become more intentional about pointing out how this gang of overprivileged white idiots get away with (sometimes literal) murder,” it says.
In its newer seasons, The Gang has gone on to take up more current issues, such as the gender-neutral bathroom debate, the menace of “group chats”, and, most recently, climate change. So despite its almost 15 years of relentless social and political commentary, how come Sunny hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy?
The Gang takes a meta jab on that as well, in the episode “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award”. Tired of not being recognised for their years of service in the “bar industry”, they finally agree to give the patrons what they actually want — including slapstick gags, a “will-they-won’t-they” relationship, and a much brighter set. There is no greater proof that Sunny can create 20 minutes of good TV out of anything. And maybe that’s the secret to how the show has managed to stay so topical through the years. As Dennis astutely notes, “There’s always some group of dum-dums doing something dumb”— and for that we should be thankful.