Brian Terrill’s Small-Screen 66 – #61: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

Small-Screen 66 – #61: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

(FX/FXX, 2005-Present)


And now we leap from virtue to depravity. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows five friends who own and operate a rundown Irish pub in Philadelphia.

Though I probably should have put quotation marks around “friends.”

And “operate.”

And maybe “pub.”

Anytime we see “the gang” at work, they’re typically sampling their own product, and they rarely have actual customers.

I honestly don’t think I could describe the characters’ relationship (and, by extension, the premise of the show) better than Wikipedia already does:

“Each member of the gang shows varying degrees of dishonesty, egotism, selfishness, greed, pettiness, ignorance, laziness and unethical behavior, and they are often engaged in controversial activities. Episodes usually find them hatching elaborate schemes, conspiring against one another and others for personal gain, vengeance, or simply for the entertainment of watching one another’s downfall. They habitually inflict mental, emotional and physical pain. They regularly use blackmail to manipulate one another and others outside of the group.

Their unity is never solid – any of them would quickly dump any one of the others for quick profit or personal gain regardless of the consequences. Everything they do results in contention among themselves and much of the show’s dialogue involves the characters arguing or yelling at one another. Despite their lack of success or achievement, the Gang maintain high opinions of themselves and display an obsessive interest in their own reputations and public images. Despite this high sense of self-worth, the Gang has no sense of shame when attempting to get what they want and often engages in activities which others would find humiliating, disgusting, or even preposterous, such as smoking crack cocaine in order to qualify for welfare, seducing a priest, or hiding naked inside a leather couch in order to spy on someone.”


Alright. I promise not to lazily copy-and-paste Wikipedia again for the rest of the Countdown. But come on. That was poetry.

The members of the “gang” include:

Dennis – Probably the closest thing the group has to a “leader.” Dennis grew up wealthy, and as the richest and handsomest member of the gang, he is incredibly vain, going so far as to think of himself as some kind of king. He views his “friends,” and most of the people he interacts with, as “minions.” Over the course of the series, Dennis is revealed to have sociopathic tendencies of increasing severity. In one episode he momentarily “has feelings,” and later remarks that the experience made him feel as though he were in middle school again. He also keeps “Dexter”-style plastic wrap and cable-ties in a compartment in his trunk, and at one point states he prefers to take women to dangerous places on dates, as they will be obliged to have sex with him because of the “implication” of risk. He sees nothing creepy about this final point, regarding the approach as completely logical.


Dee – Dennis’ twin sister, Dee is the constant target of the others’ ridicule, usually for no particular reason…though she readily sides with them whenever another target presents his/her/itself. Dee is an aspiring actress, but she seems to lack talent and repeatedly blows the few opportunities she does find, often due to debilitating stage fright.


Mac – Just as Dennis fancies himself a king, Mac fancies himself a bouncer, the “Sheriff of Paddy’s Pub.” Though he claims to possess great martial arts prowess, he typically shies away from fights. Mac has an inferiority complex, possibly due to constant berating by his father (a sinister convict). Like Dennis’ sociopathy, Mac’s neurosis grows more exaggerated as the series goes along, to the point that he develops a Chief Bromden-style delusion that he is constantly “growing smaller,” and that only by following Dennis’ guidance can he become “big again.” Mac is the only religious member of the group, having been raised a staunch Irish Catholic.


Charlie – In my opinion, the series’ breakout star. I’ll get back to that in a second. Charlie serves as the bar janitor, doing the filthy “Charlie work” no one else wants. He has a low IQ, and is apparently only semi-literate. He is obsessed with an attractive waitress who works near the bar (none of the characters ever bother to learn her name, referring to her simply as “the waitress”), and merely shrugs off her constant rejections. Charlie’s hobby…is garbage. Again, more on that in a moment.


Frank – The latest addition to the gang (debuting in Season 2), Frank is – or rather, was – the father of Dee and Dennis. Frank raised the twins, but discovers later in the show that he is not their biological dad. Nevertheless, he sticks around, and for most of the series shares an apartment (and a single fold-out couch/bed) with Charlie. Once a wealthy businessman, Frank now lives a simpler life, and he revels in many of the same filthy past-times as Charlie.


Always Sunny follows the five of them as they concoct schemes, fight with one another, and…well…fail. They fail spectacularly in just about everything they do. Fail to thrive in matters of business, romance, hygiene, and even common sense.

Big fans of the show may wonder why it doesn’t rank higher on this list. Well, featuring a main cast composed exclusively of despicable characters can make it hard for viewers to identify with said characters. Who should we be “rooting” for? Maybe you’ll say the entertainment value lies in seeing the miserable, petty people fall on their faces due to their own flaws…but that requires a degree of schadenfreude I’m not quite comfortable with.

That said, Always Sunny does have some considerable strengths (otherwise it wouldn’t be here). The three guys behind “RCG Productions” – Rob McElhenny (Mac), Charlie Day (Charlie), and Glenn Howerton (Dennis) – clearly have some creative chops. All three are excellent improvisational actors, and the way their many conversations inevitably devolve into shouting matches seems so organic that they manage to keep it fresh.

Another plus is that the show has gotten markedly better over time. Danny DeVito made an excellent addition as Frank. As an older character, he provides the voice of experience and “wisdom”…though his advice is often dubious.

Just as the show benefitted by adding DeVito, it also improved by dropping some characters. In the early seasons, “the gang” frequently faced off against the McPoyles, a family of hideous rednecks whose two favorite things are inbreeding and spoiled milk. I imagine the McPoyles were created so that we’d have some characters EVEN MORE DESPICABLE than the protagonists, and thus have someone to root against. But eventually the writers realized that “the gang” could carry storylines on their own: It was, in fact, possible for a cast of vindictive, spiteful people to be entertaining in their own right, whether or not they were always relatable.


The dreaded McPoyles


With time, the show embraced its wackiness. Characters’ quirks grew more pronounced, and the situations in which they found themselves involved became more outlandish. I feel the series really “found itself” in this “wackification.” You see, it wasn’t meant to be a show about endless, meaningless squabbling. It’s a show about endless squabbling which leads to ABSURDITY.

Which brings me back to Charlie, probably the most outlandish character in the show…though admittedly not by much. I have to commend Always Sunny for not making any one character truly outshine the others. No one member of the gang is the “Urkel.” As this Countdown progresses, you’ll find I tend to favor the more ridiculous, “wacky” characters in TV shows. This is all too easy to do when they’re the only interesting characters. But here, everyone gets funny lines, memorable quirks, and prominent plot points. It really is a decent balance.

Nevertheless, Charlie is my favorite. The moment I knew I would stick with the series til the end came in “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby,” the premiere of Season 3. In the episode, the gang tries dumpster-diving (if memory serves, it has something to do with Dennis trying to hit on a hippie chick). On their excursion to the dump, Charlie somehow finds a scimitar (“an Ali Baba sword!”) amidst the refuse. He lets out a triumphant battle-cry, and in his joy I finally found my character connection. Later in the episode, he is unable to sleep at night because, as he explains to roommate Frank, he’s “thinkin’ about the trash” and all the undiscovered treasures it holds. I identify deeply with this sentiment (see my frequent posts on yard sale finds).

You see, Charlie’s not a bad guy. A stalker? Maybe. A drug addict? Absolutely. But he has a good heart. He just happens to be very stupid and love squalor. For some inexplicable reason, he simply takes the filthiest possible approach to life. For example, one of his hobbies is taking leisurely strolls…in the sewer…in the nude. Ironically, despite wallowing in filth, he may have the “cleanest” soul of the bunch (though a case could also be made for Mac in that regard). Charlie is a hopeless romantic, with an emphasis on hopeless, but he’s charming in a very trashy way. Like Oscar the Grouch. And any opportunity for Charlie Day to work himself into a shouting froth is an opportunity for hilarity. BTW, if you haven’t seen The Lego Movie yet, Day’s shouting is hilarious when animated, too.

In closing, if you only watch a little bit of Always Sunny, check out the later seasons. My personal favorite episode is probably “CharDee MacDennis” (S7E7) which consists entirely of the gang playing a comically complex game, a la Fizzbin or Calvinball, but with much more drinking and screaming. Other favorites include the one where Charlie directs an episode-length musical (all an elaborate preamble to descending from the rafters in a sunshine-yellow tuxedo and proposing to the waitress…which she instantly refuses). And the one where the gang finds a painting which just might be “an original Hitler.” And any of the ones where Charlie gets to be a lawyer (seriously, if you can legally serve as your own lawyer, why CAN’T you appoint any other non-lawyer civilian to represent you?).

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was just renewed by FX to run at least through season 12, which will make it one of the longest-running live action sitcoms in television history. I’m along for the ride…if those extra seasons feature wacky adventures and plenty of Charlie (and plenty of trash), you better believe my disposition will be sunny.

-“Always Sunny” grew out of a “pilot” short film which McElhenny, Howerton, and Day made with “$200 and some pizzas.” The plot revolved around two friends: One who just learned he has terminal cancer, and is trying to break the news to his friend, and the friend, who only cares about the cup of sugar he is trying to borrow, as he has just made a “shitload of coffee.” Out of this low-budget tale of hyperbolic callousness grew a titan of modern television.

-If the waitress’ constant rejections of Charlie get you down, don’t despair! Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis (the waitress) have been married since 2006, and were in a relationship before Always Sunny began production. Off-camera, “Mac” and “Dee” are also married.

You can keep up with Brian’s Small-Screen 66 countdown here.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

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