Dumpster babies in tanning beds. Cannibalism. An abundance of glue huffing. Milk steak, rum ham, and an obscene amount of alcohol. These are just a few of the key tenets that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is built upon. Set in the dive bar Paddy’s Pub, Always Sunny revolves around the lives of the bar’s five employees. “The gang” consists of Dennis Reynolds, bar owner, narcissist, and sociopath; his twin sister Dee Reynolds, who alternates between bartending, nursing her own alcoholism, and trying to revive her failing acting career; Ronald “Mac” McDonald, co-owner of Paddy’s and degenerate/karate enthusiast; Charlie Kelly, the insane bar janitor and self-proclaimed “wild card”; and Frank Reynolds, father of Dee and Dennis, lover of eggs, and the financial support behind most of the gang’s schemes. From this description alone, one would think that this show is purely trash—and at times, one would be absolutely correct. Yet despite the copious amounts of literal garbage, scenes in strip clubs, and general debauchery, the charm behind Always Sunny comes from the razor-sharp writing and satire employed by the creators of the show (who all star as main characters). The show has gained a huge cult following, airing on FX from 2005 until 2012; it then moved to the sister network FXX, where it currently runs (and has been renewed for its twelfth season).
With consistently impressive ratings and a plethora of fans, the next logical progression would be critical acclaim. And while Always Sunny is commended by critics, its cult status seems to be set in stone, as the show has yet to win a single Emmy award. With sitcoms such as Modern Family, 30 Rock, and The Big Bang Theory sweeping awards, it is important to identify what separates Always Sunny from these similar yet radically different programs. Always Sunny is a potent genre mix of “friendcore” sitcom and workplace comedy, whose interest in making points through shocking satire overpowers any desire for mainstream appeal.
Mittell Jason’s book, Television and American Culture, references shows like Friends as examples of narratives that “focus on a group of adults bound by friendship instead of family or career”. Always Sunny follows this model of a “friend sitcom,” three of the characters are actually related, but the relationship between all the characters regardless is one of both utter hatred and dysfunctional dependency—similar to a family. Combine this with the classic setting of their mutual workplace—Paddy’s Pub, perhaps the least professional work environment of all time—and you have It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Both friend and workplace sitcoms are not a revolutionary idea; in fact, one could argue that television is currently going through a genre cycle in both instances, with the surge of popularity in mockumentary-style shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, and friend-centric sitcoms like Big Bang Theory and New Girl. The difference between these shows and Always Sunny, however, stems from a lack of genuine love and compassion between the friends. As a result of every character being morally askew, they are all incredibly self-centered, and each is appallingly willing to sell out the others in a heartbeat. They steal each other’s money and cars at every chance and physically harm each other in attempts to get ahead; the self-explanatory episode “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire” (Season 3, Episode 7) is a prime example of this. It is truly questionable how any of these people are even friends with each other, until it becomes apparent they do not have anybody else. Their friendship is built upon mutual need for some semblance of a job, and the fact that their personalities are totally incompatible with people who exist outside of their depraved playground, Paddy’s Pub. Episodes rarely, if ever, end with a “happy ending” or “lesson learned”; more common are arrests or fistfights.
The show’s dark humor and constant iniquity is clearly a point of contention for many, as pointed out by Always Sunny’s apparent lack of awards. The episode “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award” (Season 9, Episode 3) is a thinly veiled metaphor for their deficiency of academy acclaim. The gang unites to try and win Paddy’s Pub the “Best Bar” award; this goes exactly as well as their real-life attempts at winning Emmys. Feeling that they are too “fringe,” the gang takes a trip to a nearby award-winning bar, where they observe charming banter between the staff, a token black friend, and a “pretty but benign” female character. They then try and replicate these facets (all common tropes of award-winning shows), with absolutely disastrous results: their amiable jokes come off as crass, their token black friend brings more friends (“Black bars don’t win awards. I don’t know why, but they just don’t”), and Dee’s poor comedic timing and excessive makeup fall flat. The episode ends with a rousing song from Charlie in which he eloquently proclaims: “I don’t need your trophies or your gold/I just want to tell you/Go fuck yourselves.”
And at the end of the day, what is more representative of Always Sunny’s approach to comedy and awards than this? The gang questions whether it’s their location, but dismisses this idea saying “that new bar down the street won a ton of awards” which is presumably in reference to Louie, the critically acclaimed show that also airs on FX. They try and change their approach, style, lighting, and patronage, but at the end of the day, there is no other explanation for their failure than the characters themselves. And yet this is the source of the show’s appeal; the characters, which serve as “turn offs” for many, are also the sole reason for the show’s success. This is not only in a literal sense, as three of the main characters literally created the program. Always Sunny, functioning as nearly a purely episodic show, relies on its deadbeat, alcoholic, morally-corrupt characters to move the plot forward. And whether that approach is appealing or horrifying is truly up to the viewer—and the Academy—to decide.
Eva Maldonado studies journalism and media/screen studies at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts. She is pursuing a career in creative journalism and/or writing for television. Her interests include breakfast, food, comedy, and napping.