It’s Always Sunny Forever

Earlier this year I wrote an elegy more or less for television itself. TV is my first love, and the direction the medium has been speeding towards in recent years depresses me terribly. The loss of the episodic storytelling that TV is built for, the sacrifice of long-running shows on the alter of the hot new binge watch. There are still good shows – What We Do in the Shadows has matured nicely into one of the best comedies on television – but I have largely, like I wrote in that elegy, despaired and retreated into old detective shows and classic sitcoms. Television is my first love, but I find myself less and less interested in what it’s up to now. 

Season 15 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia basically made me love TV again.

It’s Always Sunny is, in all probability, my actual favourite show of all time. I was obsessed when I first got into it in college, rewatching episodes more or less on a loop, writing long musings about the characters on Tumblr. Since then, my love for it has remained steadfast, gaining consideration and depth what I’ve lost in urgency. With season 15, it officially became the longest running live-action comedy in American TV history – suck it, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet! – and of course it hasn’t all been plain sailing. After the fantastic, status quo-melting season 12, Sunny was definitely spinning its wheels a bit. There were flashes of brilliance in seasons 13 and 14 – the reaction shots of Frank during Mac’s dance in ‘Mac Finds His Pride’ are, like, some of the best acting of Danny DeVito’s career – but less consistently than in the decade previous. Understandable, this many years deep.

So imagine my joy and surprise that season 15 is the best they’ve turned out in years. It felt like remembering not just how much I adore Sunny, but television itself.

If you described the opening episodes of season 15 to me, I would have literally gone, “oh, okay, so Always Sunny sucks now, got it.” But somehow the Gang Forrest Gumping through 2020 – the most memed-to-death-on-arrival year ever – and making a sequel to the very unfortunate blackface episodes was wonderful. ‘2020: A Year in Review’ structured the Gang’s adventures through explaining to the government what they did with their PPP loans – set up insane, terrible businesses-slash-scams while trying to make sure “their guy” won the election, of course. It felt like a cousin of the defense episodes, a similar melding of zeal for procedural rigor and batshit Sunny logic. Their consistent referral to “our guy” instead of Trump made me think they were talking about something else – one of their internal elections, and once that was out, some other irrelevant bullshit – but the reveal was so much better than that: their guy was Kanye. Of course.

‘The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7’ is in large part a metacommentary on the show’s use of blackface when the Gang made Lethal Weapon 5 and 6. Those episodes have always marred Sunny for me, one of the rare occasions when its delicate tightrope act – leftist edgelordism, mining progressive satire from the most sensitive topics, refusing to go soft without inadvertently trapping itself in 2005 – fell flat on its face. The first blackface episode is otherwise pretty great, but that makes the blackface all the more frustrating when the joke was pitched to perfection in Mac, Dennis and Frank’s debate about the ethics of blackface. That conversation is classic Sunny, finding humour in the distinctions between different characters’ racism and stupidity, how each postures as morally superior to the other while being no less racist. The ethical considerations of the most horrible people alive.

It’s that tone that ‘The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7’ leans into, having the characters debate the moral quandaries of a changing world and, by extension, of Always Sunny. I often describe season 12’s ‘The Gang Turns Black’ – a bodyswap musical episode about race in America, a sitcom triple axel jump – as doing what the blackface episodes failed to do, navigating a path through the Gang’s racism that never slips off the tightrope. ‘The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7’ completes the quartet. It’s a marvel. Dennis’s speech about why he’s woke now (it’s about banging women, naturally) would, in a just world, be the b-roll for Glenn Howerton’s millionth Emmy nomination.

‘The Gang Buys a Roller Rink’ is really ‘How the Gang Bought Paddy’s’, a flashback episode to 1998 that plays fast and loose with established canon. It reminded me of Mythic Quest’s brilliant standalone episodes: a friend put it that Sunny got more Mythic Quest without becoming any less Sunny, and all the better for it. It also reminded me of the flashback episodes of Friends, with the revelation that they’re exactly where they were back then – Charlie even in the same clothes – feeling like another subversion in Sunny’s long, one-sided dialogue with Friends, its antithesis. ‘The Gang Replaces Dee With a Monkey’ is a lot of set-up for what’s to come, but manages to have some of the most classic gag writing of the season. I particularly enjoyed a joke about Fatty Arbuckle’s monkey being a rapist. And they say shock humour is dead.

But what makes season 15 so noteworthy is its back half. The Gang goes to Ireland. I’ll admit, when I saw in the trailer that the Gang were going to Ireland, my whole body clenched up. I approached with great trepidation. Americans tend to reduce our country to bullshit clichés, and even a show I trust as much as Sunny doesn’t get that much trust.

Joke’s on me, because the Ireland episodes are damn near perfect. Sunny doesn’t do serialisation, generally: there’s continuity and character stuff, but stories come in one-and-done episodic form. There’s the occasional two-parter, like the high school reunion episodes. But ‘The Gang Replaces Dee With a Monkey’ sets in motion a story that sprawls out to the season finale, ‘The Gang Carries a Corpse Up a Mountain’. It feels, in the context of Sunny’s relentless commitment to episodic storytelling, epic in scope.

The Gang goes to Ireland, and they are paragons of the awful American in Ireland, from Mac’s obsession with his heritage to Frank basing a shell company in Ireland to evade tax. There is so much good in these episodes. Dee gets hit by a car a bunch of times and then ends up in a gothic horror with a hallucinating, covid-positive Dennis. Mac’s mother says he’s actually Dutch, not Irish, and he goes through an episodes-long identity crisis, trying to put his identities in order now that “Irish, then gay, then badass” has been scuppered. Frank does a document “shred and spread” to cover up his involvement with Jeffrey Epstein, a situation which leads him to describe in detail Bill Gates fucking a manatee.

But these episodes belong to Charlie. His childhood pen pal, Shelly Kelly, lives in Ireland. He goes looking for him when Mac suggests Shelly might be his brother. But Shelly, played by Colm Meaney, is actually his dad.

One of the dominant clichés of media criticism in our time is to say something is “about trauma.” It’s a shorthand for explaining why you think some random TV show is important and meaningful, and so most regularly gets applied to the least important and meaningful shit there is: superheroes. But It’s Always Sunny actually is about trauma. The characters are propelled by their unique constellations of abuse, neglect, and mental illness. This ticks away largely as background detail to the sitcom hijinks, but when something is a consistent background detail for a decade and a half, it’s embedded in the show’s DNA.

This is what makes the rare moments when the show has looked its characters right in the eye a natural extension from its no-hugging-no-learning sitcom depravity, not a break away from it. Frank’s mental deterioration in ‘Being Frank.’ Dennis deciding to leave Philadelphia in ‘Dennis’ Double Life.’ Mac’s dance in ‘Mac Finds His Pride.’ And now, Charlie, in the rain, not strong enough to drag his father’s body to the cliff edge in ‘The Gang Carries a Corpse Up a Mountain’.

Charlie not knowing his father has been a consistent part of his characterisation. His mother slept around and did sex work, and she got an abortion which Charlie survived. He and Mac – whose dad was in prison most of his life – were two fatherless boys throwing rocks at trains. It seemed like Frank was probably his father: he slept with Charlie’s mother around the right time, and they easily slipped into a strange surrogate-father-and-son relationship when they become roommates. (Most fathers and sons don’t sleep in the same bed and have arguments about who shat in it, admittedly.)

Then when he finds his real father, he goes and dies on him. Charlie asks the Gang to help him carry the body up the mountain, to be dropped off the cliff like his father wanted – invoking the sacred and irrelevant creed of “bros before hoes” to convince them. One by one, they drop off, unwilling, as usual, to do anything that 1. is hard, or 2. doesn’t benefit themselves. Eventually it’s just Charlie. He breaks down. He cries about how his dad was never there – never picked him up from school, never put him on his shoulders – eventually repeating “you were supposed to carry me” with his face buried in the front of the body bag. It’s a cathartic moment of release, every bad thing that has happened to Charlie – that his dad wasn’t there to protect him from – poured out. Charlie Day’s delivery is incredible. I got choked up watching it.

At the same time, the rest of the Gang is at a pub, yelling at each other. Standard Gang stuff. When the Waitress – oh yeah, the Waitress is here – tells them to talk at a normal volume instead of screaming at each other, they fiercely defend their right as Americans to talk at any volume they choose. “We are America!” Frank says when the Waitress counters that they’re not in America. “And when you love something, you never leave it behind!”

And back on the mountain, Frank, Dennis, Dee and Mac show up in a big fuck-off pick-up truck. They say they never should have left Charlie – never should have left Philadelphia. They help Charlie take the corpse to the top, and throw it off with him. “The Gang are awful people, but they do love one another, in a way that’s strangely innocent and disarming,” I wrote a couple of years ago, “… They love each other like children – I suppose because they never learned how to love people any other way. They’re all they’ve got, and always have been.”

It reminded me of the ending of ‘The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang’s Revenge’, an episode that aired a full decade prior. After being humiliated at the reunion, the Gang decide to do Plan B.

“Stop whispering Plan B like it’s some super covert CIA operation!” Dennis says, “Plan B is a dance routine. It’s a goddamn dance routine!”

The music swells. Charlie steps forward. “And it’s gonna rock.”

They do this big, carefully choregraphed dance in front of their former classmates. It’s awesome – right until it cuts to what’s actually happening, which is the Gang sweating buckets while they each twitch their way through totally unsynchronised moves. The Gang are baffled that they don’t get a rapturous reception. Dennis says it doesn’t matter: those guys are clearly idiots (and savages). So they do what they always do, what they were going to do before Plan B came into effect: they go back to the bar.

The end of season 15 had the same feeling, for me, of the Gang understanding that where they belong is with each other, at a dive bar in Philadelphia. But this time, it was for Charlie. Charlie, who never had a dad, who barely had a mother, who was sexually abused, who bashes rats and huffs glue and can’t read (in English, anyway). The Gang are all he’s got, and always have been. They’re the ones who’ve carried him.

It’s low tide by the time they throw the body over, so it smashes onto the shore. Some kids are there, which Mac says will be fun for them, like a Stand By Me situation.

Back to Philly. Back to the bar. ‘Born in the USA’ blares, and it’s perfect.