In what many consider to be the golden age of television, few comedies shine as bright as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Always Sunny is one of the longest-running sitcoms on network TV and has aired on FXX since 2005. It follows “the gang” as they run Paddy’s Pub; siblings Dennis and Dee Reynolds, their father Frank, Ronald “Mac” McDonald, and Charlie Kelly all plot wacky schemes to get rich, which ultimately fail due to their deeply flawed characters. Contrary to a generic sitcom, the main characters on Always Sunny get worse, not better, over time.
This is exemplified by the self-proclaimed brains and body of the gang, Dennis Reynolds. In the season five episode “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System”, Dennis details his six-part system of seduction: Demonstrate value, Engage physically, Nurture dependence, Neglect emotionally, Inspire hope, and Separate entirely. Despite numerous objections from his sister Dee, and later Charlie and Mac (“Dude, are you gonna hurt these women?”), due to the sociopathic nature of the system, Dennis continues to use it throughout the series, rather than learning from his mistreatment of women. This culminates in the season twelve episode “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer”, a parody of Netflix’s Making a Murderer detailing Dennis’ murder of his ex-wife, interspecies cat-woman Maureen Ponderosa.
Contrary to a generic sitcom, the main characters on Always Sunny get worse, not better, over time.
The show’s greatest strength is its ability to take simple everyday situations and push them to wild extremes. In the case of the season two episode “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare”, the siblings plot to abuse unemployment benefits and welfare cheques, after quitting their jobs at the bar. But when they get addicted to crack in an attempt to justify getting welfare, Dennis and Dee end up again at Paddy’s, begging Frank for their jobs. Danny Devito, who plays Frank Reynolds, lends troll-like facial expressions, uncanny deadpans, and a gobsmacking depth of emotion to one of the funniest characters on television. In one of the most-quoted lines of the show, Frank refuses to let Dennis and Dee return to the bar:
“Why would you do this to us, Dad?”
“Because you are crackheads, children.”
Like Paddy’s Pub itself, Always Sunny is written, acted, and produced by a handful of friends: Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day (Mac, Dennis, and Charlie, respectively). These three have, through the sheer force of their collective creative power and comedic styles, created a dynastic sitcom that has managed to stay fresh for 14 seasons from a low-budget pilot, despite the small creative team.
In contrast with the show’s wide critical acclaim and impressive global fan base – according to Neilson, over a third of a million people on average watched the latest season live – Always Sunny has only been nominated for three Emmy awards, all between 2013-2015, all for the show’s stunt coordinator Marc Scizak, but has won none. At this point, the Television Academy’s continuing decision not to nominate Always Sunny in recognition of its comedic writing, acting, and directing has become a running joke on the show itself.
In its ninth season, Always Sunny released an episode entitled “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award”. In this episode, the gang becomes outraged that another year has passed without Paddy’s Pub being nominated for the best bar in Philadelphia; in reality, they have simply never submitted an application to the competition. In an attempt to change the image of their bar, the gang visits a bar that constantly wins awards. They discover scripted, dull emotion, a bubblegum pop soundtrack and a bell that tells the patrons when to drink. Any viewer can see the link between this bar and the shows that frequently win Emmy awards: boring, laugh-tracked sitcoms that have long outlasted their relevance. Always Sunny represents a departure from the formulaic comedy that’s been shoved in our collective faces for so long.
The fanbase of Always Sunny is large and rabid, like one of the rats Charlie bashes; constantly producing fan art, theories, and memes. One of the show’s most iconic episodes, “CharDee MacDennis: The Game of Games”, introduced fans to a drinking game that became widely recreated, with a 165-page rulebook. In a nod to the gang’s Emmy snubs, this episode was directed by acclaimed TV craftsman Matt Shakman, a frequent collaborator with the show. That’s right, the same guy who directed Game of Thrones’ “Battle of the Bastards” directed “The Nightman Cometh”. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is produced by some of the smartest minds in television today, yet goes unnoticed.
The real reason behind these snubs remains undisclosed. The show’s stars have discussed the issue widely, as curious as their fans are as to why their work remains unrecognized. In an interview with Indiewire, Glenn Howerton admitted that “‘The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award’ was our way of saying it sucks and it hurts to not win an award, but we also don’t care, but we do, but we don’t because we know. Everybody knows. It’s just like winning a trophy, it shouldn’t be about that”. In truth, the show thrives despite and partly because of the cult status it has garnered without Emmy recognition. It seems more than anything that Always Sunny and its fans take a sort of hipster pleasure in its notoriety as a rebellious “anti-sitcom”.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is produced by some of the smartest minds in television today, yet goes unnoticed.
After HBO’s True Detective was nominated for eleven Emmys, Always Sunny teamed up with Shakman again to give another subtle slap to the Academy with the season ten episode “Charlie Work”. The episode follows Charlie around the bar as he prepares for its annual health inspection, derailed at every turn by an apathetic gang determined to make Charlie and Paddy’s Pub fail. In their reference to the HBO drama, Shakman makes use of one continuous shot for over seven minutes. Using a continuous set for the bar’s bathroom, pub interior, back office, keg room, and back alley, the seven-minute shot details Charlie’s attempts to complete tasks like hiding a toilet Frank clogged with his shoes, filling the bar’s basement with gas to drive out its rats and then faking a working carbon monoxide detector with a recorder, and keeping the health inspector busy long enough for Dennis, Mac, and Dee to undertake an entirely different and unhelpful scheme involving chickens and airline steaks. “Charlie Work” is one of the show’s most masterful episodes, boasting a 9.8 user rating on IMDB. But despite using the same techniques as prestige TV, and for the same effect, the amount of precision went predictably unrecognized.
The season 13 finale “Mac Finds His Pride” focused on a touching storyline about Mac’s coming out, featuring a masterfully choreographed and surprisingly moving dance performed by (an insanely ripped) Rob McElhenney and professional ballerina Kylie Shea. This episode was different; raw emotion and truth come out of the show like never before. All the same, the show was ignored by the most recent Emmy nominations. Unable to appeal with satirical critiques of conformity nor genuine emotional depth, the show seems doomed to remain unrecognized for its immense cultural impact. With the airing of its fifteenth and presumably final season this year, the show seems condemned to a life of obscurity and cult status, when it should be awarded for years of real hard work. As for me, I side with the gang in their message to the Philadelphia Restaurant and Bar Association: “I don’t need your trophies or your gold, I just want to tell you all go f**k yourselves”.