'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' is currently airing their eleventh season, and is somehow still going strong. Year after year the show has succeeded in finding ways to reinvent itself and pump out top quality shows. Last week, the third episode of the season 'The Gang Hits the Slopes' hilariously parodied the incoherent and ethically questionable tropes of 80s teen movies, highlighting everything that made that era of movies so special/weird, and cranking it up 110%.
This is appropriate for a show like 'Always Sunny', because since its first episode in 2005, the show itself has cranked up 110%, maybe even more. In its early days, episodes would often comment on particular social issues like abortion or gun control, and the self centred main characters would work together, or against each other, on particular schemes, or ways that they could selfishly benefit from the situation even if it means screwing over their friends.
'Always Sunny' hasn't really addressed a relevant controversy in years, but the characters themselves, Charlie, Dennis, Mac, Sweet Dee and Danny DeVito's Frank, have developed into ludicrous, exaggerated versions of their original characters.
When a show goes for 11 years, this is always bound to happen. It's often referred to as "Flanderization", when a trait of a character is blown up to the point where they barely resemble their former selves, named after Ned Flanders from 'The Simpsons', who started out as simply a helpful neighbour, and has now become a bible-bashing Christian stereotype. There's a whole TV Tropes article about it, which you should read if you want to suck your day away.
If you still don't understand what I'm talking about, and you're a fan of 'Always Sunny', look at it this way: Charlie started out as a loveably dimwit with hair-brained ideas and a crush on a waitress, and is now a borderline insane idiot who can't read, is constantly coming up with useless inventions and actively stalks the waitress. Mac went from a subtly bi-curious gym buff, to a fat dude, and then to a completely insecure closeted homosexual who is constantly feeling the need to prove himself physically. Dee went from the voice-of-reason 'girl' character to a selfish witch who is just as bad as the rest of them. Frank was a rich schemer wanting to start life anew, and now he's a slimy, sex-crazed lunatic who battles to keep his youth but still plays the super villain if need be. Then there's Dennis, my favourite transformation, who went from a smarter, more casual audience surrogate with maybe slightly questionable motives.... to pure evil.
Flanderization is usually counted as a strike against a show. People are always complaining about new episodes of 'The Simpsons' or 'Family Guy' because of this reason, but somehow, with 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia', it has enhanced the series, I much prefer to watch these characters act in their distinctly unrealistic, unlikeable, inhuman ways than see them return to who they used to be.
It is possible that maybe the actors (3 of whom also write the show) have just been playing these characters for so long that they know them inside out. They know their traits and their strengths, so even though their actions seem unrealistic from an outside perspective, the actors are able to play these characters realistically. Cartoons get flack for Flanderization because their voices and actions are controlled by multiple people, and live action shows perhaps suffer from jaded writers and jaded actors. I don't think the 'Always Sunny' crew are jaded at all, and because they maintain a hefty amount of creative control, they can direct these insane characters in every way possible.
Perhaps the secret is actually all in the personalities of the characters themselves. Somehow, from season 1 to season 11, we've been lulled into accepting that this is a show about terrible people. This is a show about scumbags. I would argue that Charlie is the only reasonably good natured guy, but even his sympathies reach an abrupt halt when it comes to torturing Dee, or whenever Rickety-Cricket confronts the gang about them being responsible for his downward spiral from priest to meth addict with half a face (another instance of Flanderization, though probably more intentional). When we've accepted that the show is about bad people, then we also accept that the only entertaining option is for them to get worse. Like a hilarious version of 'Breaking Bad'. Each of the characters has become an exaggeration of their once humble evils, because there was nowhere to go but up.
There are plenty of other reasons why 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' has stayed a great show. The secondary characters are hilarious and the way the title of the episode can often serve as a punchline at the end of each cold open has become one of the most enjoyable elements of the series. But it is interesting that in an age of anthology shows, shorter seasons and mini-series', this 11-year-old comedy has managed to consistently be one of the best sitcoms on TV, for the same reasons people usually hate long-running shows. Maybe that's why it's so great.
About the Author:
Alexander Jones (AJ) really likes movies and TV. He really likes you too. You can find more of his stuff all over Cult Popture, in the blogs, vlogs and podcasts.