It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – 2020 Season Premiere: A Year In Review/The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has changed quite a bit in its 15 years on air, despite its characters not really changing at all. I expect the show to deliver on its classic formula of outrageous, character based humor, and I’m sure there will be several episodes this season devoted to that, just as there are every year.
Since the beginning, however, Sunny has also branched out into real-world commentary, offering its unique exploration on topical issues such as gun control, human rights, freedom, and more. But has Sunny achieved a balance of its “responsibilities” (if you can even call them such) between entertaining its audience and saying something meaningful? Or should the show “stay in its lane?”
The first two episodes of Season 15 are both heavy on topical conversation, but each episode’s story is, per usual, delivered through the characters. It’s been quite a while since the season 14 finale, and “2020: A Year in Review” has a lot of ground to cover. I’m not always a fan of how shows utilize vignette structures, as they often feel more like a handful of half-baked ideas that couldn’t flesh out a full episode, and I do have a few issues with Sunny’s premiere, but on the whole I felt this structure works wonders to cover a lot of ground in a small amount of time.
Breaking up the year into smaller stories allows each topic to have a clean focus while giving each character a highlight to welcome them back to our screens, and the fact that the gang is unified in their desire for another loan keeps the group feeling as a unit despite their separate stories. The chemistry between the actors is as natural as ever, and their focus on current events keeps their jokes and humor fresh. I wouldn’t say any of these vignettes pushes these characters into new places, but in this case that’s okay. Sometimes an episode prioritizes an idea over character work, and this can succeed if the characters are used to effectively explore that idea.
In the case of “2020: A Year in Review,” I think it works. The gang is an excellent engine to explore 2020 through, as the situations that happened throughout that year were almost as unbelievable (and maybe even more so) than the gang themselves. What is interesting about this episode is that it doesn’t actually dive all that deeply into the meaning of these events and how they affected people’s lives – instead it highlights something else we all should be concerned about: How did any of this happen?
By giving us the answers to the how, Sunny succeeds in making the viewer question the reality of these situations. How insane was that election and how did we ever get to a point where an election could be that crazy? Of course Mac and Dennis weren’t responsible for the confusion in Philadelphia during the voting period, but what was? How do we avoid it in the future?
While questions like this are suggested, poked fun at, and even dismissed (as Gary dismisses the gang at the end), the episode never seems to take a solid stance on what is right or wrong; and I think that’s the point, as the following episode uses a similar approach.
“The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7” is another Always Sunny entry with a heavy focus on current social issues, however, unlike the premiere, it’s a bit more explicit with its message. The episode heavily criticizes the notion of people proudly parading their ethics around so they can be perceived as ethical, despite not quite understanding the issues at hand.
What makes the message work is that the criticism doesn’t jam itself down any single group’s throat. Dennis explicitly criticizes the younger generation for fishing for praise, while the gang spends the episode fishing for praise. This means the point isn’t “young people suck” or “old people suck,” it’s that all of us suck.
This is what separates Always Sunny’s approach to sociopolitical issues. It rarely stamps a foot down and explicitly states “this is wrong.” That approach can be alienating to the audience you’re trying to convince, and the final few moments of “The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7” seem to agree, as the gang, feeling attacked by the film they attempted to be “woke” with, dig their heels deeper into the ground and revert right back to their old insensitive selves.
Ramming your ethics over someone almost never results in positive conversation or change, and I feel Always Sunny understands this and uses its platform to promote a more productive approach to these issues – don’t just take a side, think about it and understand it.
To be clear, I’m not saying there isn’t a wrong side, as there definitely is; and Sunny thinks so, too. The beauty of the gang being as awful as they are is that no one wants to be them – therefore the writers can suggest their personal morals by having their characters do the opposite. In other words, if you ever find yourself relating to the gang in too many ways, maybe it’s time to take a look at yourself.
So does Always Sunny balance its responsibilities? I think so. A show doesn’t remain on the air for 15 seasons if it isn’t satisfying its audience with its humor, so it certainly has the entertainment side down. Regarding sending a positive message, I also feel the show succeeds. It raises awareness to important topics and encourages viewers to explore these ideas by contrasting their own thoughts with the characters’.
You don’t have to be looking for or even catching the commentary to enjoy these episodes, and many people won’t – I’m sure I missed a lot of subtext myself – but I’ve caught enough to take a look at the last few years and a look at my own actions, which is a lot better than just nodding along to a message I already agree with and moving on with my day. Are these first two episodes the gang at their best? No, definitely not, but they are entertaining and thought-provoking, and if that’s what they are aiming to be, I think they succeed.
- The Four Seasons fiasco was a true gift to the writers of Always Sunny.
- I go back and forth on whether or not I like when a television show implies that its character impacted real world events, as sometimes it can feel forced or take me out of the show’s universe. By the nature of implanting them into real-world events, the episode highlights when the gang doesn’t sound or act like real people. In this case it mostly works as it helps contextualize the ridiculousness of these events, but using “our guy” to refer to a candidate sticks out because it isn’t the way anyone refers to their preferred candidate. I immediately knew they were talking about Kayne, as I’m sure many did, which hurt the reveal at the end.
- Rob McElhenney tweeted out before the premiere: “Tonight, Sunny will become the longest running live action sitcom in TV history. What is wrong with you people?” And I think this is a great summation of what these first episodes encourage us to ask ourselves.
- I’ll try to focus more on the actual jokes and plots next week. The show came out swinging for relevant topics this week so I felt it was best to focus on that.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – The Gang Goes to Ireland/The Gang’s Still in Ireland (15×05/15×06)
Always Sunny has has several multi-part episodes, but I don’t believe there has ever been a stretch of this many episodes continuing a single story arc, and so far, I think it’s working wonders.
The first benefit the serialized formula of these episodes provides is long-term payoffs for jokes. Always Sunny’s humor normally comes from two main places – the humor of the current plot and the characters’ reactions to what’s happening (such as Mac talking about sitting on the drains at the water park), and the humor of long-standing continuity references, (such as Charlie and Frank referencing “Nightcrawlers”). But in “The Gang Goes to Ireland” and “The Gang’s Still in Ireland,” there are plot based jokes that payoff across episodes in a way Always Sunny doesn’t normally get to revel in. The guys wanting to take a vacation originated in “The Gang Replaces Dee with a Monkey” and is still paying off in “The Gang’s Still in Ireland” in major ways. Dee doesn’t wake up in the middle of the country if the guys aren’t on vacation and Mac’s identity crisis swapping from episode to episode provides a fleshed out running gag. These longer payoffs gives Season 15 a very unique feel, which is great news for such a tenured sitcom.
The writing on a whole is great in this arc, though, so it isn’t just a benefit for the humor. Going to Ireland has specific ramifications for the cast, and the more specific a location is to your characters, the better a setting for a story it is. On a broad scale, it’s a fitting location just due to the name of their pub, but on a character specific level, Mac, Charlie, and Frank all have particular issues that are being brought about by Ireland.
Mac decides to tie his identity to his Irish heritage, which leads him down a path of crisis when he learns from his mother that he isn’t actually Irish. Charlie meets his real father (gasp) and starts to pull away from Frank as he begins to identify with his culture, and Frank begins to realize that he may be losing Charlie. These plot lines are built around the Ireland setting, tying location to character and giving the setting a relevance to the story. Many sitcoms go to a foreign land to shake things up without actually tying a real plot line to the location, which makes those excursions feel more like a pallet swap than a necessary story beat. Ireland is pushing these characters in new directions, and I love that.
For Dee and Dennis, Ireland itself doesn’t affect them in quite the same way, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as intricately tied to the journey as the rest of the gang. Dennis falling ill is specifically tied to traveling (while being unvaccinated), which ties his storyline to the journey even if it isn’t Ireland specific, and Dee’s acting gig is what kicked off the journey in the first place. Dee’s plot line could have happened in Philadelphia, yes – she could have been late for filming anywhere in the world – but what makes the journey around the world so relevant to her is that the rest of the gang followed her. This was, potentially, a chance for Dee to start over without the gang; a chance to break free. Instead, her friends drag her down, bringing out the worst in her, and keeping her in the exact same state of mind she’s always in.
Asides from using the location to its fullest, these last few episodes’ structures are also excellent. While this may be the most serial Sunny has ever been, it hasn’t lost use of its format. So far, these episodes have been distinct storylines contained within themselves – in other words, these are not two-parters. “The Gang Goes to Ireland” deals with a very different plot than “The Gang’s Still in Ireland,” even if the events of the former directly affect the events of the latter. Personally, for anything that isn’t a mini-series or two-parter, I like distinction between episodes in television. Like chapters in a book, they provide much needed structure to long-form storytelling. It’s very easy for episodes to start blending together when each is just a continuation of the last, but when one episode is about Dee’s film role and Frank destroying documents and the next is about Dee dealing with her sick brother and Frank losing his best friend, a distinction is provided that helps keep the story manageable and lends purpose to the episodic format, instead of feeling like a sliced up movie.
Overall, I’m really enjoying the direction the middle of Season 15 is taking. It’s given a bit of new life to the series and hasn’t just been thrown together – each character has been taken into consideration when crafting this plot and coming up with a setting. I’m excited to catch the next episodes, curious to see how this approach will affect the characters next.
- The serialized format also lets us see these characters live life in an uncut sequence of time, proving the madness never stops. This has also proven to me that this show could probably run in a serialized way if it ever wanted to. The writers take enough care into mixing plot with character that I’ve no doubt they could do this format if they wanted to (I’m not saying they should, just that they probably could).
- Sure, Dennis could have gotten sick anywhere, but tying it to travel works for the story and as a commentary on real-world travel safety during the pandemic, and Always Sunny does enjoy making commentary.
- The music change has also given these episodes a fresh feel. I love Sunny’s classic music, but this change makes this particular journey feel special, and I like that the show ties its music together with its setting.
- So I guess Frank is definitively not Charlie’s father???
- They are leaning HARD into Dennis’ creepiest character traits. I always felt they would keep these traits quiet, even if obvious on the surface, but I sort of feel the longer this show goes on the more definitive of an answer we’ll get to Dennis’ true nature.
- Dee would be a great horror movie protagonist. Her all-for-herself attitude combined with her verbal aggression is the perfect mix for it.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – The Gang Buys a Roller Rink/The Gang Replaces Dee with a Monkey (15×03/15×04)
“The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” is an experimental episode of Always Sunny, flashing back to what basically amounts to an origin story for the gang. But does the gang really need an origin story?
Flashback origin stories (like prequels) are most successful when the information about the origin re-contextualizes something we know about the characters the story is exploring. An example where “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” succeeds is in the reveal that Charlie actually paid for most of the bar, as it re-frames our knowledge on exactly how Charlie became the rat-killer of the joint. Dennis and Mac completely screwed Charlie over, and while this isn’t necessarily a surprising revelation, it does lend us a new perspective to the supposed early partnership between the three. If you want to take it deeper, you can even say it explains Charlie’s hard dedication to the bar that the others don’t seem to have, as evidenced in “Charlie Work.”
Unfortunately, I feel this is the only reveal in “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” that really works. Dee truly earning her nickname as “Sweet Dee” in her younger years, only to be ruined by a bonk on the head doesn’t re-contextualize anything. We already know the gang played a huge role in turning Dee into who she is today through their constant mockery, so revealing that Charlie played a role into turning Dee into “Dee” doesn’t actually change the perspective much. Maybe one could argue that the point is to show how innocent mistakes can have drastic consequences, but in the context of this show, I don’t think that works.
And that’s the biggest issue with the episode. “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” goes out of its way to clean up Charlie, Dee, and Dennis so that we can see the contrast between their 1998 incarnations with their present day selve, and tries to show us exactly what went wrong in their lives to lead them there; but based on the history of the show and the meticulous characterization each main player has been given, we already know there isn’t one thing that lead them to their horrible selves. It was decades of abuse, neglect, self-aggrandizement, brainwashing, and more, mixed in with their own base instincts, and their awfulness continues to perpetuate through the dysfunctional circle they’ve trapped themselves in. Giving a single day explanation to everything doesn’t just feel wrong – it goes against the themes and continuity of the show.
And yet, I’m not sure I even buy that this is canon. The gang are proven unreliable narrators based on other episodes that feature flashbacks. Even when they think they’re telling the truth, their memories often betray them because they were drunk or too caught up in their own egos to realize they weren’t the center of attention they believed they were. For a show that cares so much about its own continuity, I find it hard to believe the writers ever make a “mistake” when it comes to continuity, even if they choose to disregard a previous piece of canon, I believe in most cases that is a conscious choice by them.
So I can’t criticize “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” for “ruining” the continuity of the series because I’m not sure I trust the memory we witness on screen. At the end of “2020: A Year in Review,” there was footage of the gang at the events they claimed to be part, which proved without a doubt that they were telling the truth in that episode. There are no such clarifying pieces of proof at the end of “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink,” so it’s definitely possible this episode is just an excuse to have some fun and experiment with these characters in a new way.
But if this is canon? I think it hurts the characters. I find it hard to believe the Dennis in this episode ever called himself a Golden God while in high school, or that Dee turned out as this sweet after being relentlessly bullied for her back brace (after all, we’ve already seen how much resentment she held onto from that time of her life). Those earlier details seem sort of meaningless if the gang only became the gang because of the singular night we witness here. I prefer some backstory to remain mysterious, even after 15 years, as the gang is infinitely more fascinating when they are the result of a million different things over the course of a lifetime and not a singular event that created them, because people are more complex than that, and frankly, so is Sunny.
I also didn’t find this episode too funny. Mac’s “mark my words” jokes don’t have a great payoff and are sort of easy jokes to plop in a flashback. Dennis watching Frank have sex issn’t anywhere near as funny as Dennis and Frank’s confusing conversation prior, and with Dennis’ view on Frank I find it hard to believe he would stay through the entire session. Mac dealing drugs might seem like it is in character, but his success with it really isn’t, as he’s always been a fake tough (even here with the broken gun!) and he definitely would have had his money stolen from him way earlier.
I did think it was fun to watch, though! Despite all my complaints, I enjoyed seeing this different spins on such recognizable characters, especially Charlie. It’s always fun to see him be competent.
“The Gang Replaces Dee with a Monkey,” presents such a perfect counter-example to “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” regarding character consistency that I find it hard to believe they were written back to back, but maybe that was the point?
The monkey plot line is alright. The guys trying to pick a vacation destination is some pretty classic Sunny, where a simple task turns into a huge project. Unfortunately we don’t actually get to see them arrive at their destination, so I feel like that plot line didn’t quite pay off because we sort of skip to the reveal. I think an extra scene here with them building the words to write on the board would have helped, even if the words were kept a secret to keep the final reveal intact. The monkey is fun, though.
Dee, on the other hand, has an excellent story that is so completely in line with her character that it hurts to think she’s only this way because she bonked her head. She shows both progress and regression as a person in such a smooth way, which is exactly what I want out of this season of Sunny. After being brutally insulted by the casting director, I expected Dee to either lose her **** with him or spiral into a depression, but instead she listens and learns. Dee! Dee listens and learns!!! Even though she doesn’t grow as a person ethically, not internalizing the insult is a huge step forward for the self-loathing Dee. It suggests that for once, maybe Dee doesn’t care what someone else thinks of her.
This also allows her to recognize that the young actor in her class does care heavily about what others think of her, and Dee sees this as an opportunity for, I don’t know, retribution? Revenge? Catharsis? She finally has someone she can influence and control and, after years of suffering the same fate herself, she knows exactly how to do it. Dee is old enough, and dare I say wise enough, to recognize her flaws; after all, she must recognize her own flaws if she’s going to manipulate those same flaws in someone else.
Which makes her final reversal absolutely magnificent. After getting the call from the director, Dee returns to the Dee of years past, because guess what – she finally got approval. She’s validated, and that validation immediately blinds her again. It’s a perfect display of growth and regression and comes about naturally in a way that is true to life.
The key is that Dee’s character doesn’t change almost at all. She’s still crude, rude, and has no idea what she’s talking about regarding acting. Her small growth is only in her reaction to the insult of her acting ability and her horrific plan to exploit a young actor for her own sick comfort. This is, dare I say, near peak Sunny, and I’m excited to see what Ireland brings us.
- The gang being so upset about the rink closing down before revealing they haven’t been there in over 20 years is very in character for them.
- If anyone has an explanation for how the characterization in “The Gang Buys a Roller Rink” fits in with the existing continuity of these characters younger years, please share it.
- I know the show isn’t medically accurate pretty much ever, but Dee hitting her head and shifting personalities is one of those things that has actually happened in real life, and yet still feels unrealistic within the show. Sometimes, just because it’s true to life, doesn’t mean it’s true to the show.
- Danny DeVito looked great in the flashback. Almost exactly like Season 2 Frank.
- I’m really excited to see what the show does with a bit of serialization. I know I wrote an article about needing more episodic TV, but a show 15 years into its run needs to experiment some and I think this is a good risk to take.
- I wonder how much influence the marketing strategy had on “The Gang Replaces Dee with a Monkey’s” final reveal. Ireland was so heavily promoted in the show’s ads and that final reveal was somewhat built on the audience awareness of what the destination was going to be. I actually think it sort of worked? At least on me. I didn’t put it together that their vacation destination would be Ireland, even though it seems so obvious in hindsight, except there was NOTHING in show to tell me that – me feeling Ireland was the obvious answer was solely built on the marketing. Interesting to note.
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