'Always Sunny': Character Counts, In or Out of Robbery-Triggered Fantasies
Always Sunny has been on the air for nine seasons. Nine seasons! In the time this under-sung sitcom has kept chugging, probably a thousand shows have been cancelled (don't check), other long-running shows have lost major steam (if they ever had it at all!), and the epicenter of the comedy landscape has shifted from irony-heavy rom-coms like The Office to more immediately comedic fare like New Girl and The Big Bang Theory. Yet through it all, the Sunny voice has remained consistent, clear, and most importantly strong. The sitcoms we think of as "modern classics" had bad seasons, even bad stretches of seasons. I'm not sure you could isolate a single year of Sunny as of a somehow lower quality than any other. Really, this lewd FX/FXX gem may be the single most reliable comedy of the last decade. Not to be, you know, hyperbolic.
I bring all this up not to just randomly sing the praises of a show I like a lot (I mean, hey -- great show!) but to highlight one of the reasons it remains -- is able to remain -- so strong nearly a decade into its run. And that's CHARACTER. Mac, Dennis, Dee, Charlie, and Frank are among the most socially unacceptable characters on television…ever. We've seen them steal babies, cause race riots, try to murder each other, exploit national tragedies and generally ruin the lives of everyone they meet, including themselves. You know what? It's in that insane level of specificity that we've gotten to know them as well as any of TV's iconic ensembles.
At this point in Sunny's run -- probably as early as season four, when the "Nightman Cometh" musical premiered -- we understand the tics and predilections of all five of these characters to the point that we know how they'd react in practically any situation. Try it out! Throw Dee into a Black Friday sale at Target. Can you imagine her trying to cut to the front of the line on the back of some made-up medical emergency? Discovering that her birdlike frame allows her to scope out the store, giving her a shopping advantage over everyone else? Pretending a child is hers to get her hands on some hot toy she needs to be the talk of a local "Toys for Tots" drive? This isn't predictability; it's familiarity, and a powerful mode of engagement for any show, no matter how long it's been on the air.
Last night the gang was caught in the middle of a convenience store robbery, which prompted each of them to fantasize how they might handle the situation. And those fantasies -- each one of which was hysterical -- relied almost entirely on our knowledge of each character for the jokes to land. Plot-wise, after all, nothing happened. Episode opens: robbery. Episode ends: the gang runs out (having stolen some stuff in the process). Charlie's Up-inspired animated fantasy was arguably the highlight of the episode. He got to marry the waitress, live with her in a home built by his army of rats, raise sons and daughters who grew up to become waitresses and janitors. The dream! And one that, if we didn't already understand his rat-king status or Flowers for Algernon understanding of the world, wouldn't have had the comedic impact it did.
I'm sure you could hop onto Always Sunny this late in the game having never seen another episode and still laugh your ass off…but why? The experience is so much richer for knowing these characters intimately. And it's something that Sunny has harvested as well as any sitcom in the history of TV. Don't ever stop giving these people money, FXX!