13 Seasons. Yes, you read right. 13. Seasons. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has been running for 13 seasons now. And has also been renewed for a 14th, officially making it a tie as the longest running sit-com in American TV. And yet, I had never seen an episode of it. So for the purposes of this review I have jumped straight in at Season 13 to give you a completely clean take on what must clearly be a popular show.
Written by McElhenney, Howerton, and Day, the style of humour is pitched at a Seinfield level of arguments and one-upmanship. But with a cheek-bitingly mean streak and occasional surreal edge. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia consists of the misadventures of ‘The Gang’. The Gang are a group of politically incorrect and self centred people who together run Paddy’s Pub.
Coming in cold means trying to gauge the characters and how they relate to each other, whilst also being ignorant of what appears to be some long running jokes. But regardless there is generally little difference between the characters. Frank is more overtly racist / sexist (to the wincing of the others).
Dennis has a date-rape vibe about him whose insistence that he gets the consent of his conquests is somewhat undermined by the lock down procedure his bedroom initiates to trap someone inside. Charlie is the most pathetic of the bunch, being illiterate and generally inept. Dee is belittled by all the men and craves their approval. And Mac is easily led but also exploring his new found homosexuality (after denying it for presumably 12 seasons).
I did not warm to the show at all. The lack of any element of warmth to any character meant that the constant bickering lacked anything to amuse me. When the gang attend a Sexual Harassment seminar their cross-eyed bewilderment at what they can and can’t do (and Frank’s panic about how the statute of limitations may impact on all the secretaries he’s slept with over the years) plays out like an exercise in slapping down as many ‘wrong’ things to say as possible.
Dee insisting gathering a group of woman ‘friends’ to take a flight and outdrink the record number of beers previous set by the men lacks any escalation humour. Dennis ditching his beloved Land Rover and going ‘sensible’ with a Prius is an exercise in playing the screen for time. When the dialogue is this conversational, the laughs are hardly anywhere to be seen.
And yet, when I was getting ready to write the show off as a bafflement (13 seasons?!?), I found myself sucked in by the show’s excursions into weirder set ups. What starts off as an arbitrary clip show format soon devolves into twisting the idea of memories, and whether or not the current ‘reality’ is in fact a dream.
Charlie is left alone in the bar on Super Bowl Sunday and his array of paranoia induced and potentially lethal traps turn against him. The slapstick ticks boxes, but an extra twist is his insistence that his colour based rituals have a vital impact on the game. It's something the following episode continues with the rest of the gang actually at the Super Bowl.
Lastly, when I think I’ve got a handle on the show, episode 10 coyly comes out to prove that yes, the series does have a heart. Mac’s depression at being unable to figure out where to fit in with his homosexuality comes to an honestly beautiful conclusion when he performs an interpretative dance to try and express his internal struggles to his gnarled prisoner father.
So to review a show in its 13th season having never seen seasons 1-12 I would say that this type of humour generally leaves me cold. It’s minimalistic style is clearly ideal for fans of Seinfield and people saying and doing horrible things to each other. Yet (sorely underused) touches of oddity are by far the most interesting aspect. Whilst I don’t doubt that I would enjoy more such moments in earlier episodes, on the precedent set by season 13 I won’t be making efforts to see the rest.
Words by Michael Record