The gang of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just wrapped their 9th season and their first as the flagship of the new cable channel, FXX. Recently, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker wrote a generous and insightful piece that echoed much of the grassroots sentiment surrounding the show: It's Always Sunny has been a woefully overlooked part of the Golden Age of TV. While the stellar 9th season continued with the same hilarity and absurdity of the previous seasons, it also felt different in ways that signal, perhaps, the swan song of the gang.
Sitcoms like Sunny, especially those without a larger narrative arc, tend to work with formulas. In this case, the gang looks for a scheme of sorts which quickly escalates into insanity. Consequently, these characters need to look outward: they need to rig an election, to try to solve the gas crisis, to host a beauty pageant for children, among many other zany schemes designed to provoke their absurdity. Yet in this season the gang has ceased to look outwards in their stories and now look to deepen the characters we already know and the stories we already love. Three of the ten episodes this season felt like sequels of sorts: “Gun Fever 2: Still Hot,” finds the gang tackling gun control and mania, again; “Lethal Weapon 6” builds off their black-faced homemade sequels of the Mel Gibson movies; when “The Gang Squashes their Beef,” they invite back some of the greats of their past including the inimitable incestous McPoyles, Gail the Snail, Bill Ponderossa, and Wang, the landlord who made appearances throughout the first season.
This new focus dovetails with a turn towards furthering individual characters. The gang now takes center stage, with their dysfunctions and borderline sociopathy taking the place of social issues or schemes. For the past two seasons, the show has turned its crooked eye towards highlighting and pushing the absurdity of its characters. Each character receives a chance to shine in their own unique insanity. In the first episode of this season, “The Gang Breaks Dee,” Dee hits rock bottom, then resuscitates herself through a cruel prank in which the gang makes her believe she is a successful comedian, which only push her back down to being the gang’s punching bag. Way more than in past episodes, we now see the delusions of Dee, her pathetic lack of self-awareness, and her raw desperation. It’s awe-inspiring, cringe-worthy, and utterly hilarious.
In the season’s most creative episode, “Mac Day”, Mac receives similar treatment, albeit with a perfect foil, “Country Mac,” who brings out the best and worst in (city) Mac. Country Mac (a perfect Sean William Scott) is everything that Mac purports to be. Faced with a true “badass,” Mac is forced to encounter his own delusions – and this episode can essentially be called “The Gang Breaks Mac.” A similar tactic is used again several times this season: in “The Gang Saves the Day,” the gang is witness to a convenience store robbery, and they all fantasize their way out; in “Flowers for Charlie,” we get a glimpse into the borderline illiterate and crazy mind of Charlie, as scientists make him believe that a pill has increased his intelligence to the point where he can learn Mandarin in two days. It turns out to be a placebo (a word that Charlie has trouble pronouncing), and instead of upping his intelligence, it sent his arrogance skyrocketing so that we see the glory of Charlie in an unbridled way.
Capitalizing on the rich mythology of their characters allowed the show to be explicit about issues they had hinted at for years. The gang finally admits, out loud, their thoughts on Mac’s sexuality, their hatred of Mac’s religious views, their need for Dee to be their punchline, Charlie’s place beneath them, their stubborn inability to apologize, their evident alcoholism, and the ever-deepening extent of Charlie’s idiocy. A lot of this might appear cheap and easy. To make something implicit explicit, to practice telling much more than showing, smacks of some basic Writing 101 mistakes. Yet the chemistry and jokes allow them to earn this turn: after 8 full seasons of looking outwards, of creating a strange and deranged world with its own set of misfits and mythologies, they can now comfortably look inwards. With so much backstory under their belts, they’ve earned the right to tell stories that focus on one character, and dialogue that calls attention to itself as self-aware. With this accumulated mythology, the show no longer needs external issues to create stories, but can just let the characters loose to wreak havoc and shine in all their outrageous glory.
In a sense, this progression already began last season. They gave us a sequel to their money making scheme centered around trash, Pop-Pop (Dennis & Dee's Nazi grandfather) returns for his final solution, and Charlie’s mom pulls the same fake-cancer stunt that Charlie used in the first season. Last season also saw these turns inwards and towards the more explicit, especially with one of their best episodes of all time, “The Gang Gets Analyzed.” Nothing actually happens in the episode, no scheme, not plot or plan, no one gets manipulated, nothing gets stolen, no fires, or drugs, or sabotage. It's just an unfiltered look into the beautiful insanity of the characters, one by one.
Overall these turns yields two important realizations. First, the gang appears to realize that they are coming to the end of their story, that they cannot continue with this creative burst without running into stale territory. You can only deepen the same stories and characters for so long, and you can only give us sequels for an even shorter period of time. But just as importantly, these changes signal a considerably more comfortable and confident gang that looks upon its mad creation with pure delight. Some moments may smack of indulging fans and checking off mythology moments, but it is hard to ignore the earned pride they must feel in creating one of (if not the most) consistently funny show of the past decade. This turn inwards is just a distilled version of the Always Sunny we’ve come to love, ratcheted up from ill-conceived schemes to full-blown dysfunction and psychosis. It’s unclear how long they can keep this pure delightful insanity going, but they continue to be the most lovable (and loathable) gang on television.