The other day, a thought dawned on me: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia debuted the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. Somehow, even though I’m fast approaching 27, it’s not only still on the air, but it still ranks as one of the funniest comedies on television. Plenty of shows that debuted in 2005 and after have grown stale since then, but Sunny has stayed sharp, as the sociopathic antics of Mac, Dennis, Dee, Charlie, and Frank land just as heavily as they did 12 years ago. So, what’s set this show apart from others?
While one could critique Sunny as being formulaic, the show has no problem acknowledging and even embracing their formula. Consider the season 8 episode “The Gang Recycles Their Trash,” in which several get-rich-quick schemes from past episodes are revisited, with the show making no bones about what they were doing. In lesser hands, this wouldn’t quite work; it would feel like a classic example of thinking that pointing out your flaws will excuse them. In this case, it worked, however, because a meta-episode about bringing back old ideas wound up being far more interesting than just re-doing an old plotline. Ironically, by bringing back a bunch of old storylines at once, Sunny came up with one of its most original episodes.
Another reason why the show has stayed sharp is that the characterization hasn’t declined. All five members of The Gang bring the laughs as much as they ever did. Why has this show avoided the traps of Flanderization that have ruined so many great sitcoms in their prime? Perhaps because these characters were so broad, eccentric, and downright evil from the beginning. What kills a lot of great character traits is that qualities that started off as subtle quirks get taken to their absolute max, to the point where they no longer seem funny. Consider how The Simpsons ramped up Ralph’s stupidity to the point where he no longer seemed human, or how Stewie Griffin’s homosexuality went from an inside joke to his primary character trait. Sunny could never make the mistake of making Dennis too evil, or Frank and Charlie too insane, because that’s how they were from the beginning, and the show was well aware that making them any worse would be overkill.
There’s also the fact that while the show has run for 11 seasons, it’s also aired just 125 episodes, well below what a sitcom working on the traditional 22-episode schedule would have made by this point. Sitcoms can last longer and have higher peaks when they aren’t asked to produce at super-demanding rates. Perhaps if Sunny were forced to churn out double the episodes they are currently producing, they’d get lazy; the humor wouldn’t be as inspired, and they’d even resort to actual plot-recycling instead of clever meta-episodes about plot-recycling. Many current shows have benefited from production schedules that allow the creators to work at their own pace, and Sunny is a quintessential example of that.
All of these reasons have played some role in Sunny’s stunning longevity, but whatever you chalk it up to it’s one the most reliable comedies on television, and as last Wednesday’s daring premiere “The Gang Turns Black” illustrated, it has no interest in resting on its laurels. Maybe at some point, we’ll reach a moment where The Gang finally does lose their edge, but based on what the last few seasons have shown, that time doesn’t seem to be approaching anytime soon.