essential episodes

17 Essential Episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Photo: FX

There are a lot of strange shows on TV, but truly nothing compares to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A largely plotless, filthy-mouthed sitcom about five goblinlike bartenders played by a cast of initially unknown actors (and Danny DeVito) that has been on the air nearly as long as Grey’s Anatomy? Simply put, it shouldn’t exist. Yet it does, and for that, we are grateful because Sunny also happens to be an absolute gem — funnier, smarter, and more consistently surprising than nearly all its comedic peers.

About that last part: Fifteen seasons in (the newest episodes arrive on FXX December 1 after a two-year, pandemic-caused break), Sunny is still just as capable of shocking its audience as it was way back in season one when, as early fans will remember, the gang did everything from protest abortion clinics to date high-schoolers (they were 18!). The show’s writers know how to deliver one jaw-dropping “Did they really do that?” moment after another while maintaining an easy, meandering pace that lets viewers feel as contentedly lazy as Dennis behind the bar.

That’s not to say that every one of Sunny’s 154-plus episodes has worked; longtime viewers know that more than a few installments have backfired badly thanks to cringeworthy gags or ill-conceived attempts at social commentary. To love Sunny, however, is to accept its occasional flaws, knowing there will be a trip to the Jersey Shore or a rendition of “The Nightman Cometh” waiting around the corner.

For those who want to revisit Sunny’s most memorable moments (or witness them for the first time, which, if that’s the case, congrats and buckle up), we’ve rounded up the most essential episodes of the “Little Show That Could” ahead of its record-breaking 15th season.

“Charlie Gets Crippled” (Season 2, Episode 1)

Look, the first season of Sunny isn’t the best. Although the seven episodes certainly have their moments, they’re by and large too cringy and unnecessarily harsh to be funny. The real beginning of Sunny as fans know it doesn’t come until the start of Season 2, when Frank (DeVito) arrives on the scene in a burst of blackmailing, foul-mouthed chaos, turning the gang into its now-iconic quintet. Even without Frank’s introduction, though, the episode’s pretty good with Charlie (Charlie Day) using his “disability” (Dennis ran him over with his car) to get perks at the mall, and Tiffany Haddish (!) making an early blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a dancer.

“Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” (Season 2, Episode 3)

One of Sunny’s greatest strengths is its yearslong running jokes; they pop up just often enough to score some big laughs but never so frequently they start to feel stale. See: Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee’s (Kaitlin Olson) temporary crack addiction, which begins and ends during this season two episode yet comes back to haunt the siblings for seasons to come. Sure, it ruined their lives, but only for a few days, so what’s the big deal?

“Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person” (Season 3, Episode 9)

Yes, the title is dated, to say the least, but if you can forgive that, the episode is a high point of early Sunny. Dee refusing to admit that her boyfriend is mentally disabled is amusing due to her increasingly inane attempts to prove otherwise, but what makes this installment memorable is Charlie’s creation of “The Nightman,” a song about a nocturnal creature who does not molest him, thank you very much, and who’d return in the following season for one of Sunny’s all-time great episodes.

“The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis” (Season 4, Episode 2)

The plot of “The Gas Crisis” — Mac, Dennis, and Charlie attempt to sell gasoline while a bitter Dee and Frank try to convince the world her biological father is a terrorist simply because he donated her inheritance money — is solid, but a Rolling Stone ranking of the show’s strongest episodes summed up best why the episode is essential Sunny: “It defines the gang’s archetypes whenever they embark on another A-Team/Ghostbusters/Ocean’s 11-style mission. Mac (Rob McElhenney) is the brains (which is terrifying in and of itself); Frank is the muscle; Dennis is the good-looking one; Dee is ‘the useless chick.’ And Charlie? He’s the wild card, bitches!”

“Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack” (Season 4, Episode 10)

Dee and Dennis attempting to be healthier after she suffers a heart attack is highly entertaining, as is the brief homage to DeVito’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it’s Charlie’s conspiracy-addled meltdown that makes this episode a must-see. It’s pure bizarre, unhinged Sunny, and it just so happened to inspire a fantastic meme used by fans and nonfans for years to come.

“The Nightman Cometh” (Season 4, Episode 13)

“The Nightman Cometh” isn’t Sunny’s only musical episode, but it’s the one the show will be remembered for, and for good reason. The songs, the sets, Dennis’s Dayman codpiece — it’s all hilariously wrong yet so undeniably perfect that the cast even took it on a brief cross-country tour.

“The Gang Hits the Road” (Season 5, Episode 2)

Sunny’s characters cause so much damage in the show’s titular city that the rare episode set anywhere outside of the greater Philadelphia area stands out — even if, like in this installment, they barely leave the car. But “The Gang Hits the Road” is the first time Charlie leaves Philadelphia, marking a big development for the character and providing countless jokes both in this episode and later on in the series.

“The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” (Season 5, Episode 10)

Of all of Sunny’s leads, Dennis is the hardest to love. At best, he’s a narcissistic cad; at worst, he’s a sexual predator who truly believes he’s God’s gift to women. No episode showcases this discomfiting complexity better than “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System,” in which viewers learn the extensive process behind his manipulative “seductions.” It’s painful to watch but a key window into his character.

“Mac’s Big Break” (Season 6, Episode 4)

Part of Sunny’s enduring appeal is its use of its supporting cast, a collection of wonderfully original, incredibly weird characters with inner lives often complicated enough to warrant their own spinoffs. In “Mac’s Big Break,” several of the show’s most beloved secondary figures (Rickety Cricket, Ben the Soldier, the Waitress) get moments to shine with their appearances serving as a welcome reminder of Sunny’s truly impressive world-building.

“The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore” (Season 7, Episode 2)

One of Sunny’s finest episodes takes place at the Jersey Shore, which the gang visits in an ill-thought-out plan by Dee and Dennis to relive their childhood memories. Does that happen? Absolutely not. What does happen, though, involves PCP, puke, and “rum ham” — a disgusting Sunny creation that’s become one of the show’s longest-lasting jokes.

“Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games” (Season 7, Episode 7)

Frank in a dog cage. Dennis throwing beer. Mac and Charlie’s game pieces being smashed to ruins by the game’s crazed, vindictive winners. “Chardee MacDennis” is one of Sunny’s funniest episodes ever and perhaps the strongest example of just how much fun the gang — and viewers — can have when they don’t feel like leaving the bar.

“The Gang Gets Analyzed” (Season 8, Episode 5)

What makes this excellent episode even more remarkable is that it took this long for Sunny to put its clearly deluded characters in therapy. It’s not that learning just how screwed up Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie, and Frank really are is any surprise, but seeing each of them let it all out (and we mean it all) in front of the poor, poor therapist gives us more insight than ever into these ridiculous human beings.

“The Gang Dines Out” (Season 8, Episode 9)

As entertaining as the gang’s constant cruelty toward each member can be, the rare times in which they actually seem to enjoy one another’s company are often even better. And no episode captures that dynamic as well as “The Gang Dines Out,” in which Mac and Dennis, Charlie and Frank, and a solo-dining Dee all separately go to Guigino’s and engage in increasingly disorderly competition only to eventually join forces at the expense of someone else. As Larry Fitzmaurice said when he ranked this episode Sunny’s all-time best, “these five dysfunctional, depraved, and utterly co-dependent miscreants not only deserve each other — they’re meant to be, whether it’s eating at the same table or laughing at the same cruel, harmful joke. It’s the most heartwarming episode in a show that has spent 12 seasons kicking and screaming at the mere notion of ‘heartwarming’ as well as a testament to the true nature of friendship.”

“The Gang Misses the Boat” (Season 10, Episode 6)

Just as rife with potential as episodes bringing the gang all together for one mission are those in which the members spread out for totally different purposes. In this fantastic half-hour, Mac goes on a misguided dating quest, Frank joins a different gang, Dennis deals with his anger issues, and Charlie and Dee do everything from explore “def poetry” to (maybe? probably? definitely?) sleep together. “The Gang Misses the Boat” is proof that the show’s five leads are just as fun to watch on their own as together.

“Mac & Dennis Move to the Suburbs” (Season 11, Episode 5)

Some of Sunny’s smartest plots put the gang deeply outside of their comfort zones, and, well, Mac and Dennis trying to make it in suburbia certainly fits the bill. The comedic rapport between McElhenney and Howerton as their characters slowly drive each other mad is a pleasure to watch, but it’s the tiny things — the chirping smoke detector, the Applebee’s photos, the dozens of trash bags piled around the house because presumably neither man understands how garbage pickup works — that make this episode so memorable.

“Time’s Up for the Gang” (Season 13, Episode 4)

As mentioned, Sunny’s tackling of timely social commentary often leaves much to be desired, but the show’s 2018 take on the #MeToo movement actually works. After Paddy’s is placed on a list of the worst bars for women, the gang attends an anti-sexual-harassment seminar, and while it doesn’t exactly go swimmingly, each member does have an eye-opening realization about their own less-than-ideal behavior. Does it change much? No, but hey, it’s still progress.

“Mac Finds His Pride” (Season 13, Episode 10)

Mac’s denial of his clear-to-everyone-else sexual orientation is a running gag through all of Sunny, but in the season-13 finale, things take a serious turn when he comes out to his father via an elaborate and emotional choreographed dance. It’s a stunning, unforgettable scene, and despite the jarring change in tone from the rest of the episode, it’s by and large one of Sunny’s most notable achievements to date.

17 Essential Episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia