It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is perhaps one of the greatest cult classic TV shows in recent history. Rob McElhenney, the show’s creator, combines the lovable absurdity of the show’s main characters with subtle but cutting social commentary. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that no TV show has ever so faithfully, and so palatably, depicted the life of the American working class in the 21st century.
Amid the insanity of Always Sunny’s constantly compounding sub-plots, there are moments that break the aughts sitcom formula without ever interrupting the pace and feel of the show. There was a magazine from Occupy Wall Street, Tidal, which once said “We don’t know how the world is really supposed to feel, all we know is that we have this spiritual nausea that we haven’t been able to speak about with anyone.” The comedic manifestation of this deep confusion about your own place in society is constantly present in Sunny.
In the episode, “The Gang Reignites the Rivalry,” Dennis has to confront the fact that this perceived status as a “legend” of his college fraternity has faded away. After all, by that point, the gang is in their 30s. But this hagiography of their own younger years is a near-constant theme in the show. Now of course this is partially known because almost every character is a horrific, egomaniacal narcissist, but it’s also because they’re (to put it simply) losers.
They’re in their 30s, they have no friends outside of their own small group, and they work at a bar that would have failed if not for the money provided by Danny Devito’s character, Frank Reynolds. Frank serves to highlight the generational divides between characters, both in social attitudes and economic status. Frank’s incredibly complicated backstory includes running a jazz club, trafficking cocaine, and owning Vietnamese sweatshops, but the most important part of this backstory is that he started as a waiter. He’s an exaggerated version of an archetypal baby boomer, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and providing his family with an idyllic suburban existence.
The thing about Frank and his children’s disagreements that always resonated with me, as I’m sure they did with many others my age, was that he could never understand that things weren’t as easy for his children. He’s confused by the fact that they’re not also wealthy and successful, despite the fact that he never worked any harder than them. Every other character has a past that also highlights some specific manifestation of Post-2000 American life. Charlie never knew who his dad was, Mac struggles with his religious upbringing, Dee hates her body because of her overbearing mother.
The thing that makes this show so great is that these are nothing but comedic asides, you never have to face them straight on. It’s like glancing blows of reality that eventually come together and form a whole, allowing you to chase reality with the absurdity. It’s hard to face this hopeless and rudderless existentialism that’s plagued most of us at some point.
I have friends who will die one day with their college debt intact. There’s no easy way to face these things, but it’s inherently absurd, and there’s a hilarity in absurdity. Here we sit, in the most powerful nation in history, ruled by the richest people to have ever walked the earth, and people sleep on the streets. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia harnesses the ridiculousness of modern dead-end life so we can bask in it rather than hiding from it. By amplifying these real problems to a point beyond reality they become comfortable, and that is exactly how this show ensures that it is the most insightful American comedy of the century.