The American Dream as Nihilism: Why ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Never Gets Old

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As befitting a comedy staple that’s been on air for a decade, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an easy show to take for granted, or to reduce to not quite “must see TV” because it plays better in reruns. Part of this is due to its well-trod consistency: every episode follows a similar formula for the demented, self-centered assholes who make up “the gang,” where they get into one scrape or another, jokes upon jokes are made, and then the credits roll. It is not a show with morals or anything close to a one true pairing, which is part of the reason it can just be a show, super funny and pleasurable in half-hour bites.

Yet you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth (or, in the case of Sweet Dee Reynolds, a gift bird in the beak): It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is really, really funny. Much of the time, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Out of the core five cast members, there are two hugely gifted comedians in Charlie Day and Kaitlin Olson, playing beautiful American idiot Charlie Kelly and aspiring actress Sweet Dee respectively. Both Day and Olson can put just the right spin on even a mundane line and make it sing (or screech). While Day has graduated to third banana friend roles in mainstream comedies that feature Jason Bateman sighing, the rest of the Always Sunny gang — Olson, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, and even Danny DeVito, to a degree — hasn’t been doing much outside the show beyond guest spots. It’s entertainment’s loss.

The show’s conceits remain the same from week to week: the gang scheme in pursuit of some ridiculous goal, and there’s a sweet optimism to their delusions. This is the week they make money, this is the week they get the girl, or find love, or go on a road trip, and so on. Whatever the case, the venture falls apart, so every episode is set back at zero. They’re are as consistent in their confidence that their expectations will become reality as the person who votes against their social interests because they’re not rich yet.

It’s the American Dream as nihilism; the audacity of permanent hope, getting up and thinking that this is the day that everything changes, only to have it blasted apart again. It is the most American fantasy of all. Plenty of Sunny episodes have this rhythm, with one of the best being Season 9’s opener, “The Gang Broke Dee” — about the rise and fall of Dee, naughty lady comedian — as a brilliant spotlight for Olson and a statement of purpose about the show, where a dream can come true, until it doesn’t. (It does all this while also parodying silly trends in stand up comedy.)

The show has its faults: a tendency towards bro-ishness, a certain limitation of views that can come off smug. On average, I can’t watch too many episodes in a row, unless I am in the right, dead-of-winter binge-watch mood, and then it is the greatest show of all time. Which is to say that now, in the 2015 of our east coast discontent, is a very good time to be watching Sunny.

“Family Fight,” the eighth episode of a very good tenth season of the show is sharp Sunny, and a highlight for Glenn Howerton’s Dennis Reynolds. A whole episode set at a fake version of the classic game show Family Feud, the tension comes from Dennis’ genuine wish to not be weird on national television — he wore an argyle sweater vest for the occasion — and the crippling inevitability and that despite his best efforts, the gang will always be strange. Meta-strange, of course, as in some of the best episodes (“The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award” and even this season’s incredible episode “Charlie Work”). With Keegan-Michael Key guest-starring as the genial, bloviating host who’s trying not to go full anger translator on the loons, the episode hits every beat with vigor. Sweet Dee’s answer to “an animal we eat that doesn’t eat us” had her replying, obsequiously, “Hey Grant, I tell you what, I like to eat cock.” She’s talking about chicken, naturally, but Olson’s straight delivery makes the joke sing.

The game proceeds to fall apart from there. Charlie finds out that he has a gift for getting the one weirdo answer — dragons, the Nightman — while Dennis is falling apart, literally. Dennis is the creepiest character on the show; a playboy operator, maybe a serial killer, definitely prone to rage blackouts, but Howerton (who, fun fact: went to Julliard) is amazing at revealing a crazy person inside a guy that puts on a human suit every day. The beauty of his delusions make the character endearing, even when he’s horrible.

Sunny is about horrible people, but they’re innocents, in a way. Or at the least, they remain innocents in a mean world, as they know not what they do. Their decisions are coming from this permanent outsider perspective, this idea that all you have to do is try and you will get your slice of the American pie; where the world (and your friends) can be crueler than you expect or, sometimes, deserve. But despite the “horrible people” aspect, I still root for the gang — Charlie in particular, since he’s always the low man on the totem pole, sometimes smarter than he lets on, permanently pining for The Waitress and possessing the world’s funniest hoarse sqawk of a voice — you almost want a world where they achieve their dreams someday.

The gang’s dreams are always a big brass ring, just out of reach, but as they all try to reach upward, at least they end up with something like brotherhood and camaraderie with each other. Even if they’re all united by their venal desires. It’s a dark twist on the American dream, and some days, it feels like a very apt reflection of the way we live now.