Any TV show — particularly a comedy — fortunate enough to hit its eleventh season has a fine line to walk between consistency and innovation. On the one hand, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been successful for this many seasons because it has never strayed from its core concept: five degenerates hang around a bar, come up with insane schemes, and yell at each other a lot. But as it has continued on, some of the show’s best episodes have been when it breaks its formula or subverts it, like in Season 9’s “Flowers for Charlie,” or “The Gang Broke Dee.”
Season 9 now feels like the apex of the series, when the show reinvigorated itself with some of its smartest, funniest episodes yet. It required a deep familiarity with the characters, but it presented its stories in new ways. It still felt like Sunny, but there was a new electricity crackling through it. Season 10 didn’t quite match that fervor, though, and Season 11 seems to be much the same. The opening five episodes of the new season mostly follow a predictable path, where the gang involve themselves in a scheme, it falters, and it turns out that Frank (Danny DeVito) has really been in control all along. Until, of course, he isn’t. The end — let’s head to the bar. Did anybody bring cat food?
Still, Season 11 has also honed in on some of the elements that make the show great, like Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Dennis (Glenn Howerton) working as a team rather than being at odds, Charlie (Charlie Day) and Frank’s weird rituals being a constant presence, but never the focus, and Mac’s (Rob McElhenney) masculinity constantly being challenged (Mac also, oddly, becomes somewhat of a voice of reasons this season).
There are other aspects, though, that just feel like pale shadows of old episodes. “The Gang Hits the Slopes” is a play on raunchy 80s party films, but it’s not nearly as clever or subversive as the gang making a home video of “Lethal Weapon 5” in Season 6’s “Dee Reynolds: Shaping American’s Youth.” In another example, though the Season 11 opener, “Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo” has its moments (including an outsider from Mattel looking into making this a real game), but it doesn’t land as well as the Season 7 original “Chardee MacDennis” episode did. “Electric Boogaloo” should be bigger, bolder, and stranger, but instead it just feels a little stale.
It’s only in the fourth and fifth episodes (out of ten) that the season feels like it’s starting to hit its stride. Though “Dee Made a Smut Film” is reminiscent of the arguments made in Season 9’s “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award“ by debating what art is (and commenting over and over and “Cinemax does not make art”), the episode is funny and smart, and it highlights the difference between parody and satire. While It’s Always Sunny can do both very well (sometimes at the same time), it really excels in the latter.
That has maybe never been more true than with “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs,” the best of the opening episodes available for review. It not only finds a new way to align the characters (Mac and Dennis rarely share so many scenes with just each other), but also allows them to — for this episode, at least — transform into something different, weird, and a great subversion of their regular roles on the show. It’s a meta commentary on all of the things that the gang cherishes, without addressing those things explicitly. Instead, Dennis and Mac go from suburban bliss to a chaotic hellscape in a mundanely brilliant way that’s both funny and perceptive.
For die-hard Sunny fans, the show’s tried and true formula will remain appealing regardless. But the show is also fighting against more great television than ever before (even on its own network, like with the excellent Man Seeking Woman), and sometimes that requires adaptation for survival. Then again, Sunny has always been determined to prove that in its world, people and circumstances don’t change. So Paddy’s Pub remains open for another season (and another one after this), where the beer is poured, the chalk is eaten, and Dennis explains why a head in a freezer means love. The charming, vulgar cacophony carries on. But for some, it may just be quieter and less urgent than it used to be.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia returns to FXX January 6th.