For 12 seasons and darn near 15 years(!), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has operated under an absurd cartoon logic, like Seinfeld‘s “no hugging, no learning” rule on black tar heroin. The Gang—Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Charlie (Charlie Day), Mac (Rob Mcelhenney), and Frank (Danny Devito)—are uniformly terrible human beings for a variety of reasons, and no level of personal or public destruction they can drunkenly dream up will ever have any longtime repercussions. The world outside of Paddy’s Pub is basically an abstract dream—where ski slopes are the 80s forever, and the Jersey Shore is one long, rum ham-fueled montage of debauchery and murder—and returning to South Philly for another round of beers is the same thing as waking up fresh.
But the times, as Bob once warbled, they are a-changin’. The Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl champions, the Oscars are a popularity contest, and Donald Trump—probably the first president since Nixon who would fit right in with The Gang—is sitting in the Oval Office. In its thirteenth season, Always Sunny is changing, too. The show has never shied away from The Issues—from Season 1’s “Charlie Wants an Abortion” to last season’s “The Gang Turns Black”—but it’s never felt this specific. This modern. Season 13 finally feels like there’s an actual world happening outside Paddy’s Pub, and—like several other terrible people in 2018—that world has something to say about The Gang.
To be clear, this is a change for the better. Any show that’s been on as long as Always Sunny has to eventually look at a way to keep things new while still holding tight to the core aesthetic that’s kept it on that long in the first place. It’s a genuine miracle that, in its thirteenth season, Always Sunny manages to feel like a new thing. The season premiere, “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again”—the best of the four episodes made available for review—is probably the finest example of this. With Dennis’ temporary departure to South Dakota, the show introduces new Gang member Cindy (Mindy Kaling), whose complex, multi-step scheme to close a rival bar—the plan includes “spread fake news”, “incite liberal outrage”, and marketing a drink named Conservative Whine—might stand a genuine chance of working if it weren’t for the presence of a Dennis-shaped sex doll that Mac definitely is not banging nightly. It’s a fantastically deranged half-hour of Always Sunny that also highlights the show’s new and improved worldview. By the time the actual Dennis returns—which Glenn Howerton already confirmed would happen, despite FXX playing coy—the Gang’s stubborn return to the status quo in the face of a literal political divide happening around them feels like a commentary in and of itself.
To be clear, though, this is still Always Sunny. The show might have points to make, but it’s still gloriously fucked up in all the right places. The premiere ends with, in the show’s own words, “the most insane, disgusting orgy that has ever taken place.” Dannah Phirman & Danielle Schneider‘s script for “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot”, an amazing retread of a classic Season 10 episode, has some clever things to say about Hollywood’s touch-and-go “support” for inclusion, but it also ends with multiple people shitting their pants on an airplane. (“A maximum gross-out,” says Artemis Pebdani‘s always-welcome Artemis. “Nobody saw that coming from women.”) This season’s take on the #MeToo movement, director Kat Coiro‘s “Time’s Up For The Gang”, works so well because of these character’s ability to drive even the purest of intentions into the ground for selfish reasons. (Kaitlin Olson striding into a sexual harassment seminar with a rapid-fire, celebratory “TimesUpTimesUpTimesUp” chant is, in that Sunny way, perfect.)
And that, really, has been Always Sunny‘s magic since the beginning. The Gang is the perfect stand-in for any issue the writers want because their toxicity is both the joke and the punchline. These characters exist, even after 13 seasons, to both demonstrate that these awful opinions do exist and that they are fucked on multiple levels. The cast’s shout-over chemistry remains as pitch-perfect as ever. Glenn Howerton still delivers the best psychopath speech on TV. But season 13 of Always Sunny is so, so welcome because these toxic, awful people are living in times as toxic and awful as they are.
Plus, Mac is goddamn jacked now. I have to mention this. Rob Mcelhenney’s zero-body-fat transformation isn’t quite as consistently funny as his turn as Fat Mac, but it is objectively more impressive. Scientists should study that man’s genes in a laboratory for years to come. But even then, Mac’s insistence on shoving his newly toned abs into situations that don’t really call for them seems like a sign of the times. “Then why did I do all this working out?” Mac asks in the second episode, “The Gang Escapes,” after the dozenth attempt to use his biceps in a scheme that does not require them.
“Nobody knows!” Charlie answers, which might as well be the motto of 2018.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 13 debuts on FXX on Wednesday, September 5.