Despite the Television Academy having a blind spot for it as wide as the Rocky steps, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is one of the most unique things on TV. Debuting all the way back in 2005 and trucking along for 14 seasons now—tied for all-time with The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, an extremely different sitcom—Always Sunny has essentially seen its core cast grow as performers, writers, and directors while doing their darndest to ensure The Gang barely grows at all. The first four episodes of season 14 are as dementedly clever as ever, but there’s also an interesting, uh, implication throughout that feels like Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Rob Mcelhenney, and Charlie Day playfully reckoning with what it means to play scumbags who aren’t even close to 20 anymore. (Plus Danny DeVito‘s Frank Reynolds quite literally wrestling with death.) The result is funny, fascinating, and just the latest sign that even as The Gang gets older, Always Sunny could conceivably go on forever.
There’s nothing as radical here as Mac’s season 13 finale dance that broke the show’s usual all-cynicism-all-the-time rule to produce one of the most beautiful TV moments of all time. But there are quick hints that the Gang is just tired; of schemes, of Paddy’s, of being themselves all the time. There’s a great exchange in episode 4, “The Gang Chokes,” where Charlie chides Dennis for wanting to go to bed by midnight. “What’re you, in your 40s?” he asks.
“Yeah. As are you,” Dennis responds. In the same episode, Dee discovers she can only feel a rush anymore by bringing herself to the brink of death, basically becoming Bill Hader‘s character in Popstar but in a much more overtly racist way.
Or there’s the scene in episode 3, “Dee Day”, when Dee forces Dennis to remove the layers of makeup and hair product he wears daily and reveals he’s kind’ve a sweaty ghoul under it all. (Charlie: “That’s what his soul looks like.”) Howerton, who does probably the best psychotic freakout in the game, does a must-see job here of playing a man completely zapped of his Golden God energy.
Overall, everyone just seems fascinated by what Always Sunny has become after 14 seasons as one of the funniest, least-appreciated sitcoms on television. The premiere, “The Gang Gets Romantic”, which marks Howerton’s directorial debut, plays on the surface like your classic Always Sunny scheme. The two pairs of roommates—Mac and Dennis, Frank and Charlie—put their apartments up on Airbnb. Mac and Dennis want to construct a rom-com style “meet-cute” for Dennis, while Charlie and Frank are mostly interested in luring naive European co-eds into their one-bed deal. But there are also moments that are meta as hell that read like Dennis questioning such a familiar set-up in a season 14 premiere. “It just feels desperate. I never put this much effort into banging cute meat,” he says.
“This is all just part of act one banter, and we are right on schedule,” Mac responds. Of course, Mac’s plan to turn an Always Sunny plot into a rom-com ends on a hilariously cruel note that only this show could pull off, but even then the script by McElhenney and Day points out the show’s odd place in the sitcom pantheon. “Oh, that’s not romantic. Or comedic. You think they’re gonna give us a bad review?” Mac asks.
The best of the first four episodes is episode 2, “Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool”, written by Conor Galvin and directed by Heath Cullens. It’s a mostly single-room talk-fest like season 12’s masterful “Hero or Hate Crime” that works on a similarly brilliant level. The Gang gets to test screen the latest film in the Thunder Gun franchise—with Dolph Lundgren making an appearance as John Thundergun himself—but are enraged to find the movie is PG-13, overly emotional, and, worst of all, doesn’t feature John Thundergun’s trademark dong shot.
The beauty of this episode is that it dives so hard into the idea of “liberal PC bullshit” ruining the movies you loved as a kid that, for a lot of its runtime, you start to think the Always Sunny crew finally agrees with the Gang’s opinion. But that’s not the formula that’s kept this show afloat for 14 years. After a desperate Frank asks how they can “save” movies from cancel culture, the moderator in charge of the screen test points out that you have to do more than complain. “Maybe if you actually go out to the theaters and pay to see them the studio will continue to make them,” she tells the Gang, who have been watching the Thunder Gun franchise on either “moviepirate.com” or “stolenmovies.free.”
That’s really a perfect encapsulation of what’s kept Always Sunny so fresh for 14 seasons. No other show has toed the line so well between displaying asshole-ishness and supporting it. Long may these wonderful, terrible human beings reign.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 14 premieres on FXX on Wednesday, September 25.