A misanthropic slacker’s paradise with generous dollops of Get a Life-grade dada (the characters have self-destructed in every imaginable fashion short of death, only to reboot the following week), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia continues to hit its tsk-tsk-inducing stride as a fictionalized Mondo scrapbook of American controversy. The three protagonists (portrayed by actor/writer/producer/creators Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day), and their perpetually marginalized female cohort, Dee (Kaitlin Olson), are neighborhood friends and co-owners of the sickly copper-green dive bar Paddy’s Pub; we look on with cringe-ready smiles as they stumble ass-backward into issues like homelessness, gun control, cocaine abuse, and child molestation.
Throughout, their hyper-realistically insensitive behavior plays more like a vague comment on the solipsism of today’s online-oriented young adults than a hot-button take on any social ill represented; significantly, the denizens of Paddy’s Pub are rarely seen on computers, though their human intranet of toxic relationships is similarly cloaked from real-world responsibility while facilitating a false sense of self-sufficiency. But as with the acidic portrait of a narrow friendship microcosm in Seinfeld, McElhenney, Howerton, and Day keep their lessons arbitrary and their humor mean-spirited. As the show ages, what makes us laugh most consistently is how precisely the level of festering malice within the group is depicted atop the jovial German string soundtrack.
After the first season, Danny DeVito’s grubby, prurient addition as Frank, the rich and bored father of Dennis (Howerton) and Dee, provided a much-needed ballast; his physical, if not emotional, maturity seemed to suggest an inheritance of egocentric cruelty. But the show began to slacken soon after; like so many shock humorists before them, the gang (as they’re innocuously named in the episode titles) started their pranks and schemes at a feverish high too intense to expand on. The show recovered in its fourth year, however, after re-centering on the irrelevant obsessions that exist within the nuclear cast; an episode that unraveled the mysterious appearance of fecal matter in Frank’s bed now seems a metaphor for the show’s sharpness when fixating on the gang’s isolated regurgitation of social putrescence. The now cult-iconic musical season finale “The Nightman Cometh” also put the running gag of Charlie’s (Day) muddled, stalkerish affection for a local waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) in self-absorbedly ramshackle terms. And crisscrossing emotions in season five toward the waitress’s engagement formed possibly the most satisfying plot arc the show had ever achieved, particularly when the diversion of the D.E.N.N.I.S. system, a method of seducing and discarding women, didactically exposed the gang’s nihilist, Human Centipede-like hierarchy.
The chuckles in season six are thus far thinner and more conservatively distributed compared to last season, but they haven’t lost their numbing, hateful focus. Aside from a tangential take on gay marriage that devolves into a matrimonial free-for-all full of regrets and dead teeth, the episodes wisely examine the gang as an awkwardly functional community—and, surrealistically, it’s a dynamic of alienation and destruction rather than fraternity that ensures this collective’s longevity. (We get the sense that if any member of the Paddy’s Pub crew ever went “straight,” the comic house of cards would collapse; the beauty of the grostquerie is such because there are no foils, and everyone on screen aside from occasional bystanders views the reckless activity as normal and healthy.)
As the big plans of “The Gang Buys a Boat” illustrate, the roles within the quintet are as stratified as ever, which promotes predictability (if I told you what becomes of their dilapidated vessel it would hardly be a spoiler). But it also allows for nuanced, pixilated characterizations that would bog high-concept sitcoms down. While Dennis and Mac continue their proverbial thumb war of alpha-male homoeroticism and Dee simply etches away at the gang’s chauvinism to establish a makeshift niche, Charlie and Frank spiral ever deeper into skewed goals with OCD, trash-humper fanaticism. The boat episode has a nearly Tati-esque gag that only works as an extension of these measured profiles (and, again, as a nod to the show’s cyclical psychology); while diving in the harbor, Charlie excitedly discovers a trove of worthless trinkets—all of which, we later learn, are the product of Dee’s overboard-flinging efforts to “tidy up” the cabin.
Dee’s reductive bitchiness and catty nature were problematic in earlier seasons, but she’s been steadily molded into a token of womanhood so singularly repugnant that we have to dismiss all suspicions of phallus-centricism. Still, the gang wins guffaws by the icy bucketful when dumping on Dee’s confidence and enforcing a misogyny that seems like decades-late satire (Family Guy’s uproarious rancor toward the homely Meg is a similar phenomenon). In “Who Got Dee Pregnant?,” she manages a half-revenge of sorts at an ill-fated costume party, but can’t match the rhetorical bizarreness of her bro companions; a joke about avian-related misperceptions of her outfit’s angel wings incrementally builds to a show-defining shouting match with a puppet emu in the men’s restroom. It’s a smile-cracking reminder that in the fortress of Paddy’s Pub, sex is a weapon, friendship is a carrot to be dishonestly dangled, and entities are practically defined by their potential for abuse. The subtleties of this seething environment can only be excavated for so long before exhaustion, but until then, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s cubist approach has a veritable monopoly on neo-neanderthal repulsion-as-comedy.