Sitcoms creatively peak sometime in their second or third year, and even the best ones would probably be best off ending after five or six seasons at the most. If this isn’t an immutable law, it’s at least common sense based on decades of history to back it up.
But the Gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has never had much use for laws, common sense, facts or anything in that vein. Which might help explain why it’s still capable of being one of TV’s best and most vital sitcoms at the end of its THIRTEENTH season, one of the longest runs ever(*).
(*) The record holder for live-action sitcoms remains The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, made in a very different TV economy that saw the show making as many as 39, and no fewer than 25, episodes per season. The most Always Sunny ever made in a year was 15, and most of its seasons have featured 10 episodes or fewer. It’s easier to keep the quality high when your output is relatively low.
(Spoilers follow.) Season 13 seemed like it would be an unusual one even by Sunny standards. The previous year ended with Dennis leaving town, and Glenn Howerton — who had moved on to NBC’s A.P. Bio — publicly said he wasn’t sure when or if he’d have time to return to the show he’d starred in and written for since the beginning. The season began with a typically self-aware episode about unpopular sitcom replacement characters, with Mindy Kaling guest-starring as new Gang member Cindy, while Mac (Sunny creator Rob McElhenney) had not only gotten swole during the hiatus (a sequel to the year he got fat because McElhenney thought it would be funny), but purchased a disturbingly lifelike Dennis sex doll to hang around the bar. Just when it seemed we’d be in for a year of the doll and a rotating group of guest stars filling the Dennis-shaped hole in the series, the man himself returned at the end, and Howerton wound up being in the bulk of the episodes this year.
What followed wasn’t a perfect season. Even at its peak, Sunny produced at least one or two duds a year, an inevitable byproduct of trying to look at so many hot-button issues through the eyes of five dumb sociopaths. But it was more consistently funny than any show in its 13th year has any business being. And a few installments — like “Time’s Up for the Gang,” where the team from Paddy’s has to attend an anti-harassment seminar, or “The Gang Solves the Bathroom Problem,” where a trip to a Jimmy Buffett concert is delayed as the Gang tries to sort out who can use which of the bar’s bathrooms depending on gender and sexual identification — were as sharp as the series has ever been.
One of the stumbling blocks long-running sitcoms can’t usually overcome is aging. What’s amusing about someone in their late twenties can feel sad by the time they’ve reached their mid-thirties. Sunny has wisely leaned right into this, making the Gang’s aging process a part of the text. The show knows that Mac, Dennis, Charlie (Charlie Day) and Dee (Katilin Olson) are much lamer and creepier now than when the show started, and builds jokes and stories around how their rotten behavior has calcified over the years. There are periodic sequels to old episodes, like Dee attempting to do an all-female remake of Season 10’s “The Gang Beats Boggs” (which itself turned into a commentary on the female reboot trend).
Occasionally, the series lets itself get just a bit introspective, even dramatic, about who and what these four have become. (Though it smartly doesn’t tend to bother with Danny DeVito’s walking grotesquerie, Frank.) Dennis’ decision to leave Philadelphia at the end of last season came as a result of him realizing that he can’t just keep doing the same dumb, self-destructive things for the rest of his life. And earlier in that year, Mac finally admitted he was gay, a fact that had been clear to his friends and the audience for years.
Mac’s decision to come out of the closet was at the heart of last night’s remarkable season finale, “Mac Finds His Pride,” written by McElhenney and Day, and directed by Todd Biermann. Frank needs Mac to dance in Paddy’s Gay Pride Parade float, as part of an attempt to trick gay customers into coming to the bar. Mac, though, still hasn’t figured out where he fits in the gay community, and excursions to an S&M club and a drag brunch don’t make him feel any more comfortable with his new identity. Frank encourages Mac to come out to his inmate father, and discovers that Mac has been workshopping an interpretive dance number to explain his feelings, which Frank arranges for him to perform at the prison (with ballerina Kylie Shea as his partner):
As a narrative, the dance routine (which non-dancer McElhenney trained for months to learn) makes no sense, which the episode lets Frank point out. But it’s one of those moments where logic doesn’t really matter. Set to a haunting Sigur Rós song, the choreography and direction — particularly the way that McElhenney and Shea slide effortlessly along the rain-streaked floor — are so beautiful, and the emotion on the faces of Mac, Frank and most of the prisoners (but not Mr. McDonald, who bitterly storms out midway through the routine) so palpable, that Mac and the episode get across the basic ideas about pain and confusion, light and dark, secrecy and release. It’s incredible, and not the sort of thing you’d expect this show to try(*), even though it completely works even in this ridiculous milieu.
But that’s the other beautiful thing about sticking around this long. After all this time, McElhenney and company have license to take big swings like this, because they’ve already done everything expected with these characters, often twice over. I wouldn’t have expected a Sunny season to end in such a poignant way, but I’m not surprised in the least that they made it work.
What did everybody else think?