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The Best TV You're Not Watching: 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'

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Sep 15, 2011 | 9:10am EDT

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Kangaroo CourtIt's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the low-budget, low-concept, low-brow FX series about five lowlifes with low ambitions, low morals and low standards for living. As for the quality? Miles high. The series follows Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Frank (Danny DeVito), the co-owners of a Philadelphia Irish pub, in their misanthropic, unscrupulous and often felonious day-to-day lives. Episodes often touch upon (or tackle outright) sociopolitical issues, significant items in pop culture and, in one instance, American history. Although they do balance it out with an entire episode devoted to human excrement, so there you go.

Why You're Not Watching

It Looks Like it Costs $20 to Make an Episode

As a matter of fact, in some instances, it has. Fans of the show might be familiar with the story behind the first episode: when Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton shot a pilot for the show (back then titled It’s Always Sunny on TV), the only money spent for the shoot was the cost of the tapes. Every episode since has maintained the same aesthetic (it is probably more consistent, visually, than any other sitcom I can recall). Plus, the gang rarely traverses to any high-budget locations. They mainly stay in the bar, Charlie's squalid apartment, or the grungy streets of Philadelphia.

It Seems Like They’re All Playing the Same Character

Lewd, selfish, ignorant—yes. Everyone on It’s Always Sunny embodies (and embraces) each of these, and other less-than-admirable, characteristics. But just because they’re all bad, loudmouthed people doesn’t mean they’re not each unique. Dennis is a guiltless narcissist whose entire identity is tied up in his physical appearance. Mac is a brutish man-child perpetually trying to prove himself a “badass” (in a subconscious attempt to impress his estranged father). Dee is a painfully insecure, unhappy and bitter woman, who masks her pain by being vindictive and self-righteous. Frank is a deadbeat, Machiavellian sleaze-ball who is actively trying to descend into depravity and madness after a much-regretted life of marriage and financial success. And Charlie (oh Charlie…) is a mentally-ill, multi-phobic and constantly-livid moron who's obsessively attached to his lifestyle of squalor, debauchery and idiocy... and he's one hell of a scene-stealer.

It’s Just a Lot of Yelling, Cursing and Stupidity

There is, in your defense, a good deal of yelling, cursing, and (on the characters’ parts, not the show’s) stupidity. Those convinced that this is all there is to the show, however, have probably not watched more than a scene or two at a time. Just about every episode takes on some contemporary political issue or cultural phenomenon for the purposes of lampooning.

Charlie Eating CerealWhat You're Missing

Legitimately Poignant Sociopolitical Satire

Seriously. Granted, they’re not that subtle about it (episode titles include “Charlie Wants an Abortion,” “The Gang Solves the North Korea Situation,” “The Gang Goes Jihad” and the like), but It’s Always Sunny has taken on a slew of contemporary political issues with some interesting viewpoints, often highlighting the hypocrisy in both sides of an issue. "The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis" is possibly the best example of this, and one of the most iconic Sunny episodes thanks to its illustration of the "Brains, Looks, Wildcard" dynamic (I'm not explaining it further as provocation to get you to watch out of curiosity). The episode lampooned oil companies, the Middle East, the far left, the far right, then-President George W. Bush, and the average American, all the while working in the Ghostbusters theme during one of the best climactic scenes in sitcom history.

The Stars are the Creators, Writers and Producers

That may not sound like an inherent pro, but it is. The more involved the originators of a show’s idea are in its development/production, the better the show is. It stays truer to the form it was meant to take, but that doesn't mean it's not impervious to evolution; It’s Always Sunny’s characters have undoubtedly developed significantly since the first and second seasons. McElhenney, Day and Howerton write, direct and produce many of the episodes together, and the quality pervades: the episodes they create together are generally the strongest of the series.

Frequent Additions to the Public Lexicon

What pop culture essentials has It's Always Sunny spawned? Let's make a list... Kitten Mittens (...you'll be smitten)Who is Pepe Sylvia?Green Man (this is beyond just a verbal phenomenon; people do this now)WILD CARD!Do the words "Champion of the Sun" mean anything to you?

The Bottom Line

It's More than a Show: It'll Pervade Your Social Life

This is simply the most raucous and wily series on television. Watching It's Always Sunny is a group activity: not only will you laugh louder and longer, you'll also inevitably end up assigning character roles to yourself and your friends (it's guaranteed that everyone will want to be the "Wild Card," but until you throw yourself in front of a moving car to make a quick buck, you just don't have it in you). All in all, it's one of the most energetic, quotable and fun comedies on television today, and it deserves way more credit than it is often given. And if that's not enough for you, they've got some pretty catch songs, too.

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