In 2005, a group of actors wrote and shot a pilot for a show about a group of down-and-out actors bumming about in Hollywood. It was called “It’s Always Sunny on TV.” When it premiered on FX, the show had been changed; it was now “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and it followed a group of narcissistic friends — Dennis, Dee, Mac and Charlie — who own a bar in Philly. The humor was dark and often crude, and the show itself offbeat and weird, not to mention very low-budget.
Fast forward to 2018, and “Always Sunny” is about to enter its 13th season on Sept. 5. Somehow, this cynical comedy with very DIY origins has not only endured three presidencies but also become a pop culture phenomenon on the way. The show has experimented with musical episodes, animated scenes and plotlines taking place in different parts of the country. Acting veteran Danny DeVito has been part of the cast since Season 2 as Frank, the father of characters Dennis and Dee. The show has a cult following, and even spawned a live musical spinoff show.
Somehow, “Always Sunny” has so far avoided getting old or stale in 12 seasons. This may change, though. The new season, premiering in September, could be missing a main character — Dennis, played by Glenn Howerton. So far, the cast has given very confusing, mixed messages about how many episodes he’ll appear in, if any. Without Dennis, the group dynamic is unlikely to work as well — it’s definitely possible that this could be the point that the show inevitably declines.
With this in mind, here’s a list of the most fantastic, zany and hilariously horrible episodes of “Always Sunny” to re-watch while you wait for Season 13. Or, if it all goes downhill in September, consider these the ones to watch as a reminder of how good the show can be.
1. “Charlie Has Cancer”
This is a classic episode, not only because the plotline comes from the original pilot, but also because it encompasses the gang’s selfishness so well. In the beautifully awkward opening scene, Charlie (Charlie Day) reveals to Dennis that he might have cancer.
Dennis’ reaction is simply to try and leave as quickly as possible — he says he’s there if Charlie wants to talk, but when Charlie starts confiding, he interrupts, saying “Oh, you want to talk now?” The episode is low-key and low-budget, which allows for a complete focus on comedy and character.
2. “The DENNIS System”
Dennis is arguably the most entertaining character of “Always Sunny” because of how unhinged he is. Howerton, who is a Juilliard graduate and probably the best actor in the regular cast, plays Dennis as a perfect mix of sinister and ridiculous.
This episode shows just how awful a person Dennis is, revealing his twisted system for getting women, which ends with “separate entirely.” It’s funny to watch both Charlie and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) try to use the system themselves, but Dennis is at the heart of this episode. It’s just one demonstration of what a loss it would be if Howerton has really left the series.
3. “The Waitress is Getting Married”
The main plotline of this episode, revolving around Dee trying to break up the marriage of the waitress (a recurring character who Charlie is obsessed with), is great. But the funniest part of this episode is Charlie’s ridiculous dialogue, which has been understandably quoted and screencapped to death over the years.
At one point, he tries to tell a date he’s a philanthropist and instead says he’s a “full-on rapist,” and when he attempts to make a dating profile, he lists his interests as “milksteak”, “magnets” and “ghouls.” Some episodes of “Always Sunny” are smart and satirical. This … is not one of those episodes. But it’s funny as hell.
4. “The Nightman Cometh”
This episode deserves a mention because, apart from being original and creative, it spawned an actual live musical performed by the cast for an audience of fans. The episode introduced the Nightman, a character in a stage play written by Charlie and played by Mac (Rob Mcelhenney), who insists his character should have “the eyes of a cat” and perform karate across the stage.
The Nightman has become a bit of a pop culture icon and features on many, many an Etsy pin. The best bit of the episode, though, might be Frank’s part in Charlie’s play, as a gross, singing troll — surely a role Devito was born for.
5. “Hero or Hate Crime?”
“Always Sunny” has always tackled serious topics such as gun control, racism, abortion and suicide. But it never approaches them in a very serious way; rather, it makes moral points by having the characters themselves act like complete assholes and letting the viewer judge them.
This episode, though, actually treats a serious issue seriously … kind of. On the surface, it’s mostly about an argument the gang have over whether it’s ever okay to use an offensive slur. But the episode is really about self-acceptance, and features a genuinely moving scene, a rare thing for this show.
6. “Reynolds vs Reynolds: The Cereal Defense”
This is another episode that perfectly captures both the group dynamic of the cast and how the show functions to make smart points in dumb ways (and often vice versa). It starts with a mock court case in the bar over who is to blame for a cereal spillage.
However, it soon spirals into a debate over whether God and evolution are real. Despite fantastically stupid arguments like Mac’s declaration that “science is a liar … sometimes,” the debate is surprisingly dramatic and engaging.
7. “The Gang Misses the Boat”
This episode is a piece of brilliant self-satire. “Always Sunny” has gotten crazier and less realistic over the years — which to be fair is bound to happen over 12 seasons. The characters have gradually become flanderized: their main traits are now exaggerated to the point where the once merely vain Dennis is now plausibly a serial killer.
This episode taps into that, with characters asking “when did we get so goddamn weird?” It’s a fun bit of self-parody and character dissection, as the gang try to go off in different directions and rediscover who they used to be.
8. “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs”
The show often tries out different genres — for instance, parodying horror movies in “The Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre” — and this episode is a fantastic, almost Hitchcock-esque chiller.
Focusing around Mac and Dennis driving each other crazy while penned up in their new house, the episode has genuine menace. The actors play with tension perfectly as it stretches closer and closer to breaking point; and when the tension does snap, the characters’ insanity is taken to hilarious heights.
With less than a month left until Season 13 airs, I’ve got my fingers crossed that the new episodes live up to the infinitely rewatchable moments of seasons past. If Howerton is absent, the show could potentially still be great, and could take an opportunity to go in new directions. But on the other side of the coin, even if Howerton stays, that doesn’t protect the sitcom from running out of ideas and going downhill. It remains to be seen whether it will stay sunny in Philadelphia.