This week I am going to take a break from doom and gloom to do some media analysis about one of my favorite shows: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Sunny, as it’s often abbreviated, is a show I’ve been watching for over a decade now. I first found the show while I was studying in Philadelphia, at the alma mater of both series protagonist Dennis Reynolds and Russian client-king Donald Trump. They had just finished their third season, and the show was on a bit of a bubble, trying to drum up further support. As such they had a tour bus that was advertising the show, and finally, having seen it enough times, I decided I’d check it out.


Before I saw the show I had been under the impression it was a cheesy multi-camera sitcom about meteorologists in Philly, because I really knew nothing about it and had maybe caught the opening cards once at some point (which give the time and location). When I finally started watching it, I realized how wrong I was. Sunny is one of those shows I describe colloquially as “terrible person shows.” A gang of five assholes, stuck together in a permanent cycle of codependency established years before and filled in over the years, co-own a bar as an excuse to basically spend their days sitting around, drinking, and coming up with a variety of plans and schemes. It sounds rather mundane, given the set up, but it’s the execution, over the years, which have made the show such a gem.


Side note: if you’re going to start watching Sunny, I strongly advise skipping the first season. Season one is rough, in no small part because it’s missing the element that turned the ensemble from good to great: Danny Devito’s Frank Reynolds, paterfamilias to twins Dennis and Dee, and eventual co-owner of the bar. His introduction in season two, and then his subsequent descent into degeneracy, not only rounds out the cast, but his financial resources allow the show to stop worrying about questions like “how do these people, who run a shitty bar and never serve customers, not starve to death on the street?” It expands the range of stories they can tell, and Devito is an amazing actor, game even to show up in various stages of undress over the years.



Since its inception, Sunny has been under the creative control of the writer/actors who play Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Mac (Rob McElhenney), and Charlie (Charlie Day). Dee (Kaitlyn Olsen, now on the surprisingly sweet The Mick as well), Frank, and even Rickety Cricket (long-time producer David Hornsby) have grown into their characters given 12 seasons inhabiting those roles. Airing on FX(X), their executive interference has been minimal, and for better or worse this is a show that reflects the evolution of its creators. Between that and its relatively firm continuity, the show is ripe for a type of longitudinal analysis over time that is less effective when applied to a show like American Dad! (another long-running show that’s gotten far better once it slipped to one of the back cable channels with greater creative freedoms).


The Gang is aware of this; self-aware of their place in the media universe. In the essential season 8, a work of excellence which settled them into the pattern of ten-episode seasons that marks their later years, there is an episode written by the creators called “The Gang Recycles Their Trash.” In it, the Gang attempts to revive a few of their early schemes, having determined that they’re better able to do them now that they’re older and have more experience. The episode heavily calls back to early episodes “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby” (important, as I will explain later), “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire,” and “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis.” The entire episode winks at the conceit, with Dee upon multiple occasions saying that she’s fairly certain they’ve done something like this before. Amidst all that, it manages to stick the landing, writing an episode full of callbacks that manages to go its own direction and be a success on its own merits.


After that point, the show devotes at least an episode a season to these types of interrogations of their past episodes. Some highlights: “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” (season 9), “The Gang Misses the Boat” (season 10), and “Frank Falls Out the Window” (season 11). Season 12, the current season, has a few callbacks so far. The most interesting, before February 15th, had been “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy,” which specifically calls out the abuse at the heart of the Honeymooners, among other sitcom staples.


Then came the episode PTSDee, which was not well received. And at first I got it; the episode is dark, and the different storylines seem a little disconnected, and the resolution is rushed as all hell. But I watched it a few more times, and I came to realize the episode deserves a place among these pantheons of self-examinations. This one, in particular, is aimed at replicating the magic of “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby,” which as mentioned before provides the cold open for “The Gang Recycles Their Trash” without otherwise plumbing the depths of that episode. And “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby” (DB from here on out) is a great episode, setting the stage for emotional beats that would compound over time. It’s easy to miss the connection between the two episodes, because unlike the direct callbacks of some of the other examinations of their past work, the parallels in “PTSDee” (PTSD from here on out) are structural and emotional, not the same sort of straight recitation of plot.


Sunny, like any other ensemble comedy, balances its different plots by breaking the group up into teams. In DB, the three threads are: Plot (A) Dee and Mac trying to break into the performing arts once they meet a tertiary character, Plot (B) Frank and Charlie losing their minds over a newfound interest, and Plot (C) Dennis ruining a man whose public slight embarrassed and hurt him. In PTSD, the three threads are: Plot (A) Dennis and Charlie trying to break into the performing arts once they meet a tertiary character, Plot (B) Frank and Mac losing their minds over a newfound interest, and Plot (C) Dee ruining a man whose public slight embarrassed and hurt her. While Sunny occasionally reuses structural elements, it is a show that’s been on for 12 seasons now, this is a level of direct parallels that is uncommon for the show, and stands out.


The content of these plot-lines connect as well, though. Plot (A) in both episodes has a significant connection to family and typical heteronormative couplings. In DB, it’s focused on Mac and Dee trying to replicate (terribly) a nuclear household to provide their found baby with stability, before using their power over this agency-free child to exploit his body for potential financial gain. In PTSD, it’s focused on Dennis and Charlie grappling with the failures of their own nuclear households, and the trauma that came from Charlie growing up without his father and Dennis having his body exploited by someone in a position of power over him—a shared nexus of trauma which they then try (and fail) to exploit for financial gain, via sex work. Charlie’s trauma is even explored in his plotline in DB, where he finds out Frank is his father, something Frank continues to deny throughout the entire series, because, and I quote, “your mother is a whore!”


Plot (B) in both episodes involve Frank and a friend getting so invested in something that they lose track of reality. In DB, this is dumpster diving, in PTSD it’s violent virtual reality video games. In both plots Frank’s companion ends up having father issues, Charlie as explained above and Mac and his perpetually broken relationship with his felonious father in his VR-inspired hallucinations. Both plots even involve sleep disruption, with the trash in DB shoving Frank and Charlie out of their bed and into the streets, and with Mac crashing briefly and horrifically on Frank and Charlie’s bed before being woken up by his nightmares. Both times this plot intersects with Plot (A) in the end, with Charlie stealing the baby in DB and with Frank and Mac stealing the attentions of the stripper (Mike, Dee’s Plot (C) victim) in PTSD. Again, structural parallels without the direct winking of “The Gang Recycles Their Trash.”


Finally, we come to Plot (C). While I am listing it as being of tertiary significance, in PTSD it takes a more central role. In DB the plotline is utterly untethered from the rest of the action, other than being spawned at the same point as Plot (B); in PTSD the plotline ties into both (A), in that Dee finds her stripper a job playing video games with Frank, and in (B), in that Dee’s relationship with the stripper both starts Dennis and Charlie on their jeremiad and ends it with the final stripping event.


Side note: the final event also mirrors the denouement of “Sweet Dee is Dating a Retarded Person.” In both a three act performance that goes from something truly bad, to people laughing at Dennis and Charlie’s more talented rendition, and ends with a third party showing up and doing something high-skill that blows the rest of them out of the water.


But the real connection between both Plot (C)s is that it shows the Reynolds twins at their most wrathful. Dennis, unable to deal with being punked by a hippy at the dump, infiltrates their organization, sets his rival up for a major failure by giving him an opportunity to look like a big man, and then he destroys the only emotional connection we know this hippy to have by sleeping with his girlfriend. Dee, unable to deal with being a stripper’s rock bottom, infiltrates his life, sets him up for a major failure, and then she destroys the only emotional connection we know the stripper to have by having him strip (and sexually accost) his own estranged daughter. In both situations the Reynolds twin views their conquest as a major success, while the reaction from the rest of the group is basically indifferent. After all, the rest of the Gang doesn’t particularly care that Dee has reached a new level of darkness, they take note of it and then they collectively decide to just drink.


There’s one more parallel that I find interesting, and it ties directly into the culmination of Dee’s master plan. You see, Sunny has a habit of making interesting statements with their casting choices. The Waitress, Charlie’s long-term obsession, is played by Charlie Day’s real life wife. Kaitlin Olsen and Rob McElhenney married after working together on the show, and their real-life baby is the surrogate baby they use to usher their trans lady character off the show in one of its rare happy endings. And Danny Devito’s daughter makes three different appearances, the last of which is in “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby.” Her introduction, in “Mac Bangs Dennis and Dee’s Mom,” involves Frank, played by Danny Devito, checking out her ass openly, which seemed gross and weird, if metahumorous, at the time. As a connection between these episodes, however, them playing with a father perving on his daughter in the season 2 episode gets a rebuttal in “PTSDee,” allowing for a daughter to respond (explosively) to finding out that the man perving on her is her father.


So what does this all mean? I think it means a couple of things. First, I think it’s brave of them to make episodes like this. They’re a long-running series, and it’s easy to feel like you’re running out of room after having to create and create and create for an extended period of time. Allowing themselves the ability to revisit past episodes without having to be openly winking about it gives them an opportunity to address flaws in their earlier politics and art that stand on their own merits, even if “PTSDee” doesn’t stick that landing.


But on a larger level, they’re speaking to a truth about the lives of those who let themselves be consumed into a group bound primarily together by their hatred of others. These people will never make progress, because they will always be there to drag each other back down into the mud. This was stated rather explicitly in the season finale of Season 11, “The Gang Goes to Hell” and “The Gang Goes to Hell: Part Two.” First, Dee first explodes at their situation, trapped together in a cell with no one coming to get them, with the following quote:


“I just wanted a couple of days away from you! But there’s no escape. You know where hell is, it’s right here, it’s right now! WE ARE IN HELL!”


This is driven home in the next episode where, having all decided to die together at the bottom of a pool of water, they respond to the prospect of rescuers by literally clawing each other back down in order to be the first one saved. There’s no reason to do that, and the peace and togetherness they expressed when they’re certain there is no hope evaporates instantly when they have a chance to get away from each other.


The Gang is going to keep going in circles. In part, this is because the show must go on; in part this is because these people don’t deserve to make it out of each other’s orbits. The latter has been a mission statement for the show since they spelled it out in the season 4 episode “Paddy’s Pub: The Worst Bar in Philadelphia,” an episode that starts with a bad review, middles with a botched kidnapping of the reviewer, and then ends with a second, more scathing review:


“I woke up in my neighbor’s bed with a head wound, yesterday’s paper, and an empty bottle of sleeping pills and my nightmare in that putrid shithole of a bar Paddy’s Pub finally, mercifully came to an end. The owners all deserve to rot in jail, though having to spend every day with each other in that vile establishment is a decidedly greater punishment. That is why I decided not to press charges, leaving them to live in the hell on earth they’ve created for themselves for the rest of their pathetic and miserable lives.”


It’s nine years later and they’re still holding to that mission. Many shows would have been tempted by now to give the Gang growth, victories, or otherwise shake up their orbit. But Sunny’s a great show because its creators know better than to allow for that. They inhabit those characters, they know them better than anyone else does, and they know, more than the audience, why these people deserve their existence, damned to keep repeating abusive cycles that they can only barely see and never disrupt. “PTSDee,” which begins as a meditation on trauma, serves to remind us that these people are too damaged to live free, a realization that prompts them to “shove it down with brown.” You know, whiskey.


There’s a lesson there, if only our world could learn it.


Jess Stirba has seen each episode of this show at least ten times, because that’s the type of person she it.

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