In the beginning, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was the little show that could. A few friends made a pilot that got them on FX, and, after some missteps and a bit of slow going out of the gate, it turned into a cult favorite. It’s Always Sunny has always been, in essence, a raunchier version of Seinfeld, but it’s also grown into so much more in the ensuing years. The series built its own world, which was on grand display in the 11th season of the show, which recently came to an end with “The Gang Goes to Hell: Part Two.”
Eleven seasons and 124 episodes is an impressive achievement for any show, let alone a show with such humble beginnings. And the gang has at least one more season on the docket. However, the longer a series runs, the more difficult it becomes to really hold onto your audience, and to create notable, entertaining television. This is particularly true of It’s Always Sunny, a show that has thrown everything against the wall from the very beginning. At this point, they can’t really heighten things anymore, because they’ve already stretched the limits of what they can do, and what can be shown on basic cable.
On the other hand, building a world, and a devoted fan base, can have its advantages, and that was the case for this 11th season, which was a particularly inward-looking, fan service-y season of television. It was a season built on callbacks; it was all about knowing these characters, and their world well enough to get the jokes. Basically, season 11 functioned as a reward to fans for watching all these years.
Well, it was sort of a reward.
The very first episode was another outing of Chardee MacDennis, the bizarre, disturbing game the gang created, and played, in a previous episode. Then, in the second episode, Frank fell out of a window, and thought it was 2006. At this point, the show started going back through old plots, and other characters started behaving the way they did when Frank first joined the show. Dee and Dennis got back on crack, we saw the old strip club. It was a modern twist on an old classic. These two episodes set the tone for the entire season.
Later, we were given an entire episode from Frank’s point-of-view (literally, it’s a first-person episode) and an episode that brought out Ponderosas and McPoyles, and the lawyer played by Brian Unger. “Being Frank,” the first-person Frank episode, is ambitious in scope and in execution. But it also isn’t very funny. Frank is a disgusting character, and they ratchet that up to levels in this episode that are quite unpleasant—but that doesn’t mean it works.
The season ended with a two-parter that mostly featured the gang all trapped in the brig of a cruise ship. It was It’s Always Sunny stripped to its basic elements, which is, primarily, five awful people being awful to each other. It would have worked as a series finale, in a way, as it was somewhat reminiscent of the series finale of the aforementioned Seinfeld—which worked to make it abundantly clear that the main characters were awful, selfish people you never should have liked, and you were never supposed to like. Of course, none of this has never been up for debate on It’s Always Sunny, which takes the Seinfeld ethos to an extreme conclusion.
It’s important to note that the season wasn’t all navel-gazing and self-referential humor. There was “The Gang Hits The Slopes,” a parody of ‘80s ski films. It’s an absurd half-hour of television, but the ambition, and the left-field nature of it is admirable. At the same time, the episode coasts on its attention to detail to a degree. Now, there are some great details, but it’s unfortunate that what could have been a great episode ends up being merely good.
Ultimately, rewarding long-time fans for watching a series is all well and good, but it’s also pretty important to have legitimately good, funny episodes of television. It’s understandable that It’s Always Sunny, having accomplished so many episodes, would want to look to the past. In a sense, it’s easier that way, and it’s also likely to make fans happy. However, those who were hoping to see the gang take on new scenarios and comment on contemporary issues may have ended up being disappointed.
This was not as funny of a season of It’s Always Sunny as we have grown accustomed to. There were good episodes, sure, and a lot of laughs. These actors know their characters well, and they can mine jokes out of their quirks and tics, no matter the quality of the material. But, at times, that wasn’t enough.
Like so many long running-shows, It’s Always Sunny’s great past wasn’t able to save it. This used to be a great show, capable of a brilliant sort of comedy that we just didn’t get to see this season. If it is the case that the end is in sight, let’s hope they get a creative boost when the time comes. It’s acceptable for one season to dedicate itself to looking to the past, but hopefully they don’t make a habit of it, because the novelty has already worn out. Seeing Dee and Dennis back on crack isn’t going to work again, especially because there’s so much more for the gang to do. The show’s legacy is intact, but true fans will want to see It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia continue to push the envelope, and go out on a high note—one worthy of a show this good, and this funny.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.