After a decade of airing, it takes a very special combination of acting, writing and comedic timing to keep a sitcom going. For most of these shows, there seems to be a specific season you can point to where the quality went on a downward trend. Somehow, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has avoided that.
That isn’t to say the more recent seasons are better (they clearly aren’t), but the acting from each main cast member has improved and the boundaries of acceptable comedy have continuously been pushed. You’ll never be able to accuse It’s Always Sunny of dumbing down to the current political climate. Still, the show has remained humorous despite some missteps and is routinely enjoyable for its dark inversion of standard sitcom tropes.
With season 13, though, the show teeters back and forth between feeling tired and being outrageously bold.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (Season 13)
Finale Release Date: November 7, 2018 (FXX)
To quickly get you up to speed, at the end of season 12 Dennis (Glenn Howerton) left the gang to be with his estranged family and start a new life. He was tired of the same crap all the time and had to remove himself from the equation. The behind the scenes reason for this was that Howerton took a leave for creative and personal reasons, but it was the first time in many years where you couldn’t be so sure what would happen next.
The first episode immediately addresses this and even pokes fun at the fact that the gang is stuck in their same routine. We get a grotesque version of Dennis as a sex doll, a funny cameo from Mindy Kaling as a potential replacement for Dennis and some weird, perverted insight into how Mac feels about his longtime friend. It then culminates in a twist everyone saw coming, but one that is still pulled off with excellent acting.
That acting is something that I started to notice quite a bit in season 11. After so many years of portraying these characters, everyone has come to embody the horrible traits of their respective roles. Howerton can put on a demented scowl at the drop of a hat, Charlie Day is perfect for the schizophrenic madness that Charlie routinely exhibits and Kaitlin Olson looks both threatening and desperate when the times calls for it. Even Danny DeVito manages to live up to the seriously high expectations of Frank by becoming crazier and crazier as the years go on.
They thankfully have avoided the trope of “Flanderization,” which is a term popularized by how The Simpsons slowly stripped away other personality quirks over the years. There are certainly episodes to play to specific portions of each main character’s persona, but It’s Always Sunny has multi-faceted jackasses as its leads and it works all the better for it.
We get to see a lot of those angles in season 13, which features a few episodes that could be considered series standouts. The mid-season episode “Time’s Up For the Gang” is a glorious lampooning of the MeToo culture that brings about the absolute worst in everyone. Frank is walking around like a panicked mess, Charlie is coming to terms with the multiple sexual traumas he’s endured and even Dee can’t escape claims of sexual harassment because of her gender. It consistently ups the ante with regards to timing, setups for its jokes and even the final reveal that is so darkly twisted, you just have to stand up and clap.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t episodes that feel like filler, however. The third episode of the season is a jab at the “All Female Reboots” we’ve seen a lot of in Hollywood lately, but doesn’t really go anywhere. It repeats the setup of “The Gang Beats Boggs” from season 10 and excludes the male members of the cast, but then just continues on like normal. That is fine and dandy as the women from It’s Always Sunny are just as deplorable as the men, but it can’t help but feel like a retread of past jokes.
There is even a stab at satirizing the old trope of clip shows that falls a bit flat. For a show like It’s Always Sunny that is constantly subverting outdated and boring sitcom tropes, just the title of the episode “The Gang Does a Clip Show” clues you into the fact that something is amiss from the beginning. It then wastes half of its runtime being an actual clip show before going in for the joke with no time to realize a punchline. It certainly is amusing but feels like a missed opportunity.
I can say that about a lot of the episodes. While watching them, I chuckled a bit and was entertained, but the real joy came to when I was explaining them to my friend. The ideas are ridiculously funny on paper, but just don’t really work out in practice.
I also have to address that Dennis isn’t present in 40% of the season. I know there was more to it than simply scheduling conflicts, but how he is written off in a few episodes does feel lazy. Him being anxious in a small car, for example, doesn’t really fit in with the character. Putting an episode in the past is also not a clever way of working around Dennis’ absence since it then starts to muddle up the current timeline of episodes.
For the most part, though, this is a pretty typical season of It’s Always Sunny with one stunningly funny episode. Then you get to the season finale. I’m actually at a loss for how to describe it because I’m still reeling after watching it a few days ago. It is one of the bravest pieces of television I’ve seen in a long time and will likely go down as one of the series best episodes full stop. The episode, titled “Mac Finds His Pride,” takes a deeper look into Mac’s role within the gang and how the other characters perceive him, but then eschews the typical formula for something else entirely.
For a show in its thirteenth season to completely floor me is rare. That isn’t even to say that the whole thing is brilliant, because the beginning drags a bit. It goes in one direction by focusing on Frank and having him spout some insanely insensitive comments before honing in on Mac and getting to the root of his closeted homosexuality for all these past years. It is revealing, beautiful, well shot, expertly directed and showcases a rare sentimentality that I didn’t think was possible from these characters.
It even somehow manages to pull in seemingly offhand jokes about Mac from earlier episodes. It was a season-long set up the whole time and I’m utterly convinced the periods of samey jokes or rushed closers were all to mislead the viewer for this final episode. You go in expecting tired gay jokes and come out with a new appreciation for both Mac and Frank. I just don’t even know how that is possible.
It doesn’t erase my criticisms of earlier episodes in the season, but it does leave me incredibly excited for whatever season 14 has in store. With season 12’s closer, it was pretty obvious that Dennis would not be exiting the show. He has been there since the beginning and removing him completely is just a bad idea. With season 13’s end, though, a lot could potentially change in the future.
I doubt we’ll see a reformation from the Gang into actual good people, but possible explanations for their scummy behavior could make for a show that gets us to examine our own crappy behaviors. I can’t believe I’m potentially going to psycho-analyze It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but anything seems possible now.
Overall, this has been one of the better seasons in a long time. It isn’t an instant classic or anything, but it contains some of the best acting and boldest attempts at humor from the Gang in ages. I was getting a little tired after last season, but now I’m convinced this show needs to stay on the air. Here’s to the future!