Archive | March, 2017

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and How to Keep a Show Relevant A Decade In

8 Mar

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia entered its 12th season this January, and the first two episodes were absolute classic It’s Always Sunny; laugh-out loud, taking-it-almost-too-far humor about five truly terrible idiotic friends who hang out at a largely unpatronized bar they own in Philadelphia. To be this deep in and remain funny and fresh fairly often is a Herculean task which should not go unnoticed.

This seeming It’s Always Sunny renaissance was not always obvious. The first half of last season was a disappointment that was discouraging and unexciting; it seemed as if perhaps It’s Always Sunny had fallen into all the traps of a show well on its years, and had run out of ideas. The show improved in its second half, though, and by this year, the show feels revitalized. Away from the spotlight, on its own network FXX, where it (along with Simpsons reruns) is the flagship show, It’s Always Sunny has managed to largely find the right bag of tricks to keep a show funny this many seasons in. Here’s how they do it.

Don’t be particularly serial –Shows that have serial stories tend to have built in expiration dates. It’s simply hard to tell a coherent long-form story over so many years without running into a wall. When there’s a need for emotion, when there’s need have a build in tension, well, it’s hard to keep successfully doing these over and over with becoming boring and predictable. Shows like It’s Always Sunny, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Louie, which aren’t particularly plotty, are better suited to last this long in style. There are a very small number of recurring elements, particularly when previous schemes are referenced by the gang, but for the most part each episode stands completely on its own. Additionally, because of this, nothing the show could do, no matter how cringe-inducing could retroactively ruin earlier seasons for me. Even ending with a couple of awful seasons would not in any way lessen my enjoyment any of earlier episodes.

Don’t be afraid to make a dud – this sounds counter-intuitive; if they kept making duds, this show wouldn’t be worth watching anymore. But at this point, on this show, the episodes can be very gimmicky. The self-awareness of being willing to take a chance on a gimmick or premise that really, on paper, might not work at all, opens up the freedom to be a little more daring. The season premiere this year where the gang turns black could easily have been a huge misfire, but it wasn’t. For It’s Always Sunny, with all its many episodes and its lack of seriality, a dud here and there won’t hurt the show’s legacy, and the threat of a dud is worthwhile if that risk-taking produces gems.

Remember what’s funny about the characters – the beauty of  It’s Always Sunny’s characters is that they’re somewhat fungible but also well drawn. There’s a lot of dumb stuff that just about any of the characters could do, but over the years, the show has built up specific personality traits for each of them that so that depending on the plot or scheme, it’s easy to imagine which character fits (if this sounds like simply writing characters, it is, but truth be told, the characters on Sunny are much more similar than the characters on most shows due to the nature of the humor). Dennis is the creepiest and most vain, Frank the most shrewd but the most vulgar, Charlie the most genuine but the most dumb. Mac is a special combination of Dennis’s vanity and Charlie’s idiocy; it’s overconfidence more than narcissism in his case, and Dee shares Dennis’ narcissism, but while Dennis’ charm actually works occasionally, Dee’s never does.

Be meta but not too meta – It’s Always Sunny has been very smart about how much to reference. The creators know that we’re watching, and that we’ve been watching for years, and that we pretty much know how an episode of Always Sunny is going to go. Over the years, they’ve brought that aspect into the show, bringing back gimmicks a couple times, but generally not too often, making meta references about the gang and how their plot works enough to be funny and let us know their in on the joke, but not overdoing it like Abed did in the last season of Community.

Write good jokes – I’m kind of burying the lead here, obviously.It’s not rocket science, but it’s still not easy. Of course, writing good jokes is still the most important aspect, and without them, even if all the other categories are checked off, any given episode will land with a thud. Those other qualifiers are designed to make this step going off as easily as possible.