Thursday, October 24, 2013

Five Friends in the City: How "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" defies comedic genre conventions

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, now on its 9th season, is sure to go down as one of the defining comedy programs of our generation, and has already spawned a couple of programs with its similar taste in comedy. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has managed to stay fresh, funny, and relevant by breaking typical comedy genre conventions commonly seen in shows like How I Met Your Mother and Friends. By reshaping some of these genre conventions, It's Always Sunny has managed to stay on the air for a decade, while still delivering satisfying episodes that have not dipped in quality.

The Gang
One of the ways It's Always Sunny defies genre conventions is by taking the concept of five friends living in a large city, and turning it upside down. Programs like How I Met Your Mother and Friends each have multiple men and women in their circles, and their interactions and relationships are really what drive the show. There is always the possibility of two of the main characters getting romantically involved, which more than likely could support the entire arc of a season. It's Always Sunny  does not have this luxury. There is no potential for romance within the group as the only female character, Dee, is the sister of Dennis, and step-daughter of Frank, while Mac and Charlie (along with Frank and Dennis) berate her incessantly like she is one of the guys. Although characters in most television comedies have flaws, either during a specific episode or story arc, most of the time the characters learn from their ways and more often than not their redeeming qualities shine through in the end (think Barney from How I Met Your Mother). It's Always Sunny strays from the path of conventionality by not pulling any punches on how terrible these characters truly are. As the show has progressed, the characters have seemingly become more narcissistic and nihilistic with each passing season. This is partly due to the fact that there are no lessons to be learned at the end of these episodes, with the characters never learning from their mistakes, their foibles always due to the outside world, and never because of their own actions. This also explains why there cannot be a longstanding plot arc on the show, which is something creator Rob McElhenney feels fans love. "The characters never learn, change, or evolve. We're consistent with it and that's what the audience loves. There is no evolution of relationships, story lines begin and end in one episode" (Munro, 1). None of these characters want to change or make themselves better like characters on other TV shows, and they do not really desire anything other than fame, sex, and money. At the end of each episode, the band of misfits is ready and eager to jump back into action and create more mayhem.

Dee and Frank attempt to elope (Episode 303, "Dennis and Dee's Mom Is Dead)
While this "band of misfits" idea has been incorporated to many shows, most of the time all of the quirks that each character has tends to bring out the best in the other characters and likewise (see Community). This is another fundamental way It's Always Sunny defies basic genre conventions of comedies on TV. It is established early and often in It's Always Sunny that these characters only care about themselves, and the friend tag is a very interpretative label. Although they are almost always in business together on their different hair-brained schemes, their own selfish interests are what drive most of the episodes. A perfect example of this is episode 303, "Dennis and Dee's Mom Is Dead" which involves Dee and Frank posing as a married couple in order to get the money from her mother's will, which was given to their birth father. Dennis on the other hand, inherits his mother's house and enlists Mac and Charlie to help him throw a party to make more friends, although their true intention is to violently haze the guests.
McElhenney before season 7

Another way It's Always Sunny defies genre conventions is by playing with the notion that characters get more attractive over time, or as the series progresses. It's Always Sunny decided to combat this when Rob McElhenney decided to gain fifty pounds for the show's seventh season. He did so "to buck the sitcom convention that TV characters, unlike the rest of us, tend to get more attractive over time - he didn't settle for a fat suit." (Gray, 1). There have been no attempts to alter Danny DeVito's appearance in any way, as the character has continued to age with DeVito. Even Dee, the only female character on the show, is often times shown when her personal hygiene is questionable, a practice rarely done on other situational comedies, although it is a regular occurrence here. Most of the comedies currently on TV maybe commit one or two episodes a season to a particular character having a bad hair day, makeup, etc., but I cannot remember the last show in which one of the leads decided to gain fifty pounds in between seasons, just to buck typical genre conventions. Genius.
Fat Mac

Although it is this type of genre bending that can turn off critics, "It's Always Sunny fails because it goes against the narrative tradition from which it came," (Martin, 21) I believe this is the reason It's Always Sunny has stayed on the air for such a long time. In defying basic genre conventions, the gang manages to give the audience a fresh look on the comedy genre, as they play by their own rules, and try to stray from conventionality as much as possible. The creative control working behind It's Always Sunny  has never been afraid to take chances by breaking genre conventions, while other shows who refuse to do so become stagnant as their run carries on. It's Always Sunny has managed to give audiences a fresh look on the five friends living in the city and completely turn it upside down, their willingness and ability to humorously defy conventions being their strongest asset.
Works Cited
Gray, Ellen. "Rob McElhenney Tells How They Keep 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' Fresh and Funny." N.p., 12 Oct. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.
Martin, Jake. "Something out of Nothing." America Magazine 2 Aug. 2010: 21-25. EBSCO. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <>.
Munro, Kristin D. "Rob McElhenney Gets Real." Philadelphia Style 2012: 1-4. EBSCO. Web. 17 Oct. 2013. <>.

1 comment:

  1. I like your exploration of this shows innovative use of genre conventions. It definitely is a one of a kind show that has experienced a lot of success with their defiance of the norms. I love that you pointed out how in this show the characters are completely selfish and there really are few redeeming qualities. Most shows don't go that route because viewers want to see things come full circle, so that is a good point to make.


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