In our series Art for Trying Times, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.
In times of stress, it is only natural to seek out comforting art that reaffirms our faith in humanity. Why, then, am I back to binge-watching the utterly irredeemable It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?
Sunny is a cult sitcom about five friends who own Paddy’s Pub, a South Philadelphia dive bar in which customers arrive about as frequently as Godot. A lack of clientele means “the Gang” is free to drink, scheme and bicker their lives away.
The US show’s home video aesthetic and overlapping, semi-improvised dialogue recalls the “mumblecore” film subgenre, although “shoutcore” would really be more appropriate here. Each episode, available to stream in Australia, is essentially a 20-minute squabble in which everyone is under informed and over opinionated.
Inside Out for adults
Although the show began during the George W. Bush era, I’ve come to see each character as a partial reflection of current US president Donald Trump. Frank (Danny DeVito) is a wealthy bigot; Charlie (Charlie Day) is an illiterate savage; Dee (Kaitlin Olson) is a needy narcissist; Dennis (Glenn Howerton) is a psychotic womanizer; and Mac (Rob McElhenney) is a love-deprived zealot.
Through the prism of these assorted neuroses, the show filters every contemporary issue imaginable: gun control, racism, #MeToo, climate change, and so on. Occasionally, the gang stumbles upon some crude solution to a topical problem.
In one episode, the question of how to gender bathrooms is solved by taping an all-inclusive Animal Shithouse sign to each door. More frequently, though, episode titles such as The Gang Solves the North Korea Situation or The Gang Solves Global Warming are just wishful thinking.
The global warming episode – from season 14, which aired late last year – provides the perfect example of Sunny’s satirise-everyone approach. Conservative Mac shrugs off the crisis with “if God wants to roast us like turkeys, there’s got to be a good reason for it”. While progressive Dee buys recyclable shoes just to shame others on Instagram.
The show is less disgusted by any particular partisan viewpoint than it is by the bad faith discussions that occur between corrupt parties.
It offers, hands down, the best replication of that clanking feeling one gets when encountering immovable ignorance online. “I’m an American”, Mac proudly declares, “I won’t change my mind on anything, regardless of the facts that are set out before me.
Anything for a laugh
Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like much of a tonic for our leaking garbage bag of a year. The idiots are everywhere; why should we be wasting our screen time with them? Because Sunny, as long as you can stomach its distinctive brand of filth, is the funniest thing around.
Over its 14 (and counting) seasons, it has evolved from a grimy Seinfeld xerox into a Monty Pythonesque carnival of the surreal and grotesque. The actors here are willing to do, or expel, anything for a laugh. If you loved Terry Jones vomiting in a high-class restaurant, might I suggest Charlie Day vomiting blood all over his posh date?
Obviously, sensitive gaggers need not apply. Nor those who are repelled by dumpster babies, glue-huffing, rat-bashing, sewer-diving, bed-pooping, or (and this is a crucial Sunny litmus test) a naked and sweaty Danny DeVito bursting forth from a leather couch.
If nothing else, I cherish Sunny for the way it has unleashed DeVito. The former Taxi star is an incredible comedic performer, but he was in danger of forever being defined as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s improbable twin. As Frank, he snorts and grunts through scenes like a rabid truffle pig with a bloodlust for depravity.
While Frank is the show’s rotten core, Charlie is its heart. Intellectually stunted, possibly molested, and living in abject poverty, Charlie nonetheless radiates twisted joie de vivre. His helium voice and vacant gaze always kill me, whether he is torturing leprechauns, boiling milk steaks, or getting rich off “kitten mittens”.
All together now
Charlie is also responsible for The Nightman Cometh, a bizarre musical in season four that has since become a live singalong show.
The casts’ theatre backgrounds have provided a number of surprisingly catchy songs over the years. This is no Glee though. Only a Sunny musical would make hay out of the slipperiness between “boy’s soul” and “boy’s hole”.
So why am I back in Paddy’s Pub once again? We are spoilt for choice when it comes to intelligent sitcoms filled with witty, warm-hearted characters who learn and grow.
If it’s escapism you’re seeking right now, shows like Schitt’s Creek, One Day at a Time, and The Good Place are ready to shelter you from the storm. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia provides a different, yet equally important, service.
By the time I emerge blinking from yet another session in its dank and derelict hidey hole, I find that the real world almost looks bearable in comparison.