We’re all familiar with binge-watching. Online streaming services like Netflix opened the doors to a dark world of multiple seasons and autoplay, ensuring you never have to leave your bed or couch while watching an entire run of your favorite series and eating too many junk foods.
But there is a special kind of binge-watching that I am personally guilty of, and had previously hidden away because I found it so shameful. I call it the Always Sunny Circuit. It’s when you queue up S1E1 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Netflix and let it ride until the last episode of the series. (As of Jan. 3, the show’s entire 11 seasons are available) And then? You go back to the beginning and do it again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been through the cycle now.
At eleven seasons long and no intricate, long-term plotlines to pay attention to, Always Sunny is the perfect show for turning on and tuning out. But it’s not as though everything just goes in one ear and out the other. Rather, the details seep in like osmosis and eventually you find yourself with a near-perfect memory of quotes and plots (“Everybody’s dyin’, bitch”), a sharp eye for the gradual changes in character and story (knowing what season it is by the state of Cricket’s face), and an intimate knowledge of the show’s shortcomings and blind spots (“Sweet Dee’s Dating a R*tarded Person” is rough to watch, only really saved by the fact that it brought us “Dayman, fighter of the Nightman.”) Perhaps some wisdom sneaks through?
So here’s a list (in no particular order) of the surprising lessons you learn when you watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia like some people exercise or cook healthy meals for themselves:
1. “Family” is Everything
The majority of the Gang is actually family; Dennis and Dee are fraternal twins and were raised by Frank, though he is not their biological father. As we learn in Season 3, their real father is Bruce Mathis, a genuinely kind and giving man Barbara had an affair with before she decided to marry Frank for his money. But Charlie and Mac might as well be honorary relatives, having been linked to Dennis and Dee since high school. As we learn in “The High School Reunion,” Mac, Dennis, and Charlie regularly hung out as teenagers, and the source of their camaraderie was a collective sense of being secretly cooler and better than everybody else.
In the present, the Gang is essentially a family unit. They have their infighting but at the end of the day they protect each other from outside aggressors. Even Dee, who usually acts as the group punching bag, seems to fall under that age-old protection of elder siblings everywhere: “Only WE get to mess with our family.” When Dee is being used by Colin in “Gun Fever,” the guys collectively decide to take him down. Yes, it’s mostly because he robbed them and they want to exact petty revenge, but Dee’s involvement makes the situation that much more personal. Even in the ultimate Dee-bashing episode, “The Gang Broke Dee,” the Gang’s elaborate scheme to convince Dee she has become a successful comedienne is revealed to be their uniquely twisted way of showing they care. Her rage at being tricked immediately lifts her out of the depressed funk she was previously in, and everyone cheers as Dee lashes out violently. “She’s back!”
2. Assertiveness Works
If there’s one thing the Gang knows how to do, it’s take action. Usually stupid, poorly thought-out action, but they rarely doubt their own right to exist, take up space, and speak their mind. And honestly? It usually works out relatively well for them!
Often the Gang gets what they want through a staggering amount of self-righteous confidence and sheer force of will. And while it’s not recommended to break into somebody’s office to pitch an idea to them (“The Aluminum Monster vs. Fatty Magoo”), force an ex-rival back into a fight through blatant disruption and intimidation (“The Gang Reignites the Rivalry”), or demand your therapist solve a frivolous argument amongst all your friends about doing the dishes (“The Gang Gets Analyzed”), there’s something to be learned from The Gang’s particular brand of self-actualization. If you want something, you have to go and get it. Failure and embarrassment is always an option, but you’ll never achieve any of your goals if you never build up the confidence to put yourself out there.
3. There Are A Lot of Ways to Be Racist
The Gang is Racist. That’s just a fact of Always Sunny. The subject is tackled in the very first episode, “The Gang Gets Racist.” But the show also does an incredible job of portraying the myriad ways one can engage in racism, especially when you think you’re Not A Racist. The Gang is quick to call one another out when blatantly racist things are said, and clearly understand that it’s a bad thing to be racist, but there are also quietly accepted “facts” about other groups that they all agree on, while still convincing themselves they “get it” and don’t condone prejudice.
Perhaps the best singular example of this is the episode “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth” where Mac infamously dons blackface to play Roger Murtaugh in “Lethal Weapon 5.” The concept of blackface becomes a major point of contention throughout the episode, with Dennis arguing that painting one’s face to play a role is racist, but acting out a stereotypical “Black voice” is not. Mac, on the other hand, defends blackface as only a means of playing a part, an argument which is weakened when Frank agrees, and uses inarguably racist old-timey examples of blackface like Al Jolson to “prove” his point. The episode beautifully illustrates that bothDennis and Mac’s performances of Murtaugh are informed by racist stereotypes, and that their good intentions to pay homage to a favorite film franchise do not negate their poor, offensive execution.
4. Some People Will Never Learn
“The Waitress” is a regularly recurring character on Sunny, usually because of the fact that Charlie is her stalker. However a surprising amount of the time, she shows up to join in the Gang’s shenanigans willingly, though almost always defending that choice by explaining she’s only there for money or vindication. In the season three finale, “The Gang Dances Their Asses Off,” the Waitress joins a marathon dance competition to win Paddy’s Pub from the Gang. After falling victim once again to her infatuation with Dennis, the Waitress agrees to dance with him only to be unceremoniously dropped on the ground and eliminated from the competition. She flips, screaming, “You piece of shit! Dennis Reynolds, I trusted you!” to which Dennis replies, genuinely confused, “Why??”
It’s a legitimate question, especially considering that just a few episodes ago in “The Gang Sells Out,” Dennis and Dee both treated the Waitress like garbage and ruined a new management job for her, leaving her professionally disgraced and unemployed. But no amount of disrespect or mistreatment ever seems to deter her from her obsession with Dennis. She buys his lines every time, hoping beyond hope that things will be different this time, that Dennis will be the man she wants him to be, and they’ll live happily ever after. Of course, this is never the case, and Dennis’ utter contempt for the Waitress only grows as time goes on. Her consistent failure to recognize this means she opens herself up to harassment and heartbreak from the same people over and over again. She tries and tries, because she believes that the Gang must be able to learn and grow eventually. But unfortunately, some people will never get over their bad habits, and sometimes you just have to walk away.
5. Addiction Can Affect Anyone
On Always Sunny, everyone in the main cast is an addict, and many of their friends and neighbors are as well. Early on in the series, Dennis and Dee become addicted to crack cocaine (“Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare”), and Charlie is known to huff paint and glue on a daily basis. Near the end of the ninth season, in “The Gang Gets Quarantined,” it’s confirmed that the entire group are alcoholics. Among the Paddy’s-adjacent crew, the Waitress is an alcoholic, Bill Ponderosa is an alcoholic and drug addict, a lifestyle that ruins his marriage and his relationship with his children, and Matthew Mara, aka Rickety Cricket, gives up his life as a priest and becomes homeless and addicted to drugs as a result of his relationship with the Gang.
Though the show obviously takes a rather tongue-in-cheek approach to the topic of addiction, the overarching message that comes across is how easy it is for people to get pulled into the Gang’s destructive cycle and lose control. Ultimately, addiction is depicted as something that’s fairly common, and it’s easy to see that nobody is immune from its potential harm. Dennis and Dee consider themselves “upper class” and inherently better than Charlie and Mac, but they fall victim to drugs just as easily as anybody else. Matty Mara is a priest, but his obsession with Dee draws him into an intense downward spiral that he eventually accepts as the new normal. Bill Ponderosa is a suburban family man, but his desire for escape causes him to lose control of his vices. In its own way, Sunny detaches the concept of addiction from the image of a “typical addict” and revels in exploring how anyone is capable of making decisions that can negatively impact their lives.
6. Nice is A Choice
Another minor character who teaches us a great lesson is Ben Smith, aka “Ben the Soldier.” Ben might be the only genuinely compassionate and kind person in Always Sunny outside of Bruce Mathis. We are first introduced to him in season five’s “The Gang Wrestles for the Troops” when Dee has an online relationship with him and then agrees to meet up with him when he comes home from serving in Iraq. From the very beginning Ben is enthusiastic, engaged, and empathetic to everyone he comes into contact with. The Gang quickly writes him off as stupid, but he’s simply not interested in the same petty squabbles that make up the majority of their lives. Ben seems to be one of the few people who is able to resist the siren’s call that is the Gang’s tendency toward antagonism and violence. He walks away just a couple episodes after his first appearance, and cites a very simple reason for doing so: Dee is mean and he doesn’t like her. (“The D.E.N.N.I.S. System”)
Even when he gets pulled back into the Gang’s ruinous orbit, Ben maintains a stronger sense of self than essentially any other side character. Even Bruce Mathis eventually clears his schedule to get his hands dirty and teach Dennis, Dee, and Frank a lesson, unable to just ignore them and move on. In Ben’s subsequent appearances, he still maintains his vulnerability and friendliness. This is probably most on display in later seasons, like in “Dee Gives Birth” when he is rounded up as one of the potential fathers of Dee’s baby. Despite the strange circumstances and the contentious relationship he has with Dee, he seems genuinely excited at the prospect of being a father. Ben makes it clear that the Gang’s default state of hostility and aggressiveness is lazy and selfish, and that being nice takes real effort and strength. But ultimately, it’s worth it, because when he isn’t being relentlessly pursued by the Gang and their antics, Ben is shown to be happy, self-assured, and well-adjusted.
7. Your Sex Life is Nobody’s Business
The conversation about sexuality in Sunny mainly centers around Mac and his not-so-secret attraction to men. Throughout the show, more and more hints are dropped that Mac is gay and heavily suppressing his feelings because of his Catholic upbringing. Through his relationship with Carmen, a transgender woman, and the comparison to his openly gay cousin ‘Country Mac,’ everyone around him attempts to pass judgment and “catch” him in gayness. In “The Gang Misses the Boat,” Mac tries to prove his heterosexuality once and for all by insisting that he wants to get back to his roots as a “party boy who banged chicks all the time.” He arranges an elaborate ruse where he pretends to have sex with a woman named Dusty in exchange for angel dust and when his deception is revealed, the Gang takes pity and Dennis suggests, “Do you want to go back to the way things were, where we don’t ask questions and you just go about your business?”
It’s the first time the Gang gives Mac the benefit of defining his own boundaries and sexuality, instead of mercilessly mocking him for dating Carmen or wishing that he would just be “gay and open about it.” Ultimately in the season 11 finale, Mac comes out to the Gang after being “converted” by a gay couple on a Christian cruise. It’s good to see Mac embrace being gay, but he only gets comfortable with that identity after the Gang has backed off grilling him over it. Forcing somebody to explain their sexuality to you, or to define their identity before they’re ready is never going to lead to honesty or trust. Even as Mac’s friends, his sex life is none of the Gang’s business, and it’s only after admitting that and giving Mac his space that he is able to open up to them.
8. We’re All Products of Our Environments
When Dennis and Dee meet their real father for the first time in “Dennis and Dee Get a New Dad,” we’re left wondering what kind of people the Reynolds twins might have been if they had been raised by Bruce instead of Frank. An earnest and generous man, Bruce is devastated by what terrible people his children have become, and in “Dennis and Dee’s Mom Is Dead” he blames Frank for turning them into “monsters” and seeks to punish them all.
Every member of the Gang has been significantly shaped by their childhood, whether it’s Mac’s absent father and shame/guilt-based Catholicism, Charlie’s complete lack of structure and supervision, Dennis’ status as “the golden god” both at school and at home, or Dee’s perpetual victimhood, always trying to overcome bullying and a lack of confidence in order to prove herself. All these “origin stories” are very familiar, and viewers might even identify with them personally. We all carry some of that baggage from our formative years, but what the Gang doesn’t seem to understand is that it is possible to break free if you don’t let those experiences define your entire identity and future choices. Recognizing that we are all products of our environments is the first step toward picking and choosing the values and beliefs we want to carry into our continuing stories.
9. Like Attracts Like
The Gang is angry. That goes without saying. It’s no surprise then, that they attract anger, hostility, and conflict in everything they do. In “Sweet Dee Gets Audited,” after making attempts to change their ways and engage one another in more civilized debate, they all ultimately decide that trying something different is too hard and they’d rather go back to a state of “organized chaos, where emotion trumps reason every time and we just yell at each other to get what we want.” The complete breakdown of logic and courtesy among them is contagious, and nearly anybody who comes into contact with the Gang will either be stunned into silence by their outbursts or resort to their tactics in order to get through to them.
On the other hand, those who stay away from the Gang and focus on their own lives and happiness tend to thrive! Ingrid Nelson, aka “Fatty Magoo” took her high school angst and let it inspire her to create her own business, never letting the Gang get to her or take her down. Artemis is also largely unscathed by her frequent interactions with the Gang, whenever they become too much for her she simply bails. Artemis stands firm in her own self-confidence and never involves herself in schemes that don’t interest or excite her. It seems the law of attraction is in full effect in the Always Sunnyuniverse, positivity attracts more positivity while negativity just manifests more animosity and strife.
10. Money Doesn’t Make You a Better Person
This probably sounds like an obvious lesson, but moreso than just proving that rich people aren’t automatically happy, fulfilled, and moral, Always Sunny demonstrates that class divisions are effectively meaningless. Frank, Dennis, and Dee were all members of the upper class in the past but in the present, Frank rejects the trappings of the elite and chooses a life “on the fringe” with Charlie. Mac and Charlie grew up poor and underprivileged, but they managed to make lasting friendships with each other and Dennis, and they’re all more similar than they would likely admit.
All of Frank’s money is only worth anything when it’s being used to bring joy to the Gang, to fund their bizarre schemes and help them out of jams. His place in the upper class was a precarious position, because it’s not so much based on money as it is “playing the part,” which Frank has no interest in. Dennis and Dee on the other hand, are desperate to play along, to be seen in proximity to money, and to wallow in the adulation of those who worship status above all else. For them, class is a permanent mark that allows them to feel superior to their peers, and yet… they continually choose to hang out with Charlie, Mac, and Frank, none of whom offer them the deference and respect that comes with their “station.” Ultimately, in the world of Paddy’s Pub, the only class that truly matters is “fringe class,” and the means of advancing your status there is based strictly on strength of conviction and how loud you can yell over everybody else.
I hope this list has taught you something, given you a new lens through which to watch a funny show about terrible people, or at the very least offered you a moment’s entertainment.
If not… uh, I guess, just take that shoulder-padded jacket and get outta here, ya jabroni.
Originally posted on Medium.