Right now It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is, improbably, wrapping up its 11th (11th!) season of horrifying, hilarious depravity. The show is generally thought to belong to the strain of “asshole comedies” that Seinfeld begat, and indeed it does focus on a cheerfully amoral characters wreaking havoc on the world around them with their self-centered schemes, much like The League or Veep or Workaholics. But I’m here to tell you that despite that crude veneer, Sunny should actually be Mike Huckabee’s favorite sitcom. Social conservatives, being a by and large literal people, are not apt to get on board with a show that focuses on such completely, undeniably awful people, despite the show never really asking us to sympathize with them (except Charlie, sporadically). But when you look at the way in which those characters are awful, something interesting, and surprisingly conservative emerges. Something that makes Sunny a greater champion of traditional Family Values than many sitcoms that focus on an actual nuclear family, and a savage attack on the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood and television, a satire all the more biting because it does not approach the subject head on.
Rather, Sunny champions the importance of family values by focusing on an ensemble of toxic characters entirely bereft of them. The comic engine that has kept the show rolling for over a decade is the very different ways each member of the gang’s horribleness and stupidity have developed over time. But if you try to work backward from their divergent psychoses, they are all rooted in the same place: the core four* all came from broken homes, and in the absence of proper parental guidance, their outlooks, expectations, and moral compasses were entirely shaped by what they saw in television and movies. And it is thusly that Sunny humorously, transgressively demonstrates precisely what the pearl-clutching Helen Lovejoys of the world merely cluck about: that the values television teaches our impressionable** children are simply monstrous when transposed onto the real world.
I’m talking about more than how the gang frames all of their schemes in movie or television references, but how their mindsets and what passes for morality reflect the paper-thin ethics of the entertainment industry. Perhaps the most prominent and reliable example is their insistence on paying lip service to political correctness, even while carrying out the most depraved and deplorable acts imaginable. As they are busy staging fake baby funerals, destroying marriages and families, gradually dismembering Rickety Cricket, or in my favorite example, taking a hot plate into a morgue for some good ol’ fashioned cannibalism, they are always quick to call each other out on sounding racist, or homophobic. They are always emphatic on this point, which shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are the slightest bit okay or comfortable around minorities of any stripe. But TV has taught them that saying racist things is bad, while also teaching them to disregard or distrust anyone that doesn’t look just like them. These are the values of “liberal” Hollywood, where lip service to color blind principles does not just supersede, but actually substitutes for actual inclusiveness.
But outside that, and their general shallowness and obsession with body image, they each manifest the toxic values of television in distinct ways. Dennis models himself as the ultimate ladies man of the group, in the mold of a Joey Tribiani or Barney Stinson or, more accurate to the 80s frame of reference in which the gang remains stubbornly stuck, Tony Micelli. But one of the series darkest and slowest burning jokes has been the gradual reveal of the increasingly sociopathic ways he engages this pursuit. TV has taught him to view women as entirely disposable props, and to demonstrate completely unrealistic, Barbie-doll standards for what they should look like. He registers disgust whenever they demonstrate personality of their own, and a simmering rage if they do not immediately comply with what he wants from them. As the years have gone on, Dennis has gone from merely callous to a potential serial killer (it would be probable, but for his general incompetence at everything but competitive skiing), and if there is a worst among the gang, it would have to be him.
But the others are twisted in their own ways. Mac, who was raised by an inattentive mother while his father was in prison, models himself less as a lothario than an action star (the “sheriff of Paddy’s” in his terms, though his martial prowess is based entirely on posing rather than taking “one karate class, if you’re so into karate. You know?”). And so his misogyny is if anything more blatant, but also less creepy for being more basic than Dennis’s deep-seated psychoses. He simply has no use for women, or inkling that they could have any value whatsoever beyond set dressing, a trait that has been amplified over the years into deeply if transparently closeted status. Honestly, Mac’s sexuality has been very inconsistent over the seasons, to the point that whether he prefers man, woman, or tranny varies with the needs of the episode. But the one point on which he does not waver is that regardless of gender, only “hardbodies” are worthy of his attention and adoration. If Dennis embodies every predatory implication of the male gaze, Mac’s sexual confusion demonstrates how popular entertainment fetishizes the male physique in ways that are similarly silly and outlandish.
Dee, as the sole female of the group, has internalized the second-class citizenship that Hollywood dictates for that role. While she’s quick to parrot feminist talking points, she also accepts torrents of abuse that even illiterate chud Charlie and (increasingly literally) troll Frank are exempt from. She knows she’s supposed to talk about equality, but her actions belie a belief that she has to play second fiddle and justify herself to the horrible men in her life. Her dream is to, in spite of her tremendous lack of talent and faulty gag reflex, make it in the entertainment industry, but she takes it as a given that the only way in is to become “one of the guys”, no matter how degrading and Sisyphean the process might be.
And then there’s Charlie. As the most innocent (read: not just emotionally, but intellectually stunted) of the gang, he is just as warped by popular fiction, but of a more childish nature. This actually makes him the romantic of the group, as he views the perpetually hard-luck and unwaveringly disdainful waitress as almost a Disney princess. His unflagging devotion to her is rather chaste and comparatively sweet, but also criminal. Because actually, while we may suspect Dennis of much more heinous activities, that is pretty much all implication. Charlie, for as harmless as he can seem when the rest of the gang is worked up into a full, execrable lather, is absolutely stalking an unwilling, frequently terrified woman. The only reason laughs can be pulled out of it is that Charlie’s aspirations are practically asexual. He wants them to live happily ever after and have kids, but he seems rather indifferent to the act itself. For him, it’s just a matter of hitting on the right scheme, to tricking her into realizing she loved him all along (movie romances tend to be weird like that when you spell them out).
I could list some more examples, talk a bit about Charlie being convinced that legal dramas have made him an expert litigator, or how Mac’s understanding of spirituality is nothing but a thin veneer of smugness over a bedrock of xenophobia. Or how Frank is just as warped by the pop culture of an earlier era, and the datedness of his frame of reference just makes it more horrifying. But I think the point is made. The Sarah Palins of the world like to squawk about the importance of traditional families, and the toxic values TV peddles to our impressionable children. But while that sort would probably list It’s Always Sunny as one of the worst offenders when it came to poisoning the youth in this way, it’s actually just showing exactly what they’re telling. The gang was truly raised by TV, and they are the worst people in the world.
*Frank is more of a cause of this than a victim of it
**by far my favorite synonym for “dumb”