Why This Liberal Still Loves “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Kaitlin Olson in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)

I am what some might call a “coastal liberal.” I wake up every morning to the sound of woke-washed waves beating against my summer beach home, and I go to bed each night to the sound of Ben Shapiro crying while he sets Barbie Dolls on fire. My diet consists entirely of avocado toast and gender-non-conforming vegetables. If I’m feeling extra frisky, I might have a nice slice of cake for dessert — but only if Alexandria Ocasio Cortez says it’s okay. 

I am as liberal as you can get without being annoying (mostly) and as woke as you can get while always being pretty sleepy. But I still love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

I have loved it since it premiered when I was in high school, and although my tastes and political leanings have matured, Sunny will always hold a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is because of this place in my heart that I am blind to the show’s faults. However, I believe Sunny has maintained its quality throughout the changing political and social landscape — and has even improved over time. 

Bad With a Capital “B”

Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit: Byron Cohen/FXX Networks.

The show's premise is simple: four friends — the illiterate janitor, Charlie, narcissistic egomaniac Dennis, his equally selfish sister Dee, and macho bouncer Mac — open a bar in Philadelphia. The show was born as a spiritual rival to shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother but without the squeaky-clean subject matter and polite dialogue.

In fact, it’s an homage to these shows and classic friendship ensembles like Cheers and Happy Days, but with one distinct difference: every single person on this show, from the main characters to the supporting cast, is a bad person. Not just a bad person like sleeping with your best friends’ boyfriend or cheating on your taxes. They're bad, bad, with a capital “B.”

They are racist. They are sexist. They are homophobic (despite having a now openly gay main character.) They are everything bad about society and everything the liberals — like me! — want you to believe are unredeemable. And somehow, the gang survives — nay — thrives!

For that reason, it is unlike any other show that has ever aired on TV.

The Big Question

Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit: Patrick McElhenney/FXX.

Not only are the characters genuinely horrible people in their belief systems as well as their actions, but because they are the protagonists of the series, the only truly good people in the series end up being antagonists. You are expected to root for the bad guys in their quest to conquer the forces of good. 

Not only does the “Gang” make you empathize with them, but they also make you love them, as audiences have loved them for nearly 20 years. But the question is: how did this show survive the changing social and political landscape and remain a fixture in television without once pandering to its mainly liberal or centrist audience? 

I think the answer might be simpler than you think. but I’m going to draw it out a bit because, like most liberals, I just love to hear myself talk. 

Humble(Ish?) Beginnings

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Image Credit: FXX.

In case you thought I was exaggerating about exactly how bad the Gang is, I would like to point you to exhibit A, the title of the first episode of the series: “The Gang Gets Racist.”

The episode is exactly what it says on the can. It begins with Charlie dropping a pretty horrible slur (yes, that one), and somehow it only gets worse from there. Not only are Black people the source of bigotry from the Gang in this episode, but they also find a way to shoehorn in LGBTQ stereotypes as they temporarily turn their bar, Paddy’s Pub, into a gay bar during the pilot’s B-plot. 

I know that’s a lot in one paragraph, so I’m just going to give you a moment to let that sink in. Okay, you ready? Let’s move on. 

“Sunny” Is an Unexpected Mirror

Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Kaitlin Olson in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit: FXX Network.

Not that I should have to show my credentials here, but I am a Black lady. I have the hair and everything. I’m also pansexual, a fancy word here meaning “half gay, on my mom’s side.” Every single thing in this episode was made to alienate me. And yet, somehow, it didn’t. I believed then, and still believe now, that this episode is a commentary on performative white liberalism.

The episode centers around Charlie getting caught using that slur by the love of his life, The Waitress (who they never bothered revealing the real name.) In order to prove to The Waitress that he is not racist, he decides to try to make black friends, even attracting the attention of a Black girl during a game of dominoes. 

At the end of the episode, he rebukes the Black girl who he was using to get the White waitress’s attention, and after a few racially charged hijinks, everything goes back to normal. 

I saw myself a lot in this episode. Not so much in the Gang and their awful behavior, but as the Black person who is often used as a token — a tool to help others look less racist because they “have a Black friend.” 

Here's The Thing

Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit: Patrick McElhenney/FXX.

The thing is, everyone wants to see themselves as the hero of the story. But the truth is, sometimes being a hero in our own story means we’re the villain in another’s. The institutions, relationships, and friendships that tokenized me and other marginalized groups have probably never seen themselves as villainous for doing that!

But maybe they watched this episode, saw how Charlie and the gang treated people of color, and then saw themselves in that negative behavior. I don’t know if it will ever lead to changed behavior, but I know Sunny at least leads to awareness.

I’ve seen myself in the Gang, too, whether I’d like to admit it or not. It’s important to note the duality of humanity. It’s not always easy to confront your own shortcomings, but when you see it coming from such a well of greatly executed comedy, it makes the bite sting a little less.

It isn’t just Black and gay people that have been the target of the Gang’s ire. In their 16-season run, they’ve tackled cannibalism, antisemitism, drug addiction, sexuality, cancer, child abuse, cancer again, and pregnancy termination — and that’s just what I can say without our website flagging this post for adult content.

The Most Honest Show on TV

Danny DeVito, Kaitlin Olson, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit Patrick McElhenney/FXX.

At the time of its premiere, Sunny was still in a league of its own, but the crass humor could be seen more commonly. Shows like The Office and The Big Bang Theory, as well as other Sunny contemporaries, might have toed the line of what was acceptable to joke about. Most of the shows that lasted more than a few seasons had the chance to mature — and maybe stop making jokes that would make polite company cringe. 

As society progressed and those early 2000s jokes stopped hitting the way they used to, “Sunny” could have taken the easy way out. The show’s creators (which are mostly the main cast) could have made the characters show growth. You know, like normal humans. Instead, Sunny flips the script.

The characters have not only seen shockingly little emotional maturity over its 16-season run, but in some ways, they have even regressed. Charlie is still a wild card, but has gone, as the kids call it, “full goblin mode.” Dennis and Dee have graduated from slight narcissists to full-blown psychopaths, and Mac is…well. Still Mac.

No Real Growth Makes “Sunny” Great 

Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit: Patrick McElhenney/FXX.

Some other 2000s shows like Community and Friends have shied away or even completely removed any references to humor that would nowadays be considered inappropriate. But Sunny leans in full force, representing what happens when narcissistic, egotistical behavior goes unchecked. 

Sunny is creative in handling touchy matters and brave in their steadfastness. They are a reflection of society as it actually is, not just what it thinks it is. It is, without a doubt, the most honest show on television and has only gotten more honest throughout its nearly two-decade-long run.

Because let’s be honest: we haven’t changed that as much as we would have liked either.

But hey, as long as you’ve never stolen another person’s identity or held a fake funeral for a child to get out of paying taxes, you’re already doing better than 90% of the gang. 

Stop Idolizing Main Characters

Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005)
Image Credit: Patrick McElhenney/FXX.

For those reasons, I believe that Sunny is as groundbreaking as it was during its first season and continues to mirror the social landscape it exists. Sunny breaks rules and that’s what great TV is supposed to do. If we’re lucky, they will keep making episodes forever (after the WGA and SAG finally get our fair deal).

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is not like any other show that has ever been on television. Most shows have heroes — loveable, charismatic, and near-perfect people that rarely even have a cowlick out of place. Sunny shows us a slightly more realistic world and even gives us the hope of improving. But the point of Sunny isn't to watch it and see traits you like about yourself. The point is to confront the traits you don't.

Just like Rick Sanchez, Tyler Durden, and the girls from Girls, if you're idolizing the main characters, you're missing the point!