It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a strange show to track the trajectory of, because it has evolved in so many ways while also (purposely) remaining the same in so many others. While the show has gotten stranger over the years, added a huge slew of characters to its roster, and peeled back the layers of its original four (five) protagonists, the show has always been about people who are stuck and unable to evolve.
It’s an impressive feat especially this many seasons in, but it’s one that has been set up since episode one, season one. While it would be impossible for the gang (creators Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney) to know how long the Gang would be on the air, the show has always promoted the idea that the Gang is stuck in arrested development. When the show began the characters had aspirations but the audience could see that they were stuck in the bar and not actually ambitious enough to reach their dreams. As the show has gone on all the writers have had to do was… nothing. Keep status quo. Let those dreams and aspirations rush by as the actors and characters slowly age and yet remain patently the same. They are stuck in the hell hole that is Paddy’s Pub, and while their individual neurosis feed themselves over the seasons the characters have remained static, untouched by time. But time has passed. Unlike a cartoon the characters remain static but the physical years wear on. The show recognizes that by doing nothing, by not furthering its characters, it is still evolving their situation. Their lack of growth is actually growth itself, just a backwards kind.
Charting the course of any character throughout the series reveals their descent has been into a rut. In early seasons the bar was always suggested as a way-station for the characters. Dennis wants to be a vet (yes, seriously, isn’t that nuts?). Dee has dreams of being an actress. They don’t intend for their lives to be forever Paddy’s Pub. But as the show goes on they discover a cycle that is impossible to break. Whenever someone crawls forward, they slip back. The show has exemplified it with meta episodes (The Gang Recycles Their Trash) or with episodes where the gang attempts to break away from each other (The Gang Misses the Boat). Like any bad habit, the more time that the gang spends together the tougher it is for them to break out. At the end of Misses the Boat the gang tacitly agrees that things should “go back to normal”. They should never try to break the cycle, because they can’t.
Even had the show not survived for as many seasons, the message would have been the same. Always Sunny has often been praised for its title cards and the dramatic irony they set up. The line “That’s ridiculous, I’m just palling around with the guys. How’s anyone going to get hurt?” is followed directly to the title card: “Frank sets Sweet Dee on Fire” (does the gang still call her Sweet Dee?). But it is the title cards that open each episode are the true indication of the show’s intention and the introduction to the shows technique.
On a Wednesday.
On a Thursday
Or any variation. Really they don’t matter, and it is impossible to differentiate one episode from another based on them because regardless of what the title card says it (with very few exceptions) cuts to a shot of the interior of Paddy’s with the Gang sitting around and chatting or scheming or drinking. The time of the day or the day of the week is inconsequential because their lives do not move forward or backwards, and one day or one hour is no different from the next. It is a quiet statement, and one that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. It’s incredibly simple, but it has been with the show since day one and has never ever been cut, because it signals in the first seconds of each episode that we are still where we started, in a land where the day and time simply don’t matter because the people can’t or won’t (both… whatever) change.
–Arrested Development is another show that takes its “characters never change in sitcoms” concept and uses it to drive a bit of the drama. Though it didn’t have as long of a run as Always Sunny, it is one of the first sitcoms I can think of that recognized the trope and then plumbed it for both comedic and emotional depth.
-Another Jessica Walters driven show, though this one is cartoon, Archer is likewise a world that has expanded around a cast of characters who can’t or won’t (both… whatever) change their ways.