If you mistrust that headline, it’s understandable. Betteridge’s Law of Headlines famously states ‘any headline which ends with a question mark can be answered “no”‘, but like most rules there are exceptions to this. Notably, there was William Rees-Mogg’s editorial on the Rolling Stones drug trial, ‘Who Breaks A Butterfly Upon A Wheel?’, which, whatever your opinion on either drug law or the Stones, can’t be answered ‘no’.
This case is less of a dodge, because the answer in literal terms can only be ‘yes’. The recent years of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia have seen regular references out of the cast’s own mouths to the fact that they are now in their forties. But as you might have guessed, it’s meant in more metaphorical terms: is the show over the hill? Is the shine wearing off? Is it past its best?
If it is – and that’s what we’re about to explore – it’s not necessarily because the cast hit forty goes around the sun. Danny DeVito was a healthy, bushy-tailed 62 when he joined the cast in the second season, and the popular opinion is that this was when the show first really hit its stride.
Lord Of The Dance
Traditionally a TV show going into decline has been thought of in terms of one specific turning point, one moment after which there was no fixing things – the mythical ‘jumping the shark’, a phrase drawn from when Happy Days had The Fonz do just that on waterskis. Ask the fanbase to point to one of these for It’s Always Sunny and the answer would likely be the climax of the 13th season finale, ‘Mac Finds His Pride’, which ended with a five-minute interpretative dance routine.
This was bold, it was unexpected, it was incredibly well done as a dance routine, but to a general audience it commits two cardinal sins. One, it was artsy-fartsy – a subjective opinion at the best of times, but fairly safe to apply to anything in the field of interpretative dance – and two, it wasn’t particularly funny. Which, at the risk of being controversial, is rarely a good thing for a comedy show.
The obvious defence would be ‘it’s not meant to be funny, it’s commenting on a hot-button cultural issue’. That may be true, but the first part of that isn’t a defence to the charge of being unfunny, and the second smacks of laziness, since It’s Always Sunny had mined hot-button cultural issues for comedy remarkably well in the past – not least in another exploration of gay rights, when Charlie and Frank got married.
But when we went into the fourteenth season, there were far more warning signs than a simple interpretative dance. It’s Always Sunny often has a point of sorts to be made, but rarely something as petty or as on-the-nail as an episode complaining about the rise of texting. It was at least funnier than all those shit-ugly newspaper cartoons about how them damn kids these days are always on their damn phones – yet, when all’s said and done, it was pretty much the same message. In looking for signs that a work’s gotten old, moaning about ‘kids these days’ is something of a smoking gun.
In the pre-double-digits seasons of It’s Always Sunny, the usual contenders for outlying worst-episodes-ever were ‘The Gang Cracks The Liberty Bell’ and ‘Frank’s Brother’. Both were departures from the show’s usual setup, and notably in both cases were period pieces. So the fourteenth season’s noir parody ‘The Janitor Always Mops Twice’ should have sent up big red distress flares from the start, but even those who thought ‘Frank’s Brother’ was an irrevocable chink in the armour would be shocked at just how bad it was. On the nuts and bolts level, it actively fell apart before our eyes as the cast dropped in and out of their silly noir mannerisms, which were the episode’s whole raison d’etre, seemingly at random. It was as if they were tapping on the fourth wall to see if there was still anybody out there.
Hovering Out Over The Shark
Where history has its reductive ‘great-man‘ theories, where widespread societal changes are attributed to the acts of individual notables, the idea of TV shows being ruined by one isolated scene is the same sort of reductive ‘shit-moment’ theory. Whether it’s jumping over a shark on waterskis, or abruptly dropping in an interpretative dance, these are symptoms, not causes.
Symptoms of what, though? One obvious clue comes a season beforehand, in the season 12 finale, which showed Dennis symbolically leaving the bar – just as his actor, Glenn Howerton, was preparing to take a serious run at fronting comedy series A.P. Bio. There was much speculation in the interim about whether Howerton would return for season 13, which ultimately he did, but in a somewhat diminished capacity. He was completely absent from several episodes, including the divisive finale.
A.P. Bio’s still going, although it was briefly dropped by NBC before being revived following a fan outcry (and it is good that those actually work these days). But at the same time Kaitlin Olson had also been the lead in her own side project, The Mick, which was cancelled and stayed that way. This isn’t to say they were looking for the door, or that their hearts weren’t in It’s Always Sunny any more, but it’s a rare thing that makes you feel as passionate twelve years in as you were in the early days.
Dennis leaving so prominently and then returning led to the admittedly fun running gag that the rest of the gang simply didn’t care where he had been – but the show’s refusal to explore this any further seems to suggest they simply couldn’t think of anything sufficiently funny for him to have been doing in the interim. And the reason he left in the first place was to be with a child borne of one of his many flings, which flies worryingly close to one of the traditional forms of jumping the shark, the introduction of an inevitably irritating child character. This was something they had sensibly steered firmly away from even when they incorporated McElhenney and Olson’s newborn into the sixth season. (A main character’s departure is of course also considered one of the traditional shark-leapings.)
Consider Ice Cream and Cottage Cheese
The thirteenth season also saw Rob McElhenney adopt a dramatic new look – specifically, shredded. As impressive as this was, this development came to literally nothing. It wasn’t even an original idea, since McElhenney had gone through a similarly alarming transformation before the seventh season, gaining fully 60 pounds in weight by the internal use of melted ice cream and cottage cheese (“I went from a tiny twink to the muscle-bound freak you see before you”). Even more damningly, this was actually incorporated into the show’s narrative, most obviously in the episode ‘How Mac Got Fat’. As with Dennis’s triumphant return, it’s as if they just couldn’t think of any way to make McElhenney’s rippedification funny.
Just as McElhenney’s chubbed-up state played into the narrative, it was also informed by the narrative. Per McElhenney, he came to think that given the gang’s lifestyle, they would inevitably fall apart physically – but none of the other main cast members were willing to get fat (apart from DeVito, who the process might actually have killed), so he did it himself. Over the seventh season we saw Mac regularly gorging himself on any food available, so there was at least an in-universe reason for it.
There was no such reason for the Chippendale physique Mac suddenly boasted in the thirteenth. In fact, it made no sense in-universe whatsoever, as McElhenney’s description of the punishing regimen it had required included – well, any number of points Mac would never have gone for, but crucially, no drinking, unthinkable for any of It’s Always Sunny’s functional alcoholic main characters. We’ve literally seen them get the DTs before (another process, incidentally, that can easily be fatal).
McElhenney personally becoming more polished and more expensively constructed is an eerily apt reflection of how It’s Always Sunny itself has mutated over the years. It’s been around long enough to make the leap into widescreen, and just going through the back catalogue, you can see they’re using better cameras these days – certainly better than in the pilot, which was a matter of McElhenney, Howerton, and Day running in and out of each others’ apartments with a camcorder.
And being more polished in this way has, perhaps by necessity, resulted in scripts which play it ever-so-slightly more safely and rigidly. To no longer have the occasional moment where the cast are all just shouting incoherently over each other is probably a good thing, but this is a double-edged sword. With more set-pieces and more elaborate plotlines, it’s hard to think they improvise quite as much as they once did (this is why Olson and Day share so many scenes – Olson is by far the most resistant to corpsing). And what’s more, this has also resulted in the show handling subjects more clumsily than it might have in its heyday.
‘The Gang Escapes’ hammered on its point of the men thinking themselves more sensible than women, all while proving that they’re obviously not, so much and so hard that even the slowest viewer couldn’t fail to grasp the implication – which you can neatly contrast with the masterful treatment of gender politics used in Dennis’s discussion of ‘the implication’. Subtlety is abandoned for the miserable consolation prize of making a capital-p Point.
This has been reflected across the board as time’s gone by. What would once have been subtext has become text. The grimy, anarchic, realistic feel of the gang’s arguments over everything and nothing gave way to painfully artificial treatment of current events. One recent two-parter actually saw them go to the Super Bowl and enjoy a Philadelphia Eagles victory – the kind of big event favoured by shows which now have a very large budget and fancy giving the cast a nice day out. And, in the flashback episode ‘The Gang Does A Clip Show’ (which did at least have the sense not to make it a straight clip show, and had them ‘remember’ an episode of Seinfeld) we saw that they were actually bleeping out some of the more vulgar language from seasons past.
It’s Always Sunny had itself mocked this process, when Dee’s depressing video diary went viral on YouTube (under the suitably grim pen name patheticgirl43) – at which point Dee, scenting blood, suddenly started appearing in good lighting, drinking champagne, talking about how well her acting career was going. And, true to form, people simply weren’t as interested in the everyday problems of an attractive, well-to-do person. There really is no better illustration of being a victim of one’s own success.
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