It bugs me that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia rarely gets thrown into discussions about the best sitcom ever—or even the best sitcom currently, for that matter. Since 2005, this show has been consistently hilarious and unique while showcasing five fantastic comedy actors: Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito. For ten seasons, Sunny has been a sustained, consistent, virtuosic look at the world of five terrible people.
While shows like Community and Girls are worshipped by critics, Sunny rarely gets the same love. I think it’s because the show is too subtle: yes, subtle. I’m well aware the show has featured the characters smoking crack, killing rats, stalking waitresses, and pooping in beds. On the surface, it’s a disgusting, low-class show about disgusting, low-class people. That grimy exterior is likely what turns off some dainty critics and viewers. These folks love to feel like smart, special, classy intellectuals, and it’s hard to feel that way when watching characters eat cat food or throw salt at Gail the Snail—a disgusting cousin bravely played by Mary Lynn Rajskub.
But just as Battlestar Galactica was about more than space and Lost was about more than castaways, Sunny is about more than dirtbags in a bar: it’s about every damn one of us. These narcissistic sociopaths, in addition to being funny as hell, are human ids representing the catastrophic callousness of us all. Maybe we haven’t committed the particular sins and crimes of the Sunny gang, but we’re the people who turn our backs on friends, don’t care about celebrity rapists until years later, and can’t find Syria on a map but mythologize our lives like we were the Second Coming. No matter how we try to make ourselves feel like classy heroes, we are gross animals. Lots of people have compared Sunny to Seinfeld, and it’s a perfect comparison—but the Sunny characters are an even more unforgiving, unflattering mirror.
Sunny sees Seinfeld’s narcissism and raises it, but it plays a whole new game too: the Sunny characters are often shockingly vulnerable in a way that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer never are. I’m thinking of the horror Charlie Day shows in “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats.” This is a man genuinely traumatized by the “Charlie work” of killing rats, completely unable to behave like a normal person in a movie theater, and truly touched by the gift of a new “rat stick.” He’s also an illiterate stalker who dreams of worm hats and denim chickens. This is a tragic character. Self-hating George would feel better about himself—though terrified—if he ever met Charlie.
That vulnerability shows in the relationships between characters too: like the co-dependent relationship explored in “Mac and Dennis Break Up.” Even though these characters (like the rest) are utterly horrible to each other—for example, the events of “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom”—their level of codependence is frightening. When Dennis childishly proclaims to Dee that he’s not allowed to eat the skin off an apple, because he has so absorbed Mac’s nonsensical dietary advice, it’s funny but dark as hell.
So what’s the best Sunny joke? Could be the rum ham. Could be everything in “Who Pooped the Bed?” The disturbing conversation between Dennis and Mac about scaring women into sex on a boat through “implications” is a contender. Someone could write a book about that and other examples of Dennis being a sociopath: he may also be a genuine serial killer, as the show has teased a few times. I seriously considered picking the gang’s attempt to “squash beefs”—their half-hearted term for trying to make amends—that ended with them locking the beef-havers in a burning apartment.
But I would say the best Sunny joke is not a single joke, but an ongoing, dark tragedy: the tale of Rickety Cricket.
Cricket was a “friend” of the gang from high school who has always been in love with Dee. Dee was a master at manipulating Cricket: for example, she said she would kiss him if he ate a horse turd, then refused to do so because, naturally, he had horse turd breath. When the gang first encounter Cricket on the show, he has become a priest. In one of the gang’s many schemes, Dee pretends to be in love with Cricket to manipulate him into blessing a stain that appears somewhat like the Virgin Mary. (We’ve all been there). Though Cricket denies that request, he ultimately leaves the priesthood and asks Dee to marry him: naturally, Dee is no longer into it, leaving Cricket’s life in shambles.
That would be dark/funny enough, but every time Cricket reappears on the show, he is in worse shape, as his post-priesthood life has left him homeless, partially toothless, and often fighting for his very existence as a “street rat” (as the gang calls him). Cricket’s degradation is sometimes absurdly funny—like when a dog attempts to have sexual intercourse with Cricket’s neck wound, which was inflicted by Frank in a wrestling match—but it’s a painful funny. There’s no question that our “heroes” have completely destroyed his life and continue to make it worse. Of course, he’s one of the gang’s burn victims from their failed Thanksgiving beef-squashing. If the series lasts many more seasons, he’s going to be, to quote Jackie Chiles, nothing more than a shrunken head.
The tragedy of Rickety Cricket is a far more powerful version of the Seinfeld finale, which seemed designed to rub our faces in the awfulness of the characters, as if that wasn’t obvious all along. Cricket is a good human being laid to waste by monsters. I reckon Larry David would approve of his arc.
Like all good comedy, the fate of Cricket makes you think: whose life have I ruined, or at least worsened? Where have I made the world a shittier place? What’s the damage left in the wake of my selfishness, short attention span, and self-interest? Those are disturbing questions I’d rather not answer. Like the Sunny gang, I’d rather drink beer after beer, obsessing about me, me, me, and me.