“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an anomaly. The show’s pilot was filmed for almost nothing, and the creators fought to find a network that would give them complete creative control. After teaming up with FX, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton developed one of the funniest, most button-pushing shows in television history. There are no taboos on Sunny, no topics too touchy to make fun of. The first season features episodes about racial tension, child molestation, Nazi sympathizers, abortion, and gun laws. These guys don’t just court controversy, they smash it with a rat-bashing stick and laugh all the way to the bank.
Over the years, the members of the self-titled “gang” have done some truly deplorable things. Sunny takes the basic formula for a comedy about friends doing terrible things to each other and steps it up a notch. This is what happens when you put a comedy like Seinfeld in a dive bar in Philly and add a dash of crack. (Okay, quite a bit of crack.)
To celebrate Sunny‘s season 12 debut tonight (in which the gang becomes black and sings about it), here are some of the best moments of the gang doing their worst.
Charlie and his Mom have (Fake) Cancer
In the original pilot McElhenney and co. played for FX, Charlie tells Dennis he has cancer when Dennis comes to ask him to borrow a basketball. This seems innocuous enough, but Dennis clearly wants to get out of the apartment before Charlie can give him any details about the cancer. It’s the beginning of Dennis behaving like a complete sociopath, a trend that continues through all 12 seasons. It turns out that Charlie faked having cancer to woo the Waitress, and the whole episode then hinges on the guys trying to manipulate women around them. (Another recurring theme for Sunny: see also “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System“.)
Seven seasons later, Charlie’s mom tries to pull the same gag, pretending to have cancer to raise money. When Charlie, stunned, asks her why she would fake having cancer, her reply is classic: “I learned it from you.”
“Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer” also features one of Frank’s most sinister moments: convincing Dennis and Dee that their mother faked her death and forcing them to dig up her grave. Dennis hasn’t been able to feel anything in the episode up until this point, and he begins screeching at the sight of his mother’s corpse. Frank arranged the whole demented scenario just to prove he wasn’t losing his wits, though it’s clear to anyone watching the show that the man clearly has donkey brains.
The Steady Decline of Rickety Cricket
The Gang has a bad influence on the people around them, but no one has been transformed quite like Rickety Cricket. Cricket went to high school with the gang, where they mercilessly teased him for wearing leg braces. In season one, he has become an ordained priest and is trying to do right by the world. His infatuation with Dee, however, leads him to leave the priesthood. He eventually becomes homeless, addicted to crack, and willing to perform sex acts for money. By season 10, he is also horrifically burned after the gang lock him in Mac and Dennis’ burning apartment. (Somehow, almost everyone else escapes the apartment unscathed.)
Cricket’s transformation from a man of the cloth to a man who huffs ether-soaked-rags is a testament to how much influence the gang has on their surroundings. There is no single moment of Cricket’s ruin, only a steady run straight at oblivion. One of the best moments in Cricket’s downward spiral happens in season four when Dennis and Mac decide to hunt him for sport.
The Gang Wears Blackface
The gang love to dress up and portray characters even wilder than themselves. A result of this was their ill-conceived Lethal Weapon 5 and Lethal Weapon 6 films. When Mac and Dennis switch roles halfway through Lethal Weapon 5 (because Mac’s Aussie accent is garbage), Mac decides to go full Danny Glover and paints his skin brown. Frank dresses up in stereotyped Native American garb to boot, offering extra racial insensitivity. By the time we get to see Dee in full-blown blackface in Lethal Weapon 6, it’s not even really shocking anymore. The creators of Sunny aren’t afraid to push the envelope.
The show’s ability to get away with something like blackface has a lot to do with the creators. This is a show that repeatedly tells us that its central characters are awful human beings. Their behavior isn’t glorified in any way, and they frequently get what’s coming to them. Additionally, the cast and creators are all vocal on social media about human rights causes. They’re good people portraying bad people on TV, and that distinction helps them get away with, well, blackface.
The Gang Goes Through Withdrawal
Charlie, Mac, Dee, Dennis, and Frank have all done their share of drinking and drugs. Dennis and Dee got addicted to crack. Charlie huffs just about anything he can get his hands on, and later graduates to eating “straight paint”. Frank has done it all – LSD, a mountain of cocaine, even drinking boat fuel to get high. Mac’s pretty much the only one who’s only an alcoholic, but he has his own, less substance-abusing addictions.
The gang finally realized their alcoholism in season nine, when they were forced to stay in the bar to avoid a flu outbreak. Dennis doesn’t want anyone to drink and ruin their chances at winning the Boyz II Men singing contest, so the gang is forced to go without booze for a few days. It’s only when Charlie cracks out his hidden booze stash in the bathroom that they realize the cause of their ills isn’t the flu but is actually alcohol withdrawal.
What’s shocking isn’t that the gang are alcoholics. Instead, it’s their reaction to discovering this revelation about themselves. They choose to “shove it down deep inside and forget about it,” because being alcoholic degenerates is much easier than getting clean.
The Gang Goes to Hell
Season 11 of Sunny ended with a two-part finale, “The Gang Goes to Hell“. It starts innocuously enough, with the gang embarking on a (Christian) cruise to try and change their group dynamic. Anytime the gang leaves Paddy’s, chaos ensues, and this cruise proves no different. Instead of changing their dynamic, the gang are back to their old antics pretty quickly. Mac goes off to Bible study and ends up with the unsurprising revelation that he’s gay. Frank and Charlie drink boat fuel. Dennis tries to manipulate a young woman into sex using the “implication” of rape, while Dee teaches him about her own “insinuation” that if a guy won’t have sex with her, she’ll claim rape.
Everyone is acting their worst, and they all end up in the brig. The boat begins to sink, and they realize they might actually die together. Charlie is convinced they’re already dead and shoots himself in the head with a flare gun, but he survives. When they realize that their situation is hopeless, they begin to join together. They all sit on the floor of the brig peacefully, holding hands, as water fills the room. Then, the hatch opens, and they punch and kick one another in an attempt to get at air. It’s a perfect analogy for their friendship: they work together great when the odds are against them, but will turn on one another in an instant if given the opportunity.
That is, perhaps, their most damning behavior. Individually, the members of the gang are gross, racist, sexist, drug-and-alcohol abusing narcissists. Together they’re so much worse, pushing one another to new levels of depravity only to bail when things get serious. They’re truly awful people, but it makes for great television.