The Moral Lessons of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

The season finale of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs tonight. If you’re unfamiliar, Always Sunny is a TV comedy that depicts how depraved people act when they are totally unconstrained by morality. It’s hilarious, it’s crass, and it’s what you should be watching (but not with your kids).

The premise of the show centers on Paddy’s Pub. Paddy’s is run by five friends—Dennis, Mac, Charlie, Frank, and Dee—who really don’t care about running it at all. They constantly embark on get-rich-quick schemes they quickly abandon due to their impressive laziness. Completely amoral, “The Gang” has no issue throwing others, including each other, under the bus to get their way. Unlike other popular sitcoms which showcase awful people—most of them—Always Sunny shows the consequences of abandoning traditional morality and social norms: isolation and depravity.

Throughout the series’ impressive twelve-season run, the show has collected an impressive array of low points for each character. Just skimming the episodes’ titles gives a clear picture. Highlights of the series include: “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire.” “The Gang Gets Racist.” “Mac and Charlie: White Trash.” You get the idea. The gang has stolen, cheated, lied and drank their way through 134 episodes. Through it all, they never learn, but they’re perfect examples of how not to act.

While the main characters escape consequences relatively unharmed—despite a few concussions and blackouts—they leave a swath of destruction in their wake. While many sitcoms tie everything up neatly at the end of most episodes, Always Sunny has racked up an impressive array of colorful side-characters whose lives the gang has ruined. During the series, the gang’s manipulations turn Matthew Mara, an upstanding Catholic priest, into Rickety Cricket, a disfigured dog-fighting bum. Dee ruins at least one marriage, the gang burns down several buildings (only partly on purpose), and they single-handedly cause numerous public health crises in Philadelphia.

While the main characters escape unharmed, side characters like Cricket represent the picture to the gang’s Dorian Gray, bearing the physical scars of the gang’s misdeeds. Despite the carnage they inflict, however, they are too self-involved to understand or care about the consequences.

But the lessons are clear.

Many mainstream sitcoms present difficult protagonists and still expect you to like them. Think narcissist Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother. Think oversexed Joey from Friends. Think anyone on HBO. These shows depict the failings and selfishness of their heroes, yet never claim to pass moral judgment. At the end of a half hour episode, everything is happy and forgiven.

By contrast, Always Sunny portrays incredibly unlikeable people and never makes any effort to redeem them. It doesn’t pretend that human failings are simple quirky misunderstandings. After a few episodes, it’s clear that Dennis is a sociopath, Frank is a degenerate, Dee is a spiteful failure, Mac is in the closet yet a homophobe, and Charlie is simply delusional (not to mention illiterate). You see humanity at its lowest, and it’s painful. The show is hilarious, but it never expects you to laugh with or sympathize with its characters. Instead, you are meant to laugh at their failures. Their schemes never succeed, but you never want them to either.

So what can we learn from the show? The characters are not role models. But we can understand how they became who they are. They shut themselves off from the world and lack any moral sense. Dennis even admits that he hasn’t had feelings since middle school: “I’m having feelings again. Like some fourteen-year-old boy.” Void of all compassion and totally unaware of the consequences of their actions, it’s no wonder that the gang descends to depravity.

That’s why Always Sunny is instructive; it shows us that the typical self-centered network sitcom scenarios actually have consequences. If the characters don’t seek forgiveness or attempt to improve themselves, they sink into degeneracy.  Sometimes, such negative examples are just as instructive as positive ones. Whenever you’re tempted by self-absorption or an easy way out, just think of the gang on Always Sunny. Don’t be like them.

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