Why I'm Obsessed with 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'

It's Always Sunny cast.jpg

Years ago, my sister recommended that I try It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia since we both love good, smart, dark comedy. We also grew up outside Philly (my parents still live in Reading, PA), and I went to school and lived in Center City for six years total. At the time, I tried one episode and maybe half-paid attention to a second, but it didn’t take, as they used to say on Seinfeld

Fast forward to a few months ago, when I surf-stumbled on this “top 20 episodes” list for the show from Rolling Stone. Needing something to fill my smart comedy void since The Office finished its nine seasons, I decided to give Sunny another go. 

While I didn’t love every episode on the RS list, it list did help get me hooked, and spurred me on to create my own Top 15 episodes list at the end of this post—as well as the following in-depth analysis of why Sunny is the greatest sitcom of its time.

Even though the show premiered in 2005, it seems more fresh and relevant as ever in the context of our current—and in many ways very dark and strange—social, economic, and political climate. It seemed to predict or perhaps just reflect the decline of the American empire, what with its five marginally employed and morally challenged characters’ lives revolving around stabbing each other in the back, attempts at gaming the system, insisting on their white privilege in vain, and feeding their own narcissism and self-interest at the expense of others. Even when the show goes for more overt social or political satire, it’s often sharp, ironic and evergreen, such as when the completely unqualified Dennis runs for political office.

Whether you’re new to the show or a hardcore fan like myself, my Top 7 list of so-called “Golden Episodes”—along with 8 Top “Honorable Mentions”—at the end of this post serve as the ultimate guide to what makes the series so special.

OK, enough chit-chat, let’s deep-dive in.

About the Show

NOTE: If you’re already familiar with the show, you may want to skip ahead to the What Makes the Show Unique section, followed by my Top 15 Episodes list—although I think there’s something even for hardcore fans in the following...

Sunny was recently renewed for a 13th and 14th season, which will tie it with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as the longest running (number of seasons) live-action sitcom in American TV history. 

Apparently the whole thing started with cast members Rob McElhenny, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton shooting an episode themselves in one of the struggling actors’ apartments with their own gear. The three members of what would become the show’s “Gang” pitched the show to various networks, simply by showing the tape. FX picked it up and the rest is history.

For those who haven’t watched yet, Sunny is essentially about four childhood friends who run a dumpy Irish bar called Paddy’s somewhere on the outskirts of Philly (exteriors of Paddy’s are actually shot in L.A., a site I recently made a pilgrimage to).

Most of the episodes revolve around the Gang getting high, avenging perceived slights within and outside the Gang, ruining lives, underachieving, keeping each other down, or coming up with some harebrained scheme to get fame or money. They are all loud, rude, obnoxious, self-destructive, and clueless about themselves in ways that keep them stuck. Even so, each of them possess qualities that make them sympathetic, despite their collective and individual ignobility. I’m convinced this is one of the keys to the show’s longstanding success.

I understand if this all doesn’t sound super-appealing. Like shows about doctors, TED talks, and NPR, dark comedy is not for everyone. Plus, the show is like any other sitcom in that certain episodes are “Golden”—those that just nail it throughout—while weaker episodes might have one classic scene, with many other episodes that just OK.

I’ll cover this in more detail below, but part of the reason it’s worth watching every episode is because Sunny builds on and refers to itself (i.e. it’s meta), which amplifies the better scenes and characters when they happen or reappear, respectively.

There’s much more to Sunny’s appeal than its convincing world-building. For one, a show can’t stay on top for so long without solid characters, so let’s start there.

The Characters

Sunny’s characters are unusually well drawn for a sitcom, with rich backstories that evolve, and that are often referred to—along with their unique and often loathsome character traits. Their intertwined histories are a huge part of what makes the show’s more self-referential aspects build on themselves over time, like a meta comedy snowball of sorts. 

Those who know the show will enjoy the breakdown of each, as I point out specific scenes and qualities that make each character so unique. For the uninitiated, the following will help you get oriented before you dive in.

Let’s meet “The Gang”:

Charlie Kelly (played by Charlie Day)

Charlie is the illiterate janitor of the bar, often relegated to so-called “Charlie work” such as trapping rats, cleaning toilets, and the like. He lives in squalor in a run-down apartment with Frank Reynolds (likely Charlie’s father, but never confirmed), enjoys huffing paint and other substances, and eats things like dirt and other non-edibles for enjoyment or to impress others. It’s been suggested that Charlie doesn’t own a toothbrush, and he wears a very limited wardrobe throughout all twelve seasons of the show. His nightly ritual consists of playing “Nightcrawlers” with Frank under the covers of their pullout couch (often referred to but never explained in the show) and eating cat food to scare off all the cats outside his apartment so he can get sick and fall asleep. Charlie has never left Philly out of fear except for road trips the Gang takes to the Grand Canyon and the Jersey Shore, the latter for which Mac needs to knock him out to get him out of town.

Charlie wearing one of the nicer selections from his limited wardrobe.

Charlie wearing one of the nicer selections from his limited wardrobe.

The most sympathetic member of the Gang, Charlie can be sweetly naive, but also vicious and Machiavellian like the rest of the Gang under certain circumstances. He’s often stalking or somehow involved in some deceit in pursuit of “The Waitress,” a local loser girl who repeatedly makes it clear that she has no interest in him (played nicely by Day’s real-life wife Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Despite this chronic lack of self-awareness (a main staple of each member of the Gang), Charlie’s often the one who points it out to the Gang when they’re being racist, or notice when the others demonstrate their own lack of self-awareness.

In spite of his fringe-class status and simple nature, Charlie is something of a savant in that he’s a brilliant singer, pianist and songwriter. One episode features him performing two theme songs for Paddy’s (one light and one dark), and another The Gang performing his rock opera about “The Nightman”—a being who haunts his dreams to molest him (childhood and teenage trauma being mined for tragicomedy with every member of the Gang).

Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton)

While every cast member on the show is incredibly talented and hilarious in their own right, Howerton is a Juilliard-trained actor, and as such often has the most LOL-funny reactions, monologues (which the character has a penchant for), facial expressions, and snide one-liners. 

Raised by Frank Reynolds, Dennis is Sweet Dee’s twin brother, although he’s often shown keeping her down with insults, deception, and emotional battery. Dennis and Dee learn in Season 2 that their father is actually a wealthy philanthropist named Bruce whom they try to take advantage of financially, with no success. Dennis drives a Range Rover referred to as a “starter car” that the Gang blows up in Season 12 with an RPG they purchased for him as a gift, which Dennis declares was the one thing he wanted more than anything in the world.

Dennis Reynolds: psychopath, or simply misunderstood? 

Dennis Reynolds: psychopath, or simply misunderstood? 

Most of Dennis’s self-esteem is wrapped up in his looks, ability to manipulate others, and sexual conquests he videotapes in his bedroom. It’s suggested throughout the show’s run that Dennis is a rapist, possible serial killer, or both. As Mac’s roommate and childhood friend, he is co-owner of the bar and is the bar’s de facto and only competent bartender. The show suggests that Dennis is essentially a sociopath without feelings, which he refers to with increasing frequency as the show goes on—although we get a glimpse of what seem to be softer edges in the latest seasons. We also learn that Dennis had sex with his high school librarian (who the Gang says looked like Rick Moranis) when he was 14. Although he insists it was consensual, the show makes it clear that the incident traumatized him in some way (Note his reaction when referring to the incident during S12E7, “PTSDee”).

Dennis is the most class-aware of the Gang, often referring to those he thinks are beneath him (i.e. mostly everybody) as “trash,” as well as his time spent studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is probably the most overtly negative and mean member of the Gang, although the end of Season 12 shows him possibly leaving the Gang to care for a child he fathered during a layover.

Ronald “Mac” McDonald (Rob McElhenney)

Mac is Dennis’s rough-edged roommate and co-owner of Paddy’s. As the show progresses, it’s made increasingly clear that while Mac professes to be a devout Christian and is often preoccupied with being a “bad-ass,” he’s actually a repressed gay man who’s in love with Dennis (he eventually comes out in Season 12). Like the others, Mac can fly into a rage over small things, and is often seen demonstrating spastic karate moves in attempts to express himself or intimidate someone.

Mac on 'roids at the Jersey Shore

Mac on 'roids at the Jersey Shore

Mac’s father Luther is a murderous ex-con, and as Sweet Dee put it in one episode, Mac has “a cigarette for a mother” (he proceeds to choke Dee in retribution). Mac is desperate for his father’s love, even though his father is usually shown in prison and when he’s not, wants nothing to do with him and even threatens to kill him for interfering in his life. 

As tough as Mac proclaims to be, he’s often seen as being the most cowardly, emotionally dependent, insecure and needy member of the Gang. And we love him for it.

Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olsen)

Kaitlin Olsen is the funniest comedic actress I’ve ever seen on a sitcom. I see her as a bit of a trailblazer not just because she can comedically hold her own with the otherwise very male, very funny cast, but also because she pushed to develop her role on the show in a way that took it from passive observer to active participant. 

Sweet Dee hitting rock bottom.

Sweet Dee hitting rock bottom.

Charlie Day: “I was listening to an interview with a director who was talking about how people want to see men be funny and act childish, and they don’t want to see women do that. But Sweet Dee is as selfish and childish as any other character on the show, and the audience loves her for it.”

Kaitlin Olsen: “When they wanted to hire me, Rob and I had a conversation on the phone, and I was like, ‘I like this project, but I don’t want to be the girl. I don’t want to be the boring straight person.’ And he promised me that wasn’t his intention. And I’m thrilled that I get to play a woman that isn’t just, ‘I’m a girl. I’m going to tell you guys when I think you’re doing something bad.’ Let the world be the voice of reason, and let us be ridiculous.”  — Entertainment Weekly

While the Gang regularly telling her to shut up, threatening her with physical violence (or actually committing it, with the Gang setting her on fire in one episode), telling her she looks like a “bird,” Dee’s/Olsen’s presence also has the effect of balancing the characters’—even the show’s—overt sexism. Not only since she is just as debauched as the others, but she also has no qualms about swearing, physical violence, lying and scheming, committing emotional battery, acting crudely, being insensitive, manipulating others for personal gain, or sleeping around—although that’s often just as often for satisfaction as it is to further her schemes or bolster her low self-esteem.

Formative experiences for Sweet Dee include wearing a back brace in high school that earned her the nickname “The Aluminum Monster” and getting institutionalized for setting her college roommate on fire. After dropping out of studying psychology at Penn, she harbored dreams of becoming an actress, which the show refers to frequently both in dialogue and also in various situations where Dee tries to do stand-up comedy, teach drama to high school students, perform as characters she’s created (usually bad ethnic stereotypes), or get bit parts that she manages to screw up with her incompetence and unprofessionalism. The fact that she’s a terrible actress and can’t do stand-up without getting stage fright and dry heaves only adds to the character’s—and show’s—pathos of dreams gone unrealized (and comedy of course).

Watching Dee doing stand-up, poorly, in a few key episodes (“Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life” (S4E9) and “The Gang Broke Dee” (S9E1) are some of my favorite moments of the show—particularly the latter—and showcase Olsen’s formidable chops as both an actress and comedienne. “The Gang Broke Dee” is also one of those episodes that takes full advantage of Sunny’s unique, outsider, meta (more below on this) take on things in how it satirizes showbiz, stand-up comedy, and lame female stand-up comedians all at once. 

Frank Reynolds (Danny Devito)

I have to admit I’ve never been a big Danny Devito fan, having practically grown up watching him on Taxi and later in movies like Romancing the Stone and Twins. But I’ve never been particularly anti, either. He’s just kind of there playing some crass, slobbish person for comic relief. After the show’s OK ratings for Season One, the suits at FX gave the show’s creators an ultimatum—either add a known name to draw more viewers, or the show would be over. Rob, Charlie, Glenn went for Danny Devito, whose first appearance was the first episode of Season 2. 

Frank in one of his nicer outfits.

Frank in one of his nicer outfits.

After enjoying Season 1, I thought the addition of Devito might detract from the show, but I found it had the opposite effect of making it even better. Devito’s persona was a perfect fit for the show’s tone, as well as the way they developed the character and integrated with the rest of the Gang. 

Frank is introduced as Sweet Dee and Dennis’s estranged father. He’s essentially a sleazy businessman who—after divorcing his “whore wife” Barbara and reconnecting with his kids who hate him—renounces his upper-class lifestyle for a life of slumming, hedonism, and general debauchery. He is partial owner of Paddy’s and lives with Charlie in their derelict apartment, where they live in squalor and share a pull-out bed. 

A few of Frank’s more notable character traits include his compulsive gambling, whipping out a revolver when incensed, and trimming his toe nails with his “toe knife.” His character is deepened in a few episodes that refer to his attending a “nitwit school” (possibly a mental institution for slow or mentally ill children—never really clarified), which caused him lifelong trauma. Again, this in line with the show giving all members of the Gang some sort of traumatic backstory that helps us sympathize with them (if not empathize), and in a non-sentimental way that spins tragedy into comedy. Plus it can’t be denied that Devito is often hilarious, and owns some of the show’s most classic scenes

Notable Supporting Players

Some other characters in the Gang’s orbit that I’ve particularly enjoyed, and ones to watch for if you’re new to Sunny:

  • The Waitress — The object of Charlie’s stalking, although she wants nothing to do with him. Her disinterest and brashness play perfectly off Charlie’s sweet and naive side.
  • Matthew Mara/Rickety Cricket (David Hornsby)— Once a priest, Cricket’s enduring, unrequited love for Sweet Dee sends him off the rails into panhandling and homelessness, partial blindness, and drug addiction. Over time, we learn that on the street, he performs gay sex for money, takes part in a “dog orgy,” sells his organs for cash, and smokes PCP in Paddy’s bathroom. His nickname is from high school due to having to wear leg braces. Cricket is played by one of the show’s executive producers and steals most of the scenes he’s in. Here’s one of them.
  • Uncle Jack (Andrew Friedman)– Jack is Charlie’s uncle, a terrible lawyer with small hands who likely molested Charlie as a child. He doesn’t appear often, but when he does, he is hilariously played by Friedman, a member of the legendary Groundlings improv troupe. Uncle Jack stars in one of the sickest and funniest scenes in the show’s 12 seasons
  • Charlie’s Mom (Lynne Marie Stewart) – Charlie’s mom is neurotic, and even more sweet and naive than Charlie. Stewart is hilarious in every scene she’s in, even when the material doesn’t give her much to work with—although this is rarely the case.
  • “Gail the Snail” (the Garbage Pail Cousin) — More on this one in the favorite episodes and scenes list below. 

What makes the show unique

Sunny is for adults

One of Sunny’s more refreshing aspects is how it feels like a sitcom for adults. There’s an edge—an element of danger to it—that you can’t find in more generic prime-time fare like Big Bang Theory and the like. Because it’s on FXX and not one of the big three networks, you can bleep out the F word but you can also say “shit” and have sight gags like two old homeless men fornicating under a Jersey boardwalk.

Lo-fi / DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos

As I mentioned above, Sunny itself started out as a low-fi, DIY project, which very much falls in line with my own “indie” ethos and approach around making music, videos, and pretty much any other kind of art that’s self-taught—an approach to creativity that in part spurred me to write my book, Indie Rock 101

The DIY ethos is a big part of what makes Sunny so unique and give it the edge—the look, the jokes, the tone—that other sitcoms don’t have. The same approach is applied not just behind the camera, but to elements of the show on-camera, such as the Gang’s battered video camera and inept, home-brew attempts at making their own videos.

There’s something about working light and fast, cheap and scrappy, that can produce innovative, groundbreaking results simply because risk is lowered. Working this way also tends to lower pressure and push creativity. 

Aside from the show’s modest origins, just look at the title sequence: bad font, stock music, and footage that was clearly handheld and shot out of the window of a car. It’s all about as lo-fi and “anti-sitcom” as it can get, at least in the context of all the other neon-lit, laugh-track pablum that came before it.

Sunny's lo-fi opening credits sequence, replete with bad stock music. 

Sunny is Meta

Google defines “meta” as “(of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential,” i.e. it’s self-aware. 

Sunny constantly refers to itself in terms of backstory and character traits, makes pop culture references throughout its run, and satirizes stand-up comedy, filmmaking, and sitcoms themselves—all making it “meta” on many levels, and in a way that’s fresh and smart. I want to give this guy props for unpacking this particular facet of the show, even if it’s nowhere near a comprehensive a look at how multifaceted Sunny really is in this respect.

One of Sunny’s most appealing qualities is one that often elevates it from what could be viewed as lowbrow comedy—its ability to satirize and make references in a way that amplifies the characters and comedy. This works fine when the Gang makes their own DIY version of the Lethal Weapon films (which in one episode a potential backer mistakes for “gay porn”), but it works even better when it’s so organically woven into the story and characters that it’s practically under the radar. 

Allow me to provide a few examples:

MusicSunny is a show that knows how to use music. The use of fairly upbeat, orchestral stock music it uses for the theme song and transitions is one aspect of the show’s lo-fi nature (more below on this), but it’s also one of those devices the show uses in cynical contrast against it’s uniquely dark and crass brand of comedy. Perhaps more ingeniously, it’s also commentary on the use of bland, cheerful music as a staple of bad sitcoms in general.

Sunny uses music in certain scenes or during the end credits that are often in the vein of bad ‘80s pop (like referencing and playing Steve Winwood and playing Yellow, respectively, in the same episode). Other examples of the show’s clever use of music:

The Gang visits "Sudz," a fictional chain bar that's a meta stand-in for lame, award-winning sitcoms, with Carly Rae Jensen playing in the background (soon followed by Taylor Swift).

The Gang visits "Sudz," a fictional chain bar that's a meta stand-in for lame, award-winning sitcoms, with Carly Rae Jensen playing in the background (soon followed by Taylor Swift).

Whether it’s in reference to other music (such as the hilarious reference to the Spin Doctors in this episode), as part of its soundtrack, or in its use during scenesSunny uses music in ways that are fresh, funny, and amplify the comedy like no sitcom has ever done.

Use of sound effects

Sunny uses sound effects creatively to amplify the comedy during on-screen action. As an artificially added element, the use of these sound effects effectively breaks the so-called “fourth wall” during these scenes, adding to the ironic, meta/self-aware nature of the show. This technique is on a spectrum of sorts where it can be subtle, but it can also serve as a gag itself. Some consistent examples of how and when the show does this:

Movie references

Sunny is a show for broad audiences, but it’s one pop culture/film/music geeks especially can love, if only because of the frequent references to other films—often from the ’80s (this era often applies to the Gang’s musical tastes as well). Sometimes whole plots and/or episodes are one big reference to a certain film. Some examples:

Dennis losing his mind—and his shit—on his new neighbor, Wally. Probably my favorite episode in the whole series, this one borrows heavily from 'The Shining.'

Dennis losing his mind—and his shit—on his new neighbor, Wally. Probably my favorite episode in the whole series, this one borrows heavily from 'The Shining.'

Other things I love about the show

  • Certain props and wardrobe enjoy an unusually high, almost obsessive degree of reference and continuity in Sunny’s world, including items like Mac’s leather duster, Charlie’s thermal undies that he sleeps in, Fight Milk, Frank’s toe knife, the Gang’s old-school videocamera held together with duct tape the Gang uses to shoot their projects, duct tape itself, Dennis’s sex tapes, and many more.
  • It’s set in Philadelphia, where I grew up near my whole life, and lived for six years as an adult. Certain scenes are shot in Philly as well. The show captures Philly’s unique rough-around-the-edges edge, along with a certain provincialism, with characters like Charlie who haven’t left it often and are terrified of doing so.
  • It’s class-aware, with Dennis referring to those he sees as being beneath him as “trash” and episodes like “Mac and Charlie: White Trash” showing Dennis and Dee trying to reclaim what they see as their “upper class”-ness by trying to join a fancy pool club. (In keeping with its frequent film references, this episode is also reminiscent of Do the Right Thing).
  • It’s frequent references to psychology, including episodes like “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” Dee and Dennis’s frequent bragging about their (non-completed) psychology studies at Penn, and Dennis keeping detailed “psychological dossiers” on the rest of the Gang since childhood, starting with one on his sister written in crayon.

My top 15 SUNNY episodes list

Before we get into the list, it’s important to qualify that Sunny is like all other sitcoms in one respect: not all episodes are great. In fact, in its 12 seasons, there are many that are just sort of meh. 

This is to be expected with any sort of sitcom as it’s practically impossible for any show—no matter how good it is in general—to nail it week after week. I’ve found this to be the case for any of my favorite comedies, including The Office, Flight of the Concords, Portlandia, Inside Amy Schumer, Kids in the Hall, Silicon Valley, The Sarah Silverman Program, and yes, even Seinfeld.

What’s important is that the show is at least funny and interesting enough to re-engage week after week, and has several of what I call “Golden Episodes” throughout its run to date—Golden Episodes being my term for those that feel sharpest and most “complete” throughout.

The Golden Episodes list is followed by a few Honorable Mentions, which are episodes that include at least one scene that’s so funny, it creates a halo around the entire episode.

WARNING: These capsule reviews contain spoilers, since I call out certain lines, scenes, or elements that make them particularly hilarious, as opposed to simply rehashing the plot (you can see recaps on iTunes or on this glorious, exhaustive Sunny wiki). I doubt this will affect your enjoyment if you read the list first, and you may actually want to watch the episode again after reading each description.

Without further ado, and in chronological order, I give you my:

TOP 7 “GOLDEN EPISODES”

#1. “Mac’s Banging the Waitress” (S4E4)

This episode isn’t just a standout because of how awesome it is—it’s also a great primer to the series as it features a number of recurring elements unique to the show:

Mac doesn't like this angle when they do this in porns. Or Dennis’s sex tapes.

Mac doesn't like this angle when they do this in porns. Or Dennis’s sex tapes.

  • The Waitress: not just as the object of Charlie’s obsession, but how her own loserishness gets her in deeper with the rest of The Gang. To her own detriment, of course.
  • Mac’s so-called “Project Badass” videotapes
  • Dennis’s sex tapes
  • Dubbed sound effects or musical effects over on-screen action (Mac’s lightning-fast karate hands in this case, the ominous sound effect when Dennis appears in the doorway)
  • Mac’s latent homosexuality / crush on Dennis

Music plays a part in coloring the episode as well, with Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Fairy Dragee” used to brilliant effect, and the ‘80s pop metal song "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake playing during the end credits.

Other comedic highlights include:

  • Charlie trying to get out of watching a movie with Dennis
  • Mac describing close-ups of people banging in porns (in reference to the angle Dennis prefers to shoot for the sex tapes he films in his bedroom, with a camera that runs 24-7)
  • Charlie drunk after drinking 24 cans of beer. This is easily one of Charlie Day’s best scenes in the whole series—and he has many great scenes. This one concludes with a callback that’s LOL funny no matter how many times I watch it.
  • Mac telling Dennis “You got weird balls,” which would be funny enough on its own without Dennis’s reaction making it even funnier.

God bless this cast and crew for creating such a hilarious 22 minutes of comedy.

#2. “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” (S5E10)

I have to give the Rolling Stone Top 20 list credit for including this one. It's one of the episodes that got me hooked on the show in a way that I knew I had to see all of them.

One of the most twisted, and funniest, scenes I've ever seen on a sitcom. 

One of the most twisted, and funniest, scenes I've ever seen on a sitcom. 

Highlights for me include:

  • Dennis describing his system for seducing women, which includes use of a pay phone. This was one of the darkest, most psychotic things I’ve ever seen played for laughs on TV or any other medium… but it is absolutely hilarious. 
  • Cut back to Charlie complimenting Dennis on how “Smooth… Very smooth, very classy” his system is. “I’m learning a lot from you, dude.” 
  • A carnie stabbing Dee with a key
  • Gladys

#3. “The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore” (S7E2)

The show’s ability to capture Philly’s essence carries through many of the episodes, but perhaps none as much as this one. 

Dennis and Sweet Dee partying with Bobby (and PCP) at the Jersey Shore.

Dennis and Sweet Dee partying with Bobby (and PCP) at the Jersey Shore.

The title pretty much says it all, and the way the episode contrasts the Jersey Shore’s darker side and gross-ness and with the gauzy nostalgia of the Gang’s younger years (and Frank and Mac’s positive experience)—replete with a montage set to the Go-Gos “Vacation”—makes this one of the strongest, most hilariously dark and cynical episodes in the series.

#4. “The Gang Broke Dee” (S9E1)

I don’t watch awards shows, but Kaitlin Olson should have won an Emmy for her performance in this episode, which features Dee doing self-deprecating stand-up comedy and Olson dimensionalizing her character with incredible range and acting chops. 

"I'm Sweet Dee and the joke's on me."

"I'm Sweet Dee and the joke's on me."

They say comedy is often funniest when the actor is playing it straight, and this is the case in some of this episode’s best scenes. In less than 23 minutes, Olson effortlessly and convincingly vacillates between catatonic depression, crippling self-doubt, righteous rage, ruthlessness, and incompetent to confident stand-up comedian. The episode is not only biting, hilarious satire (“She said vagina! A woman said ‘vagina!’”), it’s a master class in acting. 

#5. “The Gang Desperately Tries to Win an Award” (S9E3)

This one is the #2 on the RS list, and deservedly so. In their quest to understand why Paddy’s has never been recognized by the Restaurant Bar Association, the Gang visits “Sudz”—the popular, award-winning bar down the corner—and adjusts their own approach with predictably disastrous, hilarious results.

The scene at Sudz—and the episode as a whole—would be funny enough if it were simply a critique of bland, brightly-lit food franchises like Applebees or T.G.I. Fridays that are part of most strip malls across the U.S. But as the video above points out, it’s actually a meta examination of why Sunny hadn’t won any major awards up to that point—and why so many lesser sitcoms have. Substitute Sudz for, say, Big Bang Theory, and the drinking bell with a laugh track, and you get the idea. 

Highlights in this episode include two of some of Charlie Day’s finest musical performances (Here’s one of them).

#6. “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs” (S11E5)

By the Season 11, the show has past that zone that’s hit its stride without jumping the shark. It’s tried different things and explored new territories without changing its essence, cast, chemistry, or premise. This is part of what makes the show great—the creators seem to be fully aware of the pitfalls of going on too long, and that awareness is part of what makes it not only stay solid, but get better as it goes. 

Dennis and Mac warmly greet their new neighbor, Wally.

Dennis and Mac warmly greet their new neighbor, Wally.

If I had to pick a single sitcom episode of Sunny—or any sitcom episode to live with on a desert island forever—I think this would be it. Like most film or TV that stands out, it’s just a smart, hilarious, briskly moving script, by a veteran comedy writer named Hunter Covington

Just as “The Gang Broke Dee” serves as a showcase for Kate Olsen’s formidable talents, this episode is owned by Glenn Howerton, while featuring some of Rob McElhenny’s finest acting as well (For some reason, Mac is funniest when he’s being emotionally subservient or panicked, and in this episode he’s both).

Gems to look for in this one include Charlie’s maniacal laughs (the timing, the style of them), the episode’s brilliant use of music and sound effects, the way it stretches its own rules with Shining-like title cards, and one of Glenn Howerton’s funniest lines in the entire run of the show: “Well that must be nosy Wally. Comin’ to see what all the fighting’s about.”

#7. “PTSDee” (S12E7)

Caitlin Olsen again knocks it out of the park with this one. Sweet Dee is dating a stripper, but while she thinks they’ve found a profound connection, he lets her know he feels otherwise. The B plot has to do with Mac and Frank playing a VR war game, which is just about as solid as the A plot. The two dovetail at the end when the Gang lets Dee know she’s hit rock bottom… which, for any of them, is saying a lot. 

The writing and guest spots here are solid throughout, and Rickety Cricket’s debut as a stripper is one of his funniest appearances in the show. Dennis and Charlie’s attempt at stripping right after that is also comedy gold. 

TOP 8 “HONORABLE MENTION” EPISODES

I’m going to go through these in a bit less detail, since, as I mentioned, they are primarily listed here because of a single scene that is so solid, it needs to be on the master list of the show’s best moments.

#8. “Charlie Got Molested” (S1E8)

The end scene of this one involves the most depraved use of a baby doll as a comedic prop I’ve ever seen. It is also the only one. And that’s all I’m going to say. 

It’s probably one of those scenes that will serve as a litmus test for whether or not you think the show is offensive or hilarious. If you’re on board, it’s one of Uncle Jack’s funniest cameos throughout the show’s run (“SLOW. Slow…”) 

#9. “The Gang Runs for Office” (S2E7)

This.

Doesn't matter how many times I see it—it never fails to make me LOL.

“So-dooooooo.” 

#10. “Bums: Making a Mess All Over the City” (S3E14)

This one came very, very close to making the Golden Episodes list. Frank and Dennis posing as (corrupt, of course) cops, Charlie acting like Serpico, Dennis caring for a “junkyard cat,” and—in the episode’s comedic coup de grace—Charlie presenting his “tale of corruption” to the police. What’s not to like?

#11. “Dennis Gets Divorced” (S6E2)

This is one those scenes that made me realize two things: This show is very different, very demented, and Glenn Howerton is hilarious. Watch for yourself.

#12. “Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games” (S7E7)

One more that almost makes the Golden episodes list, and it’s #3 on the RS list. It’s one that very well sums up how tight-knit the Gang is… despite the misery and pain they seem to cause one another while reveling in it. It’s technically a “bottle episode” (taking place in one location, Paddy’s) but doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky.

“Shut up, dog!” (Made even funnier the second time in slow-motion, later in the same episode. You’ll see.)

#13. “The High School Reunion, Part 2: The Gang's Revenge” (S7E13)

The final scene from this episode is the one that made me decide to binge-watch the entire series. The title is most of what you need as a setup. Needless to say, the Gang fits in with their old high school friends about as well as they did back in high school—or the rest of the world, for that matter. 

The Gang uses their organized choreographed dance skills to solve their problems.

The Gang uses their organized choreographed dance skills to solve their problems.

Part One and Part Two are pretty good throughout, but it’s this final scene of Part Two—in which they hope to impress their old schoolmates—that earns this one a spot on the Honorable Mention list. 

I love it when an already very funny scene puts a cherry on top—an expression I just made up which means that the scene is already hilarious but then ends one final, hilarious gag. (<< You’ll catch the double meaning there once you watch it.)

#14. “The Gang Gives Frank an Intervention” (S5E4)

“Gail the Snail” is Dennis and Dee’s cousin, whom they also refer to as “the Garbage Pail Cousin.” She’s gross and clingy, they explain, so during their childhoods, they resorted to throwing salt on her to get rid of her.

This character appears only twice in the show, but her first is one of the funniest scenes I think I’ve ever seen in a comedy show, and one of Olsen’s funniest scenes, and lines, throughout the show’s entire run (“Keewwwll. Thank you.”)

Mary Lynn Rajskub is brilliant and intriguing in just about anything, with her (brief but memorable) work in Safety Not Guaranteed and Flight of the Concords being some of my favorites. There are very few actors and actresses who have the depth and range to play such wildly different characters so convincingly, especially in comedy IMO. Peter Sellers comes to mind.

#15. “How Mac Got Fat” (S7E10)

While this one didn’t quite make my Golden Episodes list (it’s #6 on the RS list), the overall strength of it, coupled with Charlie’s high dance, makes it a noteworthy must-watch.

ITEMS FOR YOUR TO-DO LIST

So there you have it… My exhaustive, 6,500-word-plus Top 15 List and critical analysis of why Sunny is the greatest sitcom of our time.

If you liked this post, please share. Listen to my records. Subscribe to this blog.

Fellow screenwriters, check out my spec script for “The Office,” which was one of two I wrote for the show in 2010 and placed in that year’s Scriptapalooza contest (also about a high school reunion, written a year before the Sunny episode with a similar storyline). Ancient history, maybe, but I’m still proud of it and am always looking to share good work and “network” with other writers.

Thanks for reading this, I hope you liked it. Please feel free to provide feedback or corrections in the comments section.