Hello, I’m Liz, and I hold the keys to the monstrous, lumbering, living document Every Episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Ranked. That means that with the 14th season, I’ll be adding 10 more entries to the list after a lot of analyzing and tallying and late-night soul-searching.
It also means that my review of the new season — which this is — will inevitably be tinged with musings on how the upcoming episodes stand up to the previous 143.
I’ve seen the first four episodes that have been released to critics so far, and I can report that they’re very classic Always Sunny fare.
And that’s a good thing.
When a show goes on for 14 years, it starts to develop eras, chunks of consecutive seasons that can be grouped together by similar patterns. And Seasons 12 and 13 (arguably even 11) can be characterized by a certain unevenness. They’ve had some of the finest episodes (“Mac Finds His Pride,” “The Gang Turns Black,” “Hero Or Hate Crime?”) but they’ve also had some of their worst (“A Cricket’s Tale,” “The Gang Does A Clip Show,” “Charlie’s Home Alone”).
Having earned the room to experiment, the show has begun taking more risks. In the past few years, it’s been swinging for the fences, and while there have been several home runs, the pitcher has also gotten beamed in the face a few times.
This season — or at least the beginning of it — is different.
The first four episodes are a succession of good, connecting hits. There’s nothing world-shaking, but there are no flops, either. Last year’s premiere had the burden of dealing with Glenn Howerton‘s possible (and ultimately only partial) departure, and while the show handled it brilliantly, the seams showed a little.
“The Gang Gets Romantic,” this year’s premiere written by Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney and directed by Howerton, is a solid return to form. In very classic style, it dives straight into one of the gang’s schemes, in media res studying a highly questionable Airbnb ad. It’s one of the best of the new episodes, one that could easily have aired several seasons ago, much like last year’s “The Gang Gets New Wheels.”
“The Gang Chokes” follows another classic formula: after a near-death experience, each member of the gang reacts in a different totally whacked-out way before eventually (spoiler alert!) reuniting and bonding over a highly disturbing ending.
Some of the show’s best recent work has had at least one eye toward social commentary, but it’s refreshing — and comforting — to see some good old-fashioned harebrained grabs at personal gain.
“Dee Day” is another great return to basics but with a twist, pitting one classic element (a carefully choreographed but highly stupid plan) against another (a day in which the rest of the gang has to do everything one member dictates). Penned by Megan Ganz, it boasts the deliberately worded, careful construction her episodes (among the recent seasons’ finest) have come to be known for. It might be the best of the bunch.
The only weak link so far may be “Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool.” A round-table format in which the gang riffs on a single issue — another very successful Always Sunny standard — this one seems to lose track of its message a few times. At the same time, it reaches for such low-hanging fruit and feels a little toothless. Still, it’s much better than some of the show’s worst episodes, and it gives the audience the unprecedented chance to see the Always Sunny creative team make a “real” movie with Dolph Lundgren as Thunder Gun himself.
With classic formulas done well, and even the poorest episode holding its own, the beginning of Always Sunny‘s 14th season suggests that the show really could go on forever. The recent high highs and low lows may just have been a changing of gears, an attempt to find a new rhythm before settling into consistent good quality.
That isn’t to say that some more weird highs wouldn’t be welcome, or even that they’re not on their way. The end of last season’s finale, “Mac Finds His Pride,” was one of the finest things the show has ever produced, and it stayed hidden away until the last five minutes. Maybe the show will do something extraordinary again this year, and maybe it won’t. It would be lovely to have another breathtaking, out of character scene, but I would also be perfectly happy leaving that as a strange unicorn that crossed our paths only once.
For the start of the season, at least, there’s nothing measuring up to that moment. In fact, the scene seems to have left no mark on the show or characters at all, which is perfectly fine. Any kind of permanent growth would be too much for the gang. I’m glad Frank (Danny DeVito) had an epiphany last November, but I’m thoroughly relieved to see him terrorizing waiters and scraping away with his toe knife again like old times.
That’s what these new episodes feel like — a good toe knife. An old reliable friend, always there for you, ready to scratch that itch. Or dig out that grime. Or cut that nail. Toe knives are versatile, and I’ve never been entirely clear what Frank is doing with his.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems to have found a new rhythm, with no huge creative risks (yet) but a strong set of episodes that will almost certainly land in the top half of my ever-expanding ranking. And with the show tentatively renewed through a 15th and 16th season, it’s an excellent sign that Always Sunny has what it takes to continue until McElhenney and co. get sick of it. Or the sun blows up.
Whichever comes first.
In the more foreseeable future, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia returns for its 14th season Wednesday, September 25th at 10 PM ET/PT on FXX.