10. Frank’s Pretty Woman (s7e1)
“Can I offer you a nice egg in this trying time?”
The season 7 premiere, this episode is a real turning point for the show, a shining beacon of things to come. And what does it have? Blood vomit, crack, foot fetishists, dead prostitutes, and the stunning and basically unexplained reveal that Mac has gotten fat. Like really, noticeably fat. 50 to 60 pounds, to be precise. Just because Rob McElhenney thought it’d be funny. In several ways, this episode reaches new heights of grossness, shamelessness, and weirdness, and it’s amazing. The gang dragging poor dead Roxy out into the hall and then running away to the tune of “Pretty Woman” is a hell of a tone-setter. Dennis is right — by this point, they’ve become the gross crew. And it’s perfect.
9. The Gang Turns Black (s12e1)
“Guess we got that in common, huh kid? Oh, unless he knows his dad! Oh shoot, that was racist.”
If this were a ranking of most ambitious episodes, “Turns Black” would be right at the top. It’s an indictment of racism in America. It’s a reminder from the writers that the views expressed by the gang do not necessarily reflect their views. It’s a legitimate musical with ten original songs. It’s a Scott Bakula vehicle. There’s a hell of a lot going on in this episode, and it didn’t necessarily have to come together. But it does, and it does it admirably. As social commentary in Always Sunny goes, this is as thinly veiled as it gets. But that’s okay, because it’s a stance that’s worth taking, especially in a show where it’s tempting to mistake satire for glorification. “The Gang Turns Black” is a hell of a season premier that comes out swinging. The fact that it’s the twelfth season premier is just evidence of the show’s continued freshness and incredible staying power.
8. Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats (s6e10)
“I doubt Charlie can even say the word luau.”
Always Sunny is not known for its heart. Usually chaos and selfishness reign, and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way. But one unexpected advantage of the constant mean-spiritedness is the huge emotional payoff that comes with the rare moments of genuine warmth. One of these moments comes at the end of “King of the Rats,” when the gang accidentally and reluctantly throw Charlie the perfect birthday party… even though it’s not his birthday. Adding to the charm (and also softening its edges, because we don’t want to get too soppy) is the gang’s bewildered interpretation of Charlie’s Dream Book. Charlie’s illiteracy will never not be funny. But seeing it brought to life and judged by him is hilarious in an endearing way I never thought possible.
7. The Gang Tends Bar (s12e8)
“Frank’s gonna leave me for Jerry, man.”
While we’re on the subject of rare warmth on Always Sunny, there is no episode warmer than “The Gang Tends Bar.” Frank and Charlie have a moment of jealousy turned to reconciliation. Dee and Charlie have a musical moment that strongly suggests their spark in the “The Gang Misses the Boat” was not a one-time occurrence. And Mac and Dennis have the most touching moment of all, made so gratifying by the years of insistence that Dennis doesn’t have feelings, finally quashed once and for all in a meltdown that is so unlike Dennis, a man known for meltdowns. It’s a wonderfully genuine look at the way the gang depend upon each other for all the right reasons, in a way the antithesis of “The Gang Misses the Boat.” But on top of that, it’s a tightly and expertly written episode, one that manages to stay true to the heart of the show while exploring uncharted depths. The many threads running throughout — the mystery of the crate, Frank’s tapeworm Jerry, the anthrax scare — are all so seemingly simple yet carefully doled out to achieve a series of very sweet and satisfying climaxes.
6. The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award (s9e3)
“Let the record show / The greatest place to go / Is that bar called Paddy’s Pub”
This isn’t a metaphor for winning an Emmy. Definitely not. Where did you hear that? By far the show’s most self-aware episode, “Award” is a fantastic send-up of modern tv that’s still cheerfully self-deprecating. Like “Old Lady House,” it’s a fun instance of Always Sunny playing dress up, a unique chance to see it as it never was and never will be. And of course, it’s the showcase for two new Charlie Kelly original songs that may rival Nightman itself. When Charlie sings “Go Fuck Yourself” and the gang chase the award committee out of the bar, spitting, you can’t help but feel proud to still be there with them in the end. So what if it’s just a bunch of people yelling over each other? I like life at Paddy’s Pub.
5. The Gang Misses the Boat (s10e6)
“I am untethered and my rage knows no bounds!”
Sometimes it’s not about the boat at all. A tried and true theme of Always Sunny is the gang’s dependence upon each other. It’s rare that all five are in on the same scheme, but they’re almost always in twos and threes. Their plans may not work out, but at least they have each other. “The Gang Misses the Boat” addresses the serious question: How would these people function on their own? The answer is not well. Frank destroys three strangers’ lives, Mac retreats even further into the closet, and Dennis’ rage knows no bounds. But the same doesn’t hold true for Charlie and Dee, whose freedom from the group blossoms into newfound self confidence and, in one of the show’s few real shocks, romance. (A certain Valentine’s Day episode strongly hints that that romance is still going strong in season 12). “Misses the Boat” has some beautiful moments (Dennis’ Golden God meltdown and Frank’s Man-Cheetah are just the tip of the iceberg) but the real pleasure comes from seeing the gang as we’ve never seen them before and understanding what that means. It turns out their enabling codependency has actually been keeping their worst (and best) impulses in check. Their desperation to get back to the old times of rum ham and no questions is at once heartening and just a little sad.
4. Charlie Work (s10e4)
“Steaks? This is a chicken and air mile and steak scam now?”
In terms of technical excellence and sheer artistic joy, nothing even approaches “Charlie Work.” Competent Charlie is my favorite Charlie, and the lengths to which he goes in this episode (and, it’s implied, on a regular basis) are spectacular. The episode walks a delicate line, making sure that Charlie is on top of things only in a very particular, Charlie-specific way. He’s not actually good at keeping a clean bar, but goddamn is he good at making it seem like he does. The smoke detector ruse, dependent upon the unaddressed but brilliant revelation that Charlie has perfect pitch, is genius. The payoff of a jet black Frank opening his eyes after playing G# on a recorder is a strong contender for the best moment of the show. And the implication that Charlie has just incorporated Frank’s bizarre insistence on painting himself into the plan is a testament to the artistry of the script, one that carefully intertwines every element to create a beautiful chaotic dance. “Charlie Work” is funny, of course, but it’s also a real artistic feat that would be right at home in a more classically “sophisticated” show. It’s a demonstration of what Always Sunny is capable of, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.
3. Hero or Hate Crime? (s12e6)
“The Ass Pounder 4000 — Never Stop Pumping”
From the initial setup — everyone is loitering on the same street as a piano is hoisted over the sidewalk and conspicuous music plays — it’s clear that this episode is gearing up to do something unusual. And it does. A remarkable and uncensored examination of the power of language as only the gang could deliver it, “Hero or Hate Crime?” is a frank look at some of the very problematic themes that have gotten Always Sunny where it is today, and the acceptance that it might be time to move on. (If you’re in the mood for a too-long essay I wrote on the subject, then click here). It’s also responsible for one of the show’s very rare but cathartic moments of genuine heart, as after 12 years of steadily mounting gay jokes, Mac comes out once and for all to his friends. For an already stellar episode, it’s a final moment of immense payoff that really pushes it over the edge. It’s an episode that offers so much, and it delivers it masterfully.
2. Mac Finds His Pride (s13e10)
“Oh my God. I get it.”
If you want to read my much more involved take on this episode, click here. Or check out One Perfect Shot, where I tweet stills from it as often as Neil will let me. But if you just want a basic rundown, then heed my words of wisdom here instead. “Mac Finds His Pride” is a total game changer, the bravest thing ever attempted by a show already known for taking big creative risks. For the first three quarters it’s a funny enough, middle-of-the pack episode that plays off of grotesque humor and generational and cultural misunderstandings. But the final five minutes, a deadly serious performance between Mac and professional dancer Kylie Shea, is absolutely stunning. It’s a conclusion of 13 years of mounting jokes about Mac’s sexuality that is wholly unexpected and unequivocally beautiful. Whether this ushers in a new era of artistry in the 14th season, or exists as a standalone phenomenon, remains to be seen. Either way, it’s audacious, ferociously brave, and nigh-on perfect.
1. The Nightman Cometh (s4e13)
“I feel like you’re saying ‘boy’s hole’… and it’s clearly ‘soul.’”
If this isn’t your favorite episode, I don’t know what to tell you. If you’ve actually sifted through the list and didn’t just rocket down to number one, you may have noticed that I have a bias for newer, experimental episodes that subvert or play with the show’s well-established themes. But I’ll still choose “Nightman” every time. It’s the perfect episode. The spectacle of Charlie’s play is amazing, of course. The music is surprisingly good, the production value is unsurprisingly not, and the gang’s enthusiasm is contagious. But Charlie’s unexpected entrance as the Dayman is transcendent. I believe Rational Charlie is Funniest Charlie, and he builds up a decent amount of sympathy over the course of the episode as he tries to herd cats and put on the show of his dreams. So there’s nothing quite like the loss of all that good will as he descends from the ceiling singing an octave too high to propose to the Waitress.
It’s true — nobody writes a musical for no reason. But because Charlie did, the world is a much better place.