58. Dennis’ Double Life (s12e10)
“I’m gonna sleep next to the dildo bike.”
This is a tricky episode to rank. At the time of this writing, Dennis’ departure from the bar and the show is being treated very seriously, and could possibly be permanent. Maybe at the time you’re reading this, some clarity has already shaken out. I’m going to write this from my perspective in good old July 2018, however, when no one knows when or if Dennis is coming back. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a marked trend, throughout season 12, of humanizing Dennis. And this finale seems to be the culmination of it. If Dennis has to leave (and the writers seem to think that he does), then I think the handling of it is very well done. Extenuating circumstances come crashing down but, for once in their lives, the gang’s plan sort of works. It’s not the outside world that drags Dennis away — it’s his own heart. It’s a fascinating move, and one that feels very final within the show — as each member of the gang does their signature dance to their beloved Tom Tom Club song, Dennis declares that he can’t take it anymore. Then the gang explode his Range Rover, a symbol of Dennis from the very beginning. I hope to God this departure’s not forever, but if it is, it’s a fitting and legitimately moving end of an era.
57. Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy (s12e3)
“I like it, and it feels like a real show, and I love all the letters flying around on the screen. Those are interesting.”
When you’ve been around for as long as Always Sunny has, sometimes the best thing you can do is address what you’re not. And that’s precisely what “Old Lady House” does. Ostensibly an attempt to spy on Mac and Charlie’s moms, it quickly becomes a show within a show, and a not-so-veiled commentary on all the things Always Sunny isn’t. But even as a commentary, it gives us the amazing chance to see the show as we never have — a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track, music cues, and group hugs. It’s a real relief when it returns to what it’s best at in the end. The “show” gets cancelled, Dee shits her pants, and Dennis sits alone in the dark watching his friends on film without their knowledge. That’s the show I fell in love with.
56. Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer (s8e6)
“No, I’m sorry. I think the cancer thing for whatever reason, it’s just not, you know… it’s just not grabbin’ me right now.”
Grifts are the name of the game in this episode, and they’re handled excellently. We’re so distracted by the on-the-nose commentary on religion, psychics, and P. Diddy witch doctors that we grow complacent and stop looking for anything more meaningful. Mrs. Mac and Mrs. Kelly’s cancer scam is a lovely twist, and a great look into their surprisingly functional friendship. But the real gold comes in the last minute, when Frank tricks the gang into digging up his dead wife to prove that he’s not losing it. It’s bizarre and vindictive and unnecessary, and it stretches the very definition of a grift. It beautifully balances the beginning of the episode with Dennis’ horrified screeching that his mommy is a skeleton and he feels too much, and with the fact that Frank has lost another damn pair of shoes. It’s a fantastic ending that pushes an already good episode over the top.
55. The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis (s5e1)
“How ’bout I take your wife upstairs and show her what it’s like to be deep inside a really big house?”
This is a great episode for exploring the essence of the gang’s dynamics, a good character study from the early years when the characters were still being understood. Frank is being sleazy. Charlie is trying his darnedest to be a lawyer. Dennis and Mac are blurring the lines of competition and codependency in a decidedly gay way. And Dee is being horrible in a way that refreshingly reminds you women are just as capable of grotesquerie. It’s a wonderful microcosm of the ecosystem that is Always Sunny, and the gang’s joyful romp in a stranger’s pool is a rare moment of harmony that drives home their status as outcasts, but makes you really glad you know them.
54. Waiting for Big Mo (s14e10)
“It’s a riddle about blind people… and their dogs, I guess.”
Season finales in Always Sunny are tricky things, and in the past few years they’ve more or less become exercises in doubling down. At the end of season 11 the gang faced, and accepted, certain death. At the end of season 12 Dennis left (supposedly) for good. At the end of season 13 Mac performed a show-stopping and paradigm-shifting 5 minute dance routine. This season’s finale, taking place entirely in a laser tag base guarded with extreme paranoia and machiavellian orchestrations by Dennis, is a very satisfyingly crafted meditation on what, exactly, it means to hold on for dear life to something for so long, especially when that something might be meaningless. (Is the laser tag base actually the show? Guys, I think it might actually be the show…) It’s a little bit of a dark foray into the minds of the creators — the episode is written by David Hornsby, who’s been on board since the beginning as a writer and poor, sweet Cricket. The show has, in rather loose terms, been more or less renewed in perpetuity by FXX, with the general understanding that it’ll end when the creators have had enough. But the episode’s final frank discussion about letting go and moving on, followed by several seconds of a camera trained on a vacant set, is honestly chiling. I don’t care if I saw the final twist (the gang comes back and promises to stay forever) a mile off — the moments leading up to it still put knots in my stomach. I won’t begrudge the folks behind Always Sunny wanting to move on (Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day have a new show on Apple TV+ as we speak). But boy do I hope they keep coming back to do a new season every now and again. For about five seconds I saw a world without Always Sunny, and it made me very, very sad.
53. Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person (s3e9)
“Nightman / Sneaky and mean / Spider inside my dreams / I think I love you”
If there’s one thing any self-respecting group of deluded assholes needs to do, it’s start a band. And in just 22 minutes the gang manage to start several. The sheer fun of the musical element (the first in a long and rich history of Charlie Day’s musical genius) would be enough to earn this episode a high spot on the list. But it’s the introduction of The Nightman, one of the most iconic features of the show, that truly makes it shine.
52. The Gang Recycles Their Trash (s8e2)
“He doesn’t even, like, get us, man.”
When you’re entering your eighth season, you’re allowed a certain amount of self-reference. A lot of material has accumulated. And if you can do it with self-deprecation and awareness, all the better. “Recycles” is a great celebration of some of the gang’s stupider plans, and some of the show’s more memorable jokes, and it comes together to make you feel good about the show, and, if you know all the references, good about yourself.
51. The Gang Finds A Dumpster Baby (s3e1)
“I had the procedure, and then they told me you were dead, and then three months later you popped out, happy as a clam!”
When the gang make a new move down the social ladder, they tend to do it in a season premiere. And “Dumpster Baby,” the first episode of season 3, is a beautiful example of their further descent. Gone are the more organized plots of the first two seasons, and gone too are the gang’s (at least somewhat) good intentions. Dennis utterly destroys a man who insults him, Dee and Mac adopt a baby completely for their own gain, and Charlie and Frank become obsessed with trash. Without any ceremony, all five characters have sunken much deeper into depravity, and it’s magnificent. The revelation that Charlie is an abortion survivor is just more stunning evidence of the new places the show is willing to go.
50. Mac and Dennis: Manhunters (s4e1)
“The problem is I’m gonna have a really hard time if we’re both cannibals and we’re racists.”
If “Dumpster Baby” is one benchmark in the gang’s descent into depravity, “Manhunters” is the next. The season 4 premiere, it ushers in a whole new level of insanity and stilted logic, and it’s wonderful. Cannibalism and hunting men for sport are the new topics on the table, and they’re explored with the loud, chaotic, on-the-run rationalization that the show becomes more and more known for. Season 3 is great, but I think the beginning of season 4 is really when Always Sunny really starts hitting its stride.
49. The Gang Dances Their Asses Off (s3e15)
“I put the bar under the pride section. The things that you’re proud of.”
This episode is a lovely look at the gang’s priorities. With the bar — the center of their lives and livelihood — on the line, they’re much more focused on moving up in an arbitrary 4-man ranking system made up by Frank that very morning. It’s one of their finest instances of self-destruction and egoism, all delivered with beautifully deadpan dance moves.
48. The Janitor Always Mops Twice (s14e6)
“You’re givin’ off big goon vibes, Dee.”
If there’s one thing season 14 is light on, it’s high concept, stylistically brave episodes. It means unlike in the previous few seasons, there are no real flops, but neither are there any remarkable standouts. The closest this season comes to a mould-breaker is, without a doubt, “The Janitor Always Mops Twice.” Shot in black and white with a striking red as the only color and a telltale clue throughout, the episode is a more or less straight noir detective story. Though there are occasional character breaks and cheats to the audience, there is never, as there usually is in these types of episodes, a nod to the artifice — an explanation for what on earth is going on. But that’s just fine. Is the gang actually acting out this entire “diarrhea poisoning” mystery? Have we stumbled into an alternate Paddy’s universe? Who the hell knows? And I would go so far as to say, who the hell cares? This is the kind of bizarre departure the show has more than earned the right to take, and it’s a refreshing trip into something mostly different, for no better reason than because they feel like stretching their wings.
47. Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittens (s5e8)
It was long after I saw Charlie’s Kitten Mittons ad that I saw the full episode, and I couldn’t believe it was a cold open. It comes completely out of nowhere, and it’s absolutely perfect. While Charlie’s idea and sales pitch are clearly the real winners, the gang’s attempts to merchandise the bar are all fabulous. The Gun Shot is, honestly, an okay idea. And while its advertising leaves something to be desired, its practice is a thing to behold. I never thought we’d see Mac performing gun bukkake on Dennis, but here we all are.
46. The Gang Gets Invincible (s3e2)
“Green Man is savin’ your life right now, bro.”
With the debut of Green Man, the extended McPoyle clan, and Donovan McNabb himself, the gang’s attempt to try out for the Philadelphia Eagles is one of the show’s earliest classics, an excellent follow-up to “Dumpster Baby.” Dee’s story is especially refreshing. Disguising herself as a man, she proves that she genuinely is better than Mac and Dennis. But then, because nothing can ever work out for the gang, she too fails miserably. It’s a lovely bit of feminism that so much of media is unable to grasp, but that Always Sunny (after an albeit rocky start) effortlessly incorporates.
45. The Gang Goes to Hell, Part 2 (s11e10)
“God dammit, Dutch! What other errands do you have us runnin’ for the D.A.?”
If there’s any consistent structure to an Always Sunny episode, it’s that the gang always get divided up. There’s always an A plot, a B plot, and often a C plot. Heck, even the time they quarantine themselves together, they have a sub-quarantine. But this episode addresses a simple question — what happens when the whole gang get locked in a box together and can’t leave? And, just to make things more interesting, what happens when they’re sure they’re going to die? The result is a lovely descent from imagination games to paranoia to betrayal. But when the gang accept that they’re actually going to drown and all join hands underwater, it’s powerful stuff. The subsequent every-man-for-himself skirmish when they realize they’re being saved is a welcome return to form and a genuine relief. As you watch these friends nearly drown each other to save themselves, you can’t help but thank God that they’ll live to see another day.
44. The Gang Gets Held Hostage (s3e4)
“You’re a stone cold fox, Margaret.”
I swear every time I see the McPoyles there are more of them, and they only get better. This episode is so many things — a celebration of Charlie’s illiteracy, a Die Hard parody, an excuse to wear tighty whiteys and smash the bar, an adrenaline pumping fight for survival — and it all works. As hostage situations go, this is about as fun as it gets. Because just like nothing ever goes right for the gang, nothing ever goes horribly wrong, either. It’s a rip roaring action scenario with, as the end makes clear, absolutely no stakes. And it’s great.
43. CharDee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo (s11e1)
“Which brings us to Frank’s flag, which is, uh… it’s just unfortunate.”
Let’s be honest — we all would have been happy with just another straight game of CharDee MacDennis. But that can’t be, of course. There has to be something new, something at stake. This leads to the introduction of Andy Buckley, a game developer from “Matel,” and an unprecedented element to the game: self control. It’s a wonderful solution, a way to revive the game while keeping it fresh, and Frank’s two-pronged twist at the end only adds to the excitement of the unknown. The episode doesn’t quite match the ecstasy of the first Game of Games, but what could? Given its nature as a sequel, it’s a hell of an episode.
42. The Gang Gets Trapped (s7e9)
“If you wanted a chip, you could’ve gotten a bag at the hamburger store!”
This episode feels almost like an exercise in script writing, and I love it. Not only is the action inconsequential to the plot of the show, it’s not even explained. We’ve skipped the habitual idea-forming and rationalization process, and instead we’re thrust straight into the middle of a scheme with very little backstory. This lack of explanation is refreshing, and it gifts us with the superb visual gag of an Indiana Jones costume that’s been split among Charlie, Frank, and Mac. By this point in the show, the argument and arbitration surrounding that divvying up doesn’t even need to be shown — it just fills itself in. That’s the mark of an excellent brand. The stinger at the end — that the family with the strong southern drawl are all Asian — is so unexpected that it offers a huge payoff for the all-too-obvious choice not to show their faces throughout the episode. This is a script that’s highly aware of its construction, and it takes advantage of it to the fullest.