On a Saturday
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I’m lying on the couch in the basement approximately ten feet from my family’s plasma TV, holding my cell phone above my head to watch Netflix. In a pro-binge, post-cable society, I have found a new sitcom to bask in the glow of: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The series catalogues the disgusting misadventures of a Philadelphia cohort that owns and manages an Irish pub and affectionately refers to itself as “the gang.” “The gang” consists of Dee and Dennis, a pair of spoiled twins; their filthy rich and richly filthy ex-stepdad, Frank; a hypocritical Irish Catholic black belt-wannabe, Mac; and an eclectic cheese-loving janitor, Charlie. When my friend Max introduced me to the show a few years ago, he warned me, “You can’t really watch more than three episodes in a row because they’re all such terrible people.” I’ve learned that they really are, but that I really can.
In the first episode Max ever showed me, Frank lures the gang to the funeral of Dennis and Dee’s Uncle Max (different Max) where he hopes to seduce and eventually “bang” their Aunt Donna. Upon arrival, the twins are promptly cornered by their “garbage pail cousin,” whom they’ve dubbed “Gail the Snail.” Gail asks the twins if they want to puff some medical marijuana in her car.
Dee interjects, “We’re at your dad’s funeral, Gail!”
Gail shrugs and responds, “Whatevs. I’m over it.”
The episode really only gets darker and more convoluted from there: Frank instead seduces Gail, his (non-biological) niece; Dennis pokes fun at Charlie’s illiteracy; the gang brings guns to an intervention; and everyone covertly guzzles red wine from Coke cans. The episode resolves with Charlie throwing salt at Gail the Snail until she flees the bar.
As the credits roll after nearly every deluge of this debauchery, I’m left with a warm satisfaction in my chest and subsequent alarm regarding how it got there. The show is repugnant, and its repugnance knows no bounds. “The gang” pretends to be wheelchair-bound to inspire free lap dances at the local strip club, fakes a radical Islamic threat to scare away a new neighbor, exploits the welfare system, attempts to bed each other’s parents, and weaponizes two children’s rec league basketball teams all for their own selfish gains. And that’s just in one season! The show was recently renewed for a fourteenth.
As someone who spent hours in his room racked by guilt while the showpieces of his fifth grade bug collection slowly succumbed to death in the freezer upstairs, I’ve dedicated long hours to reconciling my love for a series that drunkenly walks the line between irresponsible and irreverent with my tender conscience and rosy worldview.
What I’ve found is that there is an odd comfort in viewing such unadulterated, unabashed selfishness. In my teaching, my stint as a camp counselor, and my own life, I’ve witnessed many wonderful people who are perennially unable to appreciate themselves. Tireless workers, hysterical storytellers, and fierce friends somehow manage to distill low self-esteem from high expectations and recognize in others what they overlook in themselves. I myself scribble up a Gordian Knot of a To-Do list every day and often deflate into bed feeling defeated when my hopes remain a tangle as midnight strikes.
But not the gang. The gang believes in its worth even when it is most clearly lacking. You’re in your late thirties and can’t approach a microphone without gagging? Your stand-up career will take off any day! The waitress has increased her restraining order on you? I’m sure she’ll agree to a marriage proposal in musical form! A man reviews your bar as “the worst in Philadelphia”? He deserves to be kidnapped and have his mind changed, because your bar is frickin’ amazing! Somehow, such misguided self-love feels uplifting.
And while my typical TV fare of Park and Recreation and the Olympics leaves me pining for the work ethic of a dutiful civil servant or regretting my decision not to relocate to some Olympic training center, any Olympic training center, at age twelve, It’s Always Sunny prompts no such sting of unfulfilled ambition. If anything, it harkens back to the lazy post-sleepover Saturdays of middle school when my friends and I would nurse gummy bear hangovers with breakfast cookies and dedicate untold hours to planning elaborate videos we would never finish.
In a well-known C.S. Lewis quote I often consider, the author claims, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the seaside. We are far too easily pleased.”
I think however, that Mr. Lewis underestimates mud pies. Sure, a seaside holiday is preferable, but there’s a special magic at play when one is able to knead mud and imagination into something new. That is exactly what It’s Always Sunny manages to do; it takes the depravity we all hold in common and, with a little creativity and a lot of imagination, makes it feel oddly magical.
So, at the end of the day, the gang is the last group I would want to count myself a part of. They are racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and just about everything else I strive not to be. At the end of the day, I want to be upstanding and selfless and kind. At the end of the day I want to wrestle with how I can do the next day better. But sometimes before the day comes to an end, I need to indulge in a slice of mud pie, and It’s Always Sunny is one delicious mud pie.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.