It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is the definition of a modern cult-hit TV show; it debuted on FX in 2005, and has been steadily building a fanbase ever since. The show has kept enough momentum for FX to air for 10 seasons (with seasons 11 and 12 already locked in), but for many mainstream viewers it can also be a hard series to jump into. Which is where we come in.
Admittedly “The Gang” from Paddy’s Pub in South Philly are a rough bunch to get used to – and their bleak working-class world is populated with equally strange, demented or outright repugnant characters. But show creators (and stars) Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day (aka Mac, Dennis and Charlie) are also sharp and well-rounded comedic minds, and in nearly 100 episodes (at the time of writing this) It’s Always Sunny has proven their range.
Fire up your Netflix and follow us along, as we provide 10 episodes (5 standalone and 5 “option picks”) that will hopefully help you see what so many die-hard fans in Greenman suits – singing Nightman songs – are so passionate about.
The Gang Gets Invincible
Arguably the episode that helped catapult the show to a new level of recognition. “The Gang Gets Invincible” took a more relatable pop-culture talking point (the 2006 Mark Wahlberg biopic Invincible, about a normal man who wins a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles) and used it as a great buffer for the show’s rougher-edged humor and gags.
This was also the episode that launched a lot of fan-favorite show mythos, including Charlie’s alter-ego Greenman, Frank’s affinity for gunplay, the strange ways of the McPoyle clan; sweet Dee’s costumes; and Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens in a hilarious reoccurring role as a celebrity impersonator. In short: This is where the show really found its footing, and serves as a great premiere episode for first-time viewers.
(S3E2) [Season 3, Episode 2]
The D.E.N.N.I.S. System OR CharDee MacDennis: Game of Games
One of the biggest joys of It’s Always Sunny is the showrunners’ and writers’ ability to create new trends or ideas that are actually fun to incorporate into real life (at your own risk, of course). That sort of creative resonance and fun helps to create an esoteric bubble that connects fans to being “in the know.”
Both “CharDee MacDennis” (a twisted board game invented by The Gang) and “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” (Dennis’ sociopathic dating philosophy) have gone on to become fan favorites – oft-referenced through word of mouth, or through merchandise the showrunners sell on the side. Watching either episode will help you get inside the bubble (so to speak); watching both just may sell you on the show, altogether.
(S5E10 OR S7E7)
The Gang Gets Racist
It is still (in my humble opinion) one of the best pilot episodes around.
We not only meet the gang – Mac, Charlie, Dennis and Caitlin Olson’s Sweet Dee – but in a succinct 22 minutes, we get a showcase of each main character and their relationships; the show’s dementedly funny tone; the sharp wit of the writers; and a few twists, to boot. It’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld on crack – a tagline that accurately defines Sunny in general.
Frank’s Pretty Woman OR Thunder Gun Express
As stated with “The Gang Gets Invincible”, Sunny is often at its most accessible when riffing on more familiar pop-culture elements like TV or film. After a couple of hit or miss seasons, the show found new stride doing spoofs and topical satires in season 7, and here are two of the best:
“Frank’s Pretty Woman” is clearly the show’s twisted homage to the Julia Roberts Cinderella tale, while “Thunder Gun Express” takes the real-time countdown format of 24 and uses it for a fun mission episode with a great movie mythos at its center (Dude hangs dong!…).
Finally, both are great warm up episodes for those who’d rather jump into the show at a point where its format is more polished and pretty in widescreen HD.
(S7E1 OR S7E11)
Charlie Got Molested
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of what It’s Always Sunny is all about, and what kind of fun spins they can put on pop-culture, it’s time to get a little bit darker. A little bit more hardcore.
“Charlie Got Molested” is pretty much the epitome of Sunny when it is unleashed, off the chain, and at its naughtiest. The title alone should tell you that things are going to get inappropriate, and this particular episode pushes the envelope of good taste right over the cliff – and pees on it.
The good news is that if you find this crass humor funny, and can still have fun with the characters by the end, then you have officially been baptized into the Sunny universe. (Best repent.)
BONUS: Like it this edgy? Check out “Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare” for another razor-sharp classic episode (S2E3).
Sweet Dee Gets Audited OR Gun Fever Too: Still Hot
In addition to doing some fun spins on popular TV series and movies, the showrunners of It’s Always Sunny aren’t too shabby when it comes to satirizing the latest political or social topic at hand. When it comes to using outrageous or exaggerated circumstances to make surprisingly insightful and balanced points, Sunny plays like a live-action South Park (especially in later seasons).
“Sweet Dee Gets Audited” takes a look at the seedy ties between American politics and economics, culminating in a dark climax. “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” revisits the gun control issue (first touched upon in season 1) from a more complex contemporary angle – one that smartly factors in the many sides of the argument.
In short, if you want to see It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia offer some actual commentary along with its crass and raunchy antics, these are two good episodes to check out.
(S7E4 OR S9E2)
BONUS: Like these two eps? You may love the show’s takedown of major industry awards in “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award” (S9E3).
The Nightman Cometh
If you’ve been watching up to this point, you’ve gotten to know a little bit about the Sunny gang and their world, so it’s time to check out one of THE milestone events from show: the musical.
Charlie had already shown musical prowess in past episodes, but in “The Nightman Cometh” he really let his gift shine with an entire musical that served as metaphor for his own demented life mythology. Of course he ropes the gang into his scheme (nobody writes a musical for no reason), and the result is a songbook full of sick tunes that’ll stick in your head forever.
Gotta pay that troll toll, bro.
Who Got Sweet Dee Pregnant? OR The Gang Gets Analyzed
One time-honored tradition of sitcom television is doing high-concept episodes that break from the normal format. Sunny has explored many of the familiar deviations (flashbacks, single-setting, etc.) and the fact that the show handles such a wide variety of comedy well is a testament to its versatility and quality.
“Who Got Sweet Dee Pregnant?” is a great mystery episode that examines multiple accounts of the same story. The pregnancy storyline (written around actress Caitlin Olson’s real-life pregnancy with husband Rob McElhenny) was Sunny’s signature half-assed effort to offer fans a serialized mystery.
“The Gang Gets Analyzed” is a great single-setting episode where each member of the cast is psychologically profiled (with hilarious results). Not only is it a showcase of Sunny‘s sharp banter and witty writing (a static, dialogue-driven episode), it’s also a perfect introduction to each member of the gang, and a solid jumping-on point for the show.
(S6E7 OR S8E5)
The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore
Once a sitcom finds its footing in some characters and a world, it can run through standard motions with relative ease. It becomes more of a challenge when the characters are forced to leave their comfort zone and take their show on the road.
In “The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore” we get three things: a road trip episode (as the Paddy’s Pub gang heads back to the Jersey Shore to recapture some childhood nostalgia); a satire of the guido culture inspired by MTV’s Jersey Shore; and a scathing commentary on the erosion of New Jersey culture (or lack thereof) in the last decade or so.
Only Sunny could take something as happy and… well, sunny as a summer beach and make it so dark and twisted it may haunt your dreams. Long live Rum-Ham.
The Gang Gets a New Member OR Mac Day
As one last example of what makes It’s Always Sunny a show worthy of distinction is how it incorporates its famous guest stars. Whereas most shows go out of their way to put a guest on a pedestal, Sunny brings funny famous people down to its level of crude humor – often stripping away their celebrity personas in the process.
To see how It’s Always Sunny can be enhanced by a disruptive visitor, check out Charlie Day’s Horrible Bosses co-star Jason Sudeikis as Schmitty in “The Gang Gets a New Member”. To see Road Trip star Seann William Scott bring a lot of funny with just a few brief words, check out “Mac Day”.
In the case of Sunny, more really can make for a merrier time.
(S6E8 OR S9E5)
Those are 10 episodes (with options) to help you break into the world of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The show won’t be a fit for everyone, but if you’ve been having trouble finding your way in, this is a pretty good attack plan.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia will premiere season 10 Wednesdays @ 10pm on FXX. Seasons 1 – 9 are currently available on Netflix.