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How ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Helped Me Understand Donald Trump (Column)

The Gang has been sensitive to Trump's America for over a decade now

FXX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is the type of sitcom where the characters, instead of telling punchlines, are the punchlines. The show about five idiots who spend all their time in a decrepit Irish pub is two seasons shy of being the longest running live-action sitcom on television, a title currently held by “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” In an era marked by the not-unrelated phenomena of audience fragmentation and political division, the FXX comedy has found a way to be funny, politically relevant, and still-airing — quite a feat.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence, then, that its characters are uniformly terrible people.

I love “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and I even love its five idiots, though I think all of them should be in jail. But as this 12th season ends — and as the show moves from frat-bro staple and alt-comedy masterpiece to making television history under a Trump Administration — the show’s elastic durability is even more fascinating. Indeed: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” may be the only live-action show that understands and caters to the wide-ranging dissatisfaction and even anger that has characterized this political moment, from the fraught 2016 election to the Trump Administration’s rocky first days in the White House. It’s survived this long — and remained smart, funny, and relevant this long — because it’s tapping into something many other shows can’t grasp. It seems plausible that “Sunny’s” characters — white working-class Pennsylvanians — would have been swayed by Trump’s campaign; his boldfaced rhetoric and exclamation points might have spoken to their flair for the dramatic. And though “economic anxiety” is a phrase that seems to have lost all meaning, the term “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” could have been coined about them. They’re always broke, but — like Donald Trump, who peppers his tweets with the word “loser” — the gang seems to accept as a matter of course that one must taunt those who are worse off, even if that distinction is so marginal as to be imagined.

“Sunny,” which was created by star Rob McElhenney, displays a sketch-comedy intimacy with the ethos of adult animation — “The Simpsons,”“South Park,” “Beavis and Butt-Head.” These shows started as pockets of cynical fantasy for young men and became totems for certain cultural waves; even now, “South Park” still nods and winks to disaffected young men above all else. The flexibility of animation allows for larger-than-life imaginings. In this case, the imaginings are the torqued facial expressions and exploding bodies of the id incarnate. “Sunny’s” genius has been translating that sensibility to a relatively closed-ended live-action premise, and the reason it works is because the show is absolutely ruthless with its characters. The leads can be (and are) beat up, left for dead, slowly starved, or confined in solitary without causing consternation for the usually laughing audience.

Some of “Sunny’s” success is due to the incredible chemistry between the stars, who are all linked behind the scenes, as well. (Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and McElhenney are all producers and writers on the show; Kaitlin Olson, the fourth member of the original cast, is married to McElhenney. Danny DeVito, who carries his own comedic reputation, joined the show in its second season.) The rest is due to how brilliantly the show lampoons its primary subject — the unchecked American id. It’s an impulsive, grasping desire that explains get-rich-quick schemes, drug addiction, football-related acts of aggression, and reality television. This results in plots like Dennis’ half-baked attempt to run for local office, a series of exploits around the Liberty Bell, the gang’s adventure selling products to the UFC, Dee and Dennis’ scheme to get on welfare, and Charlie’s Season 2 proclamation that he will “go America all over everybody’s ass” (resulting in the episode “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass”).

The basic points are the same: The characters become mindlessly dedicated to even the vaguest promise of fame or fortune — and are quickly deterred from those goals by petty attempts to “get back” at each other for perceived slights. (This is so common that the unofficial “Sunny” Wikipedia has an “Alliances” entry for each episode.) What ties every harebrained scheme together is that “Sunny’s” characters always choose to act in bad faith; if a system of norms relies on trust, the characters will immediately consider how to exploit it. (To wit: “The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis,” from 2009.) They ruin whatever they touch with alacrity — whether that is their favorite movie franchise, “Lethal Weapon,” which they made an all-blackface installment of, or the meaning and underlying significance of the word “intervention,” which they chant until it loses all meaning.

Exploitation of the norms of decency, language used as a blunt instrument, money-making schemes, unrestrained id: This all sounds rather familiar. Perhaps Donald Trump has not drunk straight paint, as Charlie is known to do, but his tweets are about as unhinged as Charlie’s campaign speech, written in “The Gang Runs for Office,” which begins, “Hello fellow American, this you should vote me. I leave power, good!”

Former President Barack Obama’s campaign slogans were the idealistic “Hope” and “Yes We Can”; Trump’s campaign platform, with its nostalgic “Make America Great Again,” instead addressed the fear of change. You could argue that Obama was speaking to the better angels of humanity, while Trump expertly tweaks its worst impulses. “Sunny’s” messaging is more complicated than either of these. The sitcom doesn’t endorse its characters, but it doesn’t apologize for them, either; despite their many, many failings, they persist. They are, in some ways, the family members you can’t unfriend on Facebook — or the trolls you can’t block on Twitter.

It’s a gift. 2017 has felt like a minefield of political leanings and buried tensions — of ideological apocalypse and fractured commonalities. As a result, comedy — politics’ irreverent, layabout doppleganger — is more important than ever. (Witness the skyrocketing importance of “Saturday Night Live,” which is not even particularly good comedy, in the Trump era.) “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” entered its third presidency this year, after making it through the second term of George W. Bush and all of Obama’s presidency. It knows a thing or two about survival.

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