Impossible as it seems, the 12th season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia might just be its best. At worst, it’s second only to the lightning-in-a-bottle fourth season, which built up to the rock opera extravaganza of The Nightman Cometh. Even so, these 10 new episodes are an incredible accomplishment for writers Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney, and their co-stars Kaitlin Olson and Danny DeVito, after more than a decade on the air.
The “no hugs, no lessons” format, coupled with the show’s inexpensive production model, has powered the abominable human beings who work in Paddy’s Pub so far, and FXX has commissioned at least three more seasons. But no one is resting on their laurels here, and the latest batch of adventures for the Gang – Charlie, (Day) Dee, (Olson) Dennis, (Howerton) Mac (McElhenney) and Frank (DeVito) – pushes the boundaries further than ever before.
The season starts out on almost unimprovable form with The Gang Turns Black, a musical riff on moralising body swap movies and the Black Lives Matter movement that represents the show’s most deranged effort ever, and that’s just for starters. What might be another sitcom’s shark-jumping riff on The Wiz is Always Sunny’s chance to reinvigorate the show, with the constant refrain of “What are the rules?” also serving to set out the experimental tone of the season.
It’s another surprise, then, that it’s followed by The Gang Goes To A Water Park, a does-what-it-says-on-the-title-card outing that re-asserts the formula of previous episodes but somehow makes it even funnier, with a play on a vintage Simpsons set piece inside a child’s water slide and a flabbergasting queue-jumping montage for Charlie and Frank. The third episode, Old Lady House – A Situation Comedy, flips back over again, lampooning the darkness lurking in supposedly harmless and mainstream multi-camera sitcoms with liberal use of canned laughter.
The next episode is based on callbacks to previous schemes about Wolf Cola and Fight Milk, but the one after that breaks format again, spoofing “murder docs” like Making A Murderer and The Jinx. And so it goes, pretty much for the rest of the season. These experiments with format have popped up in previous seasons, but they’ve never been as relentless as they are here.
Season 12 is also less reliant on callbacks than others have been and when they are, they’re in service of that experimentation. For instance, later in the run, the three episodes featuring Rickety Cricket (disgustingly well played, as always, by writer David Hornsby) feel as close as the show will ever come to an honest-to-goodness arc. Even with more seasons guaranteed by the network, everyone has come back like they have something to prove, and it gives Season 12 an extra wallop that goes beyond the already remarkable consistency of recent runs.
The characters and performances are strong enough that the show feels as if it can go anywhere, with the “no hugs, no lessons” rule still more or less in place, but there’s a feeling that the writers are looking for more creative ways to maintain that. The inevitable result of all these changes come in the game-changing finale. Just having an episode that can be described as “a game-changer” at the end of a season, containing more character development for Mac, Dennis and Charlie than the previous 11 combined, is the riskiest experiment of all – not least because we won’t know if the formula can sustain it until the show returns in 2019. Understandably, the cast are taking a year off to pursue other projects, but even after all the wildcards they deal in Season 12, it’s this last one that feels the most uncertain.
IASIP’s dreadful people have always felt immortal, like we might still be watching Day, Howerton and McElhenney doing this in their 60s and 70s, but Season 12 feels, for the first time, like Always Sunny might be closer to closing time than early doors. This season would have been strong enough to be its last, if only because it feels unsustainable for a show to keep on doing “the best season ever” after so long. Nevertheless, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and on the strength of these 10 episodes, maybe it always will be.
Season 1 to 12 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.