What's So Offensive About 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'?
With its thoroughly unlikeable characters, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia helps us highlight and acknowledge our own prejudices and blind spots.
It’s Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaAirtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, an FX comedy about five narcissistic "friends" who own a bar, has miraculously been on the air since 2005. It’s been reasonably popular and maintained ratings while flying semi-under the radar, managing to win very few accolades during its 11-season run. The plotlines mostly involve Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Frank (Danny DeVito) planning schemes and cheating everyone on their way to execute them. They’re all classic narcissists: equal parts egotistical, unethical, greedy, and lazy, and constantly inflict unimaginable pain on others.
Their behaviour is abhorrent, which makes for enjoyable viewing, but has ruffled the feathers of some viewers. The mode of storytelling works as such: the characters do something terrible – like wear blackface or use a baby to get money -- and feel the repercussions of their selfish and problematic behaviour. This is a complex and risky method of performing social commentary, and is often seen by viewers as being problematic because of its surface value. A character making a rape joke is unacceptable, even if they are telling it within the context of the show to express how terrible sexual assault is.
Charlie: That's true. They do have "n****rs" hanging from "rafters".
The Waitress: (overhearing Charlie) Coffee, Hitler? I'll be sure to put lots of cream in that for you.
Charlie: No, I'm not Adolf Hitler.
-- “The Gang Gets Racist” (4 Aug. 2005)
When I first wrote about It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2013, I saw a massive influx in visitors to my website via search terms such as “Sunny racist”, “It’s Always Sunny controversy” and “It’s Always Sunny misogyny”. This indicates either garden-variety offended casual viewer or a guilty fan: viewers of the show who want to absolve themselves and ensure that it’s acceptable to find the show funny despite its content. These characters might be deplorable, their jokes vile, but as the audience you can laugh. Is this okay?
I think so.
The synopsis for season one, episode one: "The Gang Gets Racist" speaks for itself:
Charlie and Mac try to prove that they are not racist after Charlie's crush overhears Charlie saying something offensive about African Americans. Meanwhile, Dee hires a black man from her acting class to boost business for Paddy's Pub -- and ends up turning the pub into a gay bar”.
-- It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Wiki).
A strong start to the series, the episode’s centered on the characters trying to dispel their white guilt, complete with complex discussions on who can and can’t say racially derogatory words. When outside of their own circle, their casual racism has genuine ramifications in their own lives: they alienate friends and potential lovers. Despite this, it has been subject to some criticism for its use of the N word -- even within context -- which opens a world of questions. When is it OK to say that? Is it acceptable to use offensive language or content if its to give the audience a means to examine their own prejudices? Or is it never okay?
Most, if not all, criticisms levied against It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia focus on its rape jokes, racism, and misogyny. Putting aside the issue of context for a moment, it’s important to note this non-comprehensive list of things that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia makes light of and gives you the chance to laugh at, too: sexuality, race, incest, paedophilia, incest, prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, weight gain, homelessness, cancer, sexism, abortion, disability, illiteracy, mental Illness, mental disability, the Holocaust, and animal abuse.
It’s impractical and unfair to challenge and abhor the use of rape jokes or racism in context, but not any of the issues listed above. Not that any is worse than the other; they’re all serious issues in our world, but making light of them can be the most effective way to shed light on them. When watching a group of deplorable people make contemptible decisions, we aren’t likely to identify with any of them.
What it will do, however, is make us consider our own prejudices and mistakes, no matter how comparatively small. When Dennis tries to put women in a situation where they can’t say no to his advances and his friends call him a rapist, it might be funny on our TV. It might also educate us on the nuances of rape and what it means. We might evaluate our own behaviour, and see that we certainly don’t want to be like Dennis.
Dee: Are you actually gonna throw away all your convictions for a chance to get laid?
Dennis: I don’t really have any convictions.
-- "Charlie Wants an Abortion" 11 August 2005
The most dangerous kind of problematic content is that which is accidental or unnoticed. When a show is solely full of white people, it normalises it. When you have something like The X-Files, in which any non-white characters have evil, mystical powers, that’s an insidious form of racism that can filter its way in your subconscious. The uncomfortable content in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is put there to make you feel uncomfortable, to force you to address your own issues. Unlike other take-no-prisoners "offensive" media -- such as Family Guy or South Park -- It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s politics are clear. South Park excuses its bigotry by claiming that it offends everyone, but this is lazy. The series takes a transparent approach, wherein the characters may be selfish and bigoted, but the writers want you to see that. They want you to address your homophobia and racism, not just laugh along and take a backseat.
"To make any good television, you can’t have it be about nice people doing nice things. Who wants to just watch Mr. Rogers over and over again? If I’m gonna watch a show about Mr. Rogers, I wanna see him, like, murder someone.
-- Charlie Day (Variety.com)
The most potent way in which It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia proves once and for all that its an educational form is when the characters have a discussion between themselves on what is and isn’t OK. Examples include Dennis explaining to Mac when it is and isn’t acceptable to say "Jew", the characters telling Dennis he is a rapist, or Dee trying to explain to Dennis that men can get raped. The straightforward way in which they explain things to each other works to educate the audience simultaneously, in an intelligent and complex way that more typically "offensive" shows never even attempt. The use of blackface, for which Rob McElhenney has been admonished for on sites such as yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr.com, is only there because the characters are having a discussion on whether it was acceptable to have him use it to act in a film the characters created. The conclusion they come to is no: there’s no tasteful way to do it.
"It’s time for you to die now if you don’t get that you’re watching a show."
-- Kaitlin Olson (Metro.us)
Returning again to the ever important point of context, the people writing, producing, and acting in this show are classic liberals. They include in their midst a man raised by two moms, a woman, and passionate advocate for equal rights (Danny DeVito). The views expressed are not their own; they’re on screen for comedic value and to give us a way in which to examine our own prejudices. Their jokes aren’t uninformed or bigoted rants, and they’ve expressed an unusual amount of intelligence and empathy when dealing with sensitive subjects. Charlie’s mother has OCD, which forces her to do everything in threes to ensure her son doesn’t die, is some of the best writing and representation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I’ve ever seen on screen. It was treated with more truth and sensitivity than I have seen in any genre, so much so that they didn’t even need to say the name of the disorder.
Mac: Mrs. Kelly, why are you doing everything in threes?
Mrs. Kelly: So Charlie doesn't die.
-- “Mac’s Mom Burns Her House Down” 10 October 2010
It's important to note that just because an issue is apparently being made light of, does not mean it isn't being taken seriously. Comedic delivery will hit home harder for most people, and will reach wider audiences than media that might appear "preachy" to a casual viewer not invested in an issue. The writers are sensitive where it matters, too -- despite the characters calling one another out for being racist, or Dennis for being a rapist -- Mac’s latent homosexuality is treated with impressive sensitivity. It appears to be an issue that everyone within and outside of the show is completely aware of, and yet isn’t made fun of.
These are characters who keep a baby they find and paint it black to make money, who break into a Mexican family's home to give it a makeover and then burn it down, who ruin one another's lives, who make black friends only to prove a point, who drive a priest insane, who lie and cheat and steal constantly to get what they want. They treat each other deplorably and we enjoy it. If people took anything they said seriously, there wouldn’t be a show.
These characters, with their bankrupt values, wholly selfish nature, and tendencies that leave them cut off from the entire world? They exist in the real world. They are caricatures of people that sadly are very real, and their prejudices and egocentricism are being dismantled before us in an effort to both entertain and educate viewers. Context matters, and while on the surface seeing blackface might be shocking or upsetting, there is a nuance to the storytelling that is often ignored in lieu of being offended.
The issues discussed here aren't to be taken lightly. Racism, rape, paedophilia: these are important topics in our world that shouldn’t be pushed aside or made light of. Representation is important. But comedy is a device, a window into our own prejudices and issues; it’s intended to shock. There are many ways of educating an audience, and to take something at face value as offensive without considering what it’s saying is lazy and, in short, censorship. There are enough truly offensive public figures saying genuinely hideous things that they stand behind, but to counter this, there are shows intending to educate and show the most twisted, selfish people possible.
It isn't up to me to dictate what’s upsetting, triggering, or offensive, but it also isn't up to you. The world’s bad enough, and if fictional characters make light of things that would be otherwise be terrible -- fine. We all have our personal breaking points, and we can't expect TV to live up to our individual standards.