In It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, almost nothing good ever happens to “The Gang” (the self-created name for the alcoholic, cruel, socially inept, and borderline sociopathic group of five friends who run a grotesque Philly dive bar). So when two members — Charlie (Charlie Day) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) — are inexplicably wined and dined by a pair of wealthy, attractive siblings in “Charlie and Dee Find Love,” the group is wary. Dennis (Glenn Howerton) is particularly suspect of this budding romance, until he finally places it in a trope that aligns with their selfish, miserable ideals. “This is … Dangerous Liaisons,” Dennis bitterly concludes as he spies on the date. When Mac (Rob McElhenney) is unable to follow, Dennis spits out a litany of films with the same plot of sadistic manipulation by wealthy people for sport, that are seemingly just off the top of his head: “Cruel Intentions? She’s All That? Can’t Buy Me Love?”
Dennis’ effortless listing in this moment is one of many instances in which The Gang turns to movies for clarity or counsel (although often in immensely misguided ways). They have a reverence for movies — often borrowing cinematic structures and tropes for their various evil and poorly planned plots, quoting or referencing films to make sense of a situation they are unable to process, or even occasionally paying highly questionable filmic homage, as evidenced by their controversial recreations of Lethal Weapon, complete with blackface. While we mostly see them drinking, plotting, and being generally awful, The Gang’s frequent cinematic references point to a lot of time offscreen being spent watching movies.
Usually, a strong grasp of cinema is a wonderful opportunity to expand our sense of empathy. Cinema offers us a space to consider others’ lived experiences, to distance ourselves from our own perspectives, and to, at least for a few hours, look at the world around us a little differently. But for The Gang, with their general utter lack of human empathy or sincerity, cinema simply offers a new set of scripts for even stranger, more convoluted debauchery than usual.
Their understanding of narrative tropes does not outweigh their general selfishness and social ineptitude, which prevents them from ever really enacting any sort of cinematic plot correctly. In “The Gang Gets Romantic,” Mac becomes obsessed with the notion of setting up a romantic-comedy style “meet-cute,” seemingly just because he wants to meddle in others’ business. But his friends are almost entirely incapable of processing this notion of romance and connection.
The food-centric, easily confused duo of Charlie and Frank think that Mac is offering them some imagined snack called a “meat cube,” while the predatory Dennis keeps referring to the women involved in Mac’s planning as “cute-meat.” And despite Mac’s best intentions, his general inability to understand how to actually enact genuine romance means his plans involve clogging toilets and eavesdropping on conversations of the couple they’ve ensnared in his convoluted scheme, who turn out, horrifically, to actually be grieving parents. By the end of Mac’s attempted “meet-cute” narrative, no one is in love, but everyone has been made incredibly uncomfortable and upset.
Such failed attempts at stealing cinematic ideals are enacted on smaller-scales throughout many Always Sunny episodes. Sweet Dee dreams of creating a Sex and the City-style group of female besties, but instead of glamorous shopping and sipping Cosmos, Dee forces a woman out of sobriety and back into alcoholism and ultimately concusses herself against a car door while staggering around in a stolen pair of high heels. The Gang’s attempt to create a Pretty-Woman-style arc for Frank’s sex worker girlfriend Roxy in “Frank’s Pretty Woman” leads not to some classy, whirlwind romance and proposal, but to the group hiding Roxy’s dead body out in a hallway after they enable her overdose on crack cocaine. Time and time again, The Gang simply employs the cinematic tactics they’ve absorbed over time in the worst, most destructive, most misunderstood way possible.
Both their infatuation with and total misunderstanding of/inability to enact what they adore about movies are perhaps most succinctly encapsulated in their love for the fictional action franchise Thunder Gun Express (a film that they love mostly because the protagonist, John Thundergun, “hangs dong” once per film). As the group tries to get to the opening day of the film in “Thunder Gun Express,” they keep trying to do what they presume their beloved fictional action hero would do, but entirely inexpertly. The Gang gets stuck on ferries, in traffic, or even wedged in sewer grates in their attempt at playing action hero. And while they constantly quote Thundergun’s catchphrase involving no man being left behind, they continuously ditch each other in selfish attempts to make it to the theater on time.
The imagined Thunder Gun Express also gives The Gang an opportunity to share their cinematic beliefs when they are selected to be a focus group for the latest film in “Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool.” As the franchise works to keep up with the times, The Gang mourns all that was outdated about the original Thunder Gun Express (most tragically, Thundergun no longer hangs dong). The group gives terrible feedback to the moderator (“Write that down — women hate women,” Mac offers as a note at one point), and the often confused Charlie seems to have absolutely no idea what’s going on, with his only input being perplexed, obvious questions about the film he has literally just watched. While Charlie has at times recreated whole lines from Dog Day Afternoon or Jaws, he seems representative of just how little The Gang is taking away from their cinematic adventures. Their ridiculous, confused feedback emphasizes how little The Gang seems to successfully process despite all of their movie watching.
Even when The Gang isn’t stealing from the movies they watch literally, the very structure and aesthetics of many of Always Sunny’s episodes borrow from a rich cinematic canon in ridiculous referential homages. In “Maureen Ponderosa’s Wedding Massacre,” we open on handheld footage of The Gang careening around the forest in a panic, as overexposed lighting washes out their faces in a found footage-esque moment. In the craftily designed “Being Frank,” we follow a day in Frank’s life entirely through his visual POV, á la Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. The show plays with noir aesthetics in the black-and-white “The Janitor Always Mops Twice,” with convoluted biopic-esque ’70s drug-filled romps in “Frank’s Brother,” and with the aesthetics of the true crime documentary craze in “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer.”
But these cinematic homages only further emphasize how ridiculous and delusional The Gang looks all the time. Placing them in these cinematic worlds makes it wildly apparent that regardless of their personal delusions of grandeur, these protagonists are indescribably far from being suave movie stars or masterminds or even remotely likeable. They stick out like sore thumbs in these formats, all the more odd and obnoxious despite being placed in filmic stylizations meant to make people more relatable, interesting, or appealing.
Where we usually expect a rich cinematic background to provide a depth, a new perspective, or at the least a fleeting moment of sincerity, Always Sunny’s relationship with the movies is one that continually affirms how far from even a basic grasp of the universal human experiences of empathy, connection, and love these characters are. The Gang steals from iconic movies in failed attempts to better lie, cheat, manipulate, plot and “win” self-created mental mind games. In It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, everything that we love about cinema is used, abused, and misunderstood, but in the most delightful and absurd way possible.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season 15 premieres on FXX on Dec. 1.