American politics, for the past couple of decades up until just recently, has operated on a binary: liberal/conservative. A lot of the time, this leads to weird semantic problems – calling Bernie Sanders “very liberal” when he’s not a liberal at all, calling Donald Trump a conservative when his ideology has very little to do with conservatism – but the way we talk about ideas informs what ideas become. If you only see things in terms of liberal and conservative, you can deeply misunderstand things happening in front of you. Worse, when you lose the words to describe them, the possibility of other distinct political philosophies can disappear.
South Park is a libertarian show. It’s always been a libertarian show. I find it hard to imagine a show more upfront with its ideology than South Park. Yet there are countless posts and articles debating whether South Park is secretly liberal or secretly conservative, as if it’s secretly anything. Even more bizarre is the common idea that South Park has no ideology at all. Interviews with titles like “Matt Stone & Trey Parker Are Not Your Political Allies (No Matter What You Believe).” Academic articles with titles like “Pseudo-Satire and Evasion of Ideological Meaning in South Park.” If an ideology does not fit within either of the boxes I have in front of me, it must not exist at all.
Libertarianism is a fringe ideology, but it has a small foothold in American politics. There are vocal young men on college campuses across the Western world; there are Pauls, both Ron and Rand; the Libertarian Party is the third most successful political party with a state senator and a state representative, which is easily as impressive as a participation medal in an egg-and-spoon race.
There’s another ideology that probably has a lot more popular support, at least, if the 2016 Democratic primary is anything to go by. But it has been rendered near-completely invisible in media: the left, either written off as just a weird type of liberalism, or ignored entirely. In the economic consensus emerging from the Bill Clinton’s Third Way, the left isn’t silly or old-fashioned or unrealistic. It isn’t even real.
So here’s the thing nobody has really noticed: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the most left-wing show on TV.
“Nobody has really noticed” is kind of the story of It’s Always Sunny. It’s aired twelve seasons and has zero Emmys (it’s received three nominations, all in, of all things, stunt coordination). It’s easily one of the best television programmes ever made, and is still inventive and interesting and hilarious twelve years in. Years before Louie, which seems to get all the credit, It’s Always Sunny was a comedy-auteur show where smart, funny people were given a shoestring budget and complete creative freedom. Maybe people took notice of Louie because it’s more overtly experimental, or because its creator was already famous. But It’s Always Sunny allowed three unknowns who had never written for television before to do whatever they wanted: creators, stars and writer-producers Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day. They play Mac (McElhenney), Dennis (Howerton) and Charlie (Day), who – along with Dennis’s twin sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and, from season two, Frank (Danny DeVito, in his first TV role since Taxi) – make up the Gang: “the most horrible people alive.”
Like South Park, It’s Always Sunny has something of a reputation for being an equal opportunities offender. The story goes that it’s very edgy and profane (or it’s crass, offensive nonsense, depending on your perspective). It makes fun of everything and believes nothing. It tells viewers how much smarter they are than anyone stupid enough to believe in anything. If the show mocks “both sides” – liberal and conservative – then there is no ideological possibility left.
This is especially weird because I don’t think anyone could accuse It’s Always Sunny of being subtle. It’s incredibly upfront about its politics. There was Mac and Charlie’s complete incredulity that you would have to pay for something as important and fundamental as healthcare: “Since when do you pay to stay in a hospital? […] You don’t pay a fireman to put out a fire, or a cop to shoot a guy.” Dennis suspecting Dee of stealing from him because a woman who makes less than minimum wage couldn’t possibly afford such luxuries as candy sour worms and a scratch card. Frank returning to his life of big business and firing Charlie as his apprentice because he keeps “talking about products and quality and making things.” The following wonderful exchange on the site of the closed-down mental hospital where the Gang’s high school classmate Pete was treated, which underlines the inextricable link between taxes and public services:
I could list little moments and gags for hours. I could cite Danny DeVito’s left wing credentials (look how happy he is meeting Bernie Sanders!) or give examples of how much Gang-level immoral behaviour is just “doing capitalism” (schemes like “buying a foreclosed-on family home for profit” and “scabbing during a strike”), or how, while Modern Family barely mentioned the 2008 financial crisis even though Phil Dunphy is a real estate agent, It’s Always Sunny had episodes called “The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis” and “The Great Recession” almost back-to-back. I could talk on and on about how the first time It’s Always Sunny escapes from the weight of its influences and fully finds its own voice is season two’s “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare,” which directly compares work for welfare programmes to slavery.
But the show doesn’t just occasionally drop in leftist ideas in a cloud of smoke. It’s Always Sunny is, right at its core, a show about class oppression.
The Gang are awful people. They do horrific and immoral things all the time: Dennis is possibly the most prolific rapist in fiction to not have superpowers that make it easier to rape; Dee lit her college roommate on fire; Charlie has been relentlessly stalking a woman for over a decade; Mac is a giant racist and anti-semite.
But what makes the show brilliant is that the Gang aren’t monsters. Their actions are always explained, though not excused. Every terrible thing the characters do occurs in a context. The Gang are given psychological complexity that most prestige dramas can only dream of.
“The only way that you can root for characters that are despicable as our characters are on the show is that you have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Glenn Howerton said, “Even if what they’re doing is ridiculous and you would never do it, you have to understand why they’re doing it.”
Episodes are almost entirely standalone, but watching the show in its entirety, continuity emerges: every failure, every cruelty, every rejection, informs the character in the future. Most hangout shows follow a long-term trend, in the mould of Friends in particular: the characters get the careers they want, they break up and make up but ultimately settle down with the love of their life, their friendships stay close and meaningful, they become happier and they grow up. “The actors were better looking than when they started, five or six years before, and I thought, what bullshit,” Rob McElhenney said about a popular sitcom, “They’re better looking because they have more money, they’re more famous, they have better hair and make-up people… So I wanted to figure out a way to do the opposite.” The Gang aren’t just in stasis. They, and their circumstances, get worse.
In maybe the best ever piece of writing about It’s Always Sunny, Emily Nussbaum wrote that the show “seems cruel but is secretly compassionate.” This compassion extends not only to the Gang’s victims, but to the Gang themselves. They are achingly human – and the qualities which humanise them are the very qualities that are used all too often to code villainy: being gay, or mentally ill, or poor.
“How do three men in their thirties not have 800 dollars between them?” Dee asks. Charlie, Mac and Dennis mumble about the Dow Jones.
Other than Frank, who chooses to live in his conditions despite being extremely rich, all of the Gang live in poverty. There have always been poor characters on TV – even if it seems like less so now than ever – but the Gang’s poverty is visceral and desperate. A lot of poor characters are in a situation where they would fail the bad break test, but the Gang have bad breaks constantly.
“Ever since the recession hit, waves of new people are suddenly broke. These people have no idea how to live without money,” Mac explains, “They’re what’s called ‘new poor.’ We’re old poor.”
Even with frequent bailouts from Frank, most of the Gang are just a notch above homeless. Charlie, for example, lives in a one-room Section 8 walk-up, sharing a bed with Frank, cooking on a hotplate and cutting his toenails with a knife. He owns only a handful of clothes, and Day has actively resisted attempts to expand his character’s wardrobe. Charlie is illiterate and works in the bar as a janitor for less than minimum wage. He loves his work, but dislikes the lack of respect he’s given because of it: “Basement stuff, cleaning urinals, blood stuff, your basic slimes, your sludges, anything dead or decaying, I’m on it, I’m dealing with it. At its core, I love it… But it’s just like, I don’t like being told what to do. Everyone’s always telling me what to do all the time.”
Tilted at slightly the wrong angle, this could be terrible. It could be a show that positions poverty as a moral failing, and that believes the poor deserve to be laughed at. Instead, It’s Always Sunny is an examination of the idea of the “undeserving poor.” The Gang are certainly bad people, but that isn’t why they are rejected by society. If that were the case, Frank would have been rejected for running a sweatshop in Vietnam, and, by his own account, feeding workers the remains of those who died on the shop floor. It’s only when Frank begins to present himself as poor that he is exiled from mainstream society. This is in spite of how spending time with Charlie is probably the first time he’s felt genuine love for another human being.
The Gang are not rejected from society for being bad. They survived poverty and mental illness and trauma as best they could – Charlie starting to huff glue while his mother did sex work, Dee gaining a reflexive hatred of people with disabilities after the horrific bullying she suffered because of her back brace, Dennis developing borderline personality disorder (BPD) in his teens after growing up in an abusive and neglectful home, Mac selling drugs while his father was in prison and his mother ignored him – with no-one there to support them other than each other. They fail society because society failed them first.
“We are not men who get a lot of opportunities, Charlie,” Mac says, “and those we’ve had, we’ve squandered.”
Mac and Charlie both grew up working-class. Mac’s father would bring him around the neighbours’ houses, stealing Christmas presents, explaining away why there weren’t any at their house. Mac got ringworm as a teenager and spread it around school. Charlie’s various learning disabilities were never diagnosed and no-one took any notice when he was sexually abused.
Frank is still wealthy, but even when he presented himself as such, he was new money. What little we’ve seen of Frank’s childhood fits with any number of Catholic working-class backgrounds. He was institutionalised in a “nitwit school” as a child, which was a traumatic experience for him. Frank’s decision to live as he does is bizarre, but when you think of Danny DeVito’s thick working-class accent, it’s easy to see how expensive living didn’t stop people from seeing where he came from, rather than his current circumstances. Frank rejects class signifiers because even at his most assimilated into the upper class, he couldn’t be one of them.
Dennis and Dee grew up upper-class, and even went to university (only Dennis graduated). In typically subtle fashion, the Gang had this actual conversation after Mac and Charlie were rejected from a private swim club:
MAC: If you guys were there, you would know how we feel.
DENNIS: Oh no, no, no, stop yourself right there. You see, we would not know how it feels, because Dee and I would have waltzed right into that swim club.
DEE: Yeah, you don’t lump Dennis and me in with you. We’re high class.
MAC: You should have seen this guy. He would’ve lumped the shit out of you. Dennis, we live in the same apartment.
DENNIS: Let me explain to you guys a little something about how class works. You’re born into class. It’s about pedigree, it’s about upbringing. It has nothing to do with your present circumstances.
DEE: See, Dennis and I were born upper-class and therefore we currently are and will forever remain upper-class. Frank… back us up on this.
FRANK: Look, I quit on that shit, you understand? I quit on it. I don’t give a rat’s ass about class. I live on the fringe. Fringe class.
DENNIS: Okay, great, you’re in the fringe class. I still maintain that Dee and I are in the upper class.
Dennis and Dee go to the swim club (Dennis wears a pastel polo shirt with popped collar, it’s perfect) and are also rejected. They try to keep this a secret from Mac and Charlie because they don’t want them to know that they are no longer perceived as upper-class, or even middle-class. Mac and Charlie try to renovate an abandoned pool, which Mac describes as the bootstraps lifting them up into the middle class, while Charlie tells him to accept that he’s lower-class. The episode ends with Mac screaming at Dennis and Dee to admit that they’re white trash, just like him. Then the Gang decide to pop a fire hydrant and play in the water, and they seem genuinely happy, even though Dennis had previously called doing that about as lower-class as it gets.
None of the class signifiers that should elevate how Dennis and Dee are perceived exist, at least not anymore. They work in a dive bar in South Philadelphia. They dress and talk like the rest of the Gang. Their bigotry and rage doesn’t have the slightest veneer of gentility. They don’t know or spend time with any upper-class people, and so their idea of how upper-class people act is cartoony and odd – they noticeably change how they dress and speak when they try to get into the private swim club. Dennis’s popped collar is just a shade more subtle than Josh Charles as a rich guy in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
An upper-class person without money is practically a stock character. The Bluths are broke on Arrested Development, but they never stop being upper-class. But Dennis and Dee are truly rejected from the upper classes, because they’ve never really been socialised to be upper-class. Dennis and Dee became socially isolated from an early age. Dee having a physical disability and depression, and Dennis developing BPD and never getting treatment (he was only diagnosed in his late 30s, accidentally while trying to execute a scheme), isolated them further. Dee was bullied horribly (they called her the “aluminium monster”), and Dennis perceived himself as coolest guy in school, but was seen as a freak by the popular kids and spent most of his time hanging around with Mac and Charlie under the bleachers or behind a dumpster. Dee was once involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.
Mac and Charlie grew up poor and developed personal problems as a result, and they remained poor. Dennis and Dee may be one of TV’s only examples of true downward social mobility: they grew up rich but their trauma and illness went ignored, they became poor and ceased to be perceived as upper-class by anyone outside of the Gang.
The Gang don’t exist in the rest of society. So they create their own. They have “in-house” justice proceedings and complicated rules about everything from ordering food to a board game of their own invention. They normalise each other’s behaviour: they validate each other’s debilitating alcoholism, their cruelty and ignorance and oddly disarming naivety, and each other’s racism and misogyny, or else their efforts to call each other out are hopelessly misguided (“Don’t call him Black Man. His name’s not Black Man. His name’s Old Man”). In every friend-core sitcom, the group of friends only really know or spend time with each other. But on It’s Always Sunny, this isn’t fun or quirky. The Gang are completely codependent, and it’s hard to imagine how any of them could survive without the others.
It’s easy to see the Gang as the aggressors. They are aggressors: they probably commit three violent crimes before breakfast. But they aren’t monsters. They are products of the systematic problems of neoliberal capitalism: the Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy that segregates the disabled, stigmatises the mentally ill and shames the impoverished. It’s Always Sunny juxtaposes aggressor and victim inside the same person, and dares you not only to condemn, but to empathise.
“The bar is where we belong. The bar is where we fit in,” Charlie says at their high school reunion, when their best attempts to interact with people outside of the Gang end in humiliation, “We can hide from the world at the bar.”
The Gang are terrible people. But the world isn’t hiding from them. They’re hiding from the world.