At best, nostalgia transports us to happier, easier times. At worst, it prevents progress. It’s a peculiar force that can lead to happy conversations and vile defensiveness. It can also prevent us from making obvious judgement calls. For example, how It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is better than Seinfeld.
Seinfeld is, deservedly so, a legacy show. It sparked a major paradigm shift in TV comedy. Seinfeld premiered in 1989; the top-rated sitcoms that year, in order, were: The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, A Different World, and Golden Girls. Every one of those shows holds artistic merit, every one of them funny in their own way. But they all shared an earnest sensibility that most, if not all, sitcoms of that era adhered to.
From the jump, Seinfeld went left. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld kept the standard ensemble formula, but unlike its contemporaries, Seinfeld showed zero interest in happy endings. Hell, the “Show About Nothing” rarely had a traditional story, so much as a series of gags making light of the absurdity of modern living. It teetered between postmodernism and flat-out nihilism. At a time when Bill Cosby and his smarmy, often preachy brand of comedy dominated network television, Seinfeld was a revelation.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia premiered in 2005, 16 years after Seinfeld premiered. The TV landscape was wildly different: cable and satellite were more readily available, and American Idol was dominating network television. Two and a Half Men was the only sitcom among the top-25 highest viewed shows on television, and, needless to say, that show lacked the praise of its network sitcom predecessors.
Still, critically speaking, there was good comedy to watch, including some postmodern highlights: Arrested Development, Futurama, The Simpsons and Family Guy on FOX; South Park on Comedy Central; Curb on HBO; hell, even NBC’s Scrubs dabbled with the absurd.
Always Sunny debuted on FX, a Fox subsidiary, to moderate acclaim. Low-fi and grungy, critics agreed that the show paid proper homage to the postmodern comedies that preceded it; “Seinfeld on crack” was a common refrain. It did little to hide its inspiration from previous sitcoms: The story revolves around four friends — all of them at various perches on the degenerate spectrum — who worked in a bar, dated, fought, complained about day-to-day absurdities, etc. As with most shows, though, the first season was far from perfect, and far from what the series would become.
What happened over the ensuing 12 (and counting) seasons is what we hope happens to anything we like that has potential, from athletes to TV shows to musicians: Always Sunny fully realized its promise.
It didn’t get great overnight. The show didn’t really hit its stride until Dee abandoned her role as de-facto group conscious and Frank (played with outright lunacy by Danny DeVito, who joined the cast at the beginning of Season 2) lost all semblance of respectability, somewhere between Seasons 4 and 5. There’s also a growing roster of supporting characters who get swindled by the gang’s incredible narcissism, only to return the following season with scars and vendettas, set the stage for arguably the most intricate, lived-in world that a sitcom has produced.
But as with any show that runs longer than a couple of seasons, Always Sunny has had to tweak its formula to remain funny. The aforementioned revolving door of supporting characters definitely helps, but late-season Always Sunny managed to find new levels of postmodern laughs by putting its own characters under the microscope. Dennis’ romantic exploits might very well have been the workings of a sociopath; Mac’s obsession with fitness and the perfect male physique, the byproduct of a man hiding deeply from his own sexual desires. Early Always Sunny featured characters gawking at absurdity; late Always Sunny spent more time dissecting the absurd (in Charlie and Frank’s case) or real (in Dennis, Dee and Mac’s) reasons why these characters seemingly can’t crawl out of the awful holes they dig for themselves.
Few comedies have reinvented themselves as effectively as Always Sunny. There’s no awful season and you’ll find as many all-time great episodes in Season 3 as Season 12 which, arguably, was the show’s strongest season yet. And, not that you have to watch every episode, but those that do are rewarded with easter eggs and call-backs that rival any good fantasy show. It’s one of the most lived-in shows ever, and might be the most live-in non-animated comedy, ever.
That attention to detail, and the ways in which Always Sunny has remained fresh, elevate it over Seinfeld. Again, without Seinfeld, there would be no Always Sunny, and a slew of other incredible comedies probably would not exist. And perhaps it’s unfair to compare a work of art to its inspiration, if the inspiration was a trailblazer. Always Sunny had a blueprint to work with when it started; Seinfeld didn’t.
But perhaps it’s time we start giving Always Sunny the credit it deserves. Whether by award shows or critics, the misanthropes of Patty’s Pub are perpetually underrated. Common convention, and nostalgia, dictates that Seinfeld is untouchable in its status as as an all No more. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is better than Seinfeld, and most other comedies on TV.
Not that The Gang needs our affirmation.