Watching season 16 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia felt like I was watching the first traditional episodes of the show in years. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed season 15, but it felt different. Half of the season was dominated with the Ireland arc, the closest thing to an Always Sunny movie we’ll likely get, and the other half was atypical, with the catch-up premiere and a flashback episode. Then before the pandemic delay, seasons 13 and 14 were enjoyable but inconsistent: some great episodes and others not so much. Sixteen seasons is an incredible feat but before watching the latest episodes I was feeling maybe we are firmly in the diminishing returns era of the series. On the other side, I’m much more confident. Season 16 is consistent, classic Sunny. The best season since the twelfth.
I don’t know if it was a mistake or a purposeful move but the season debuted on Netflix in the UK with no episode titles. Finally, for the first time in sixteen seasons, the episode title gags truly worked. They’re always funny, and endlessly meme-able, like Mac saying he’s going to save his dad only to suddenly cut to the episode title card “Mac Kills His Dad.” But it’s a reality of modern viewing that you almost always know what the episode title is before you watch the episode, so you can see the joke coming. Here, I had no idea what was coming and never has ignorance been funnier.
Season 16 makes its short run of eight episodes feel much grander than it actually is. There’re no arcs or diversions, but eight varied stories that feel unique while also all tapping into that classic Sunny flavour. There’re a mix of episodes based on news stories, meta satire, and real stories told on the podcast. The chess episode plants Frank right in the middle of that bizarre anal beads chess champion news story, which is a weird connection to make but it works, leading to perhaps the funniest scene of the season. Risk E. Rat’s Pizza & Amusement Center is my favourite episode of the season because it works purely on a surface comedy level, effortlessly feeling like an episode that could have been produced years ago, but then it also has a very modern satirical edge about how comedy has changed and the show’s position within the shifting landscape. It’s a much more successful meta-analysis than season 15’s more obvious The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7.
The Always Sunny Podcast – Glenn, Rob, Charlie, and Megan Ganz’s podcast covering each episode of the show (for five minutes at least) – has undoubtably helped to revivify the series. Just listening you can feel some of their love of the show get reenergised and inspire ideas for the show’s future. Glenn’s real life Tesla story found its way into the season finale; all we need now is Rob Justice to make an appearance. I have no doubt that Charlie’s sisters wouldn’t have appeared this season if not for the podcast revisiting them in the first season. The return of so many supporting characters was great to see, particularly the McPoyles in the bowling episode. It’s not fan service, it’s just how this show is and always has been. There’re a bunch of weird characters who just keep popping up in Philadelphia. I also very much enjoyed Mac and Charlie’s mothers appearing in multiple episodes, and Uncle Jack too.
For the first time in a long time, Mac is more than just a gay character. I don’t think committing to his sexuality was a mistake, Mac Finds His Pride is one of my favourite episodes, but the writers have been locked into only characterising him through his sexuality, for jokes and drama, for years now. Season 16 kept him as a gay man, told stories and jokes about that, but also finally returned to all aspects of his character. He’s now an idiot, too, presented as even stupider than Charlie, and I’m okay with that. His obliviousness to his nut allergy in the first episode was funny and his scene with his uncle is the best Mac moment in seasons, combining his stupidity, sexuality, and daddy issues in one hilarious scene that reunites him with Gregory Scott Cummins. Even his Chase Utley obsession returned. Rob McElhenney might just be my main cast member MVP of the season and he’s clearly better suited, and having more fun, with this show than Mythic (Mr) Quest.
This is not the say the season isn’t without some issues. Dee was underutilised with little to do. Frank, also, to an extent. The two of them were literally held in a holding pattern above Philly for an episode, which was the weakest of the season, despite the fun guest stars. But when that’s the weakest episode of the season, you know it’s been a good season. The bar is a little too empty; it feels weird just having the main cast there and no regulars in the background, although I guess the customers have slowly dropped off over the sixteen seasons as the gang ruin more and more people’s lives. And, as with the past few seasons, the show is over lit and far too bright, now looking genuinely like the sitcom parody scenes from season nine’s brilliant The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award. I do enjoy when the show still looks charmingly cheap in a few scenes, though, whether it is questionable visual effects or the clear reusing of sets.
The writing, the performances, the characterisation, the revived energy, the jokes, yada yada yada. There are a lot of reasons why someone could argue It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had a return to consistent form in its sixteenth season. But really, that’s all a load of pointless waffle. Truth is, this season was special, a thing of beauty, because of one scene. One moment, capturing the comedic genius of the show: Danny DeVito bashing a seagull to death while calling it a “fucking cunt.” I rest my case.