There are so many shows these days that everyone says you should watch. How can you decide which to try? You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it.
In the era of reality programming, spotting new human lows has become a television pastime. But despite dozens of backwoods, backward, and backstabbing reality stars, scripted characters can still take the cake when it comes to degeneracy. Holding down that dubious honor for the last several years: the delightfully debauched leads of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The success of It’s Always Sunny has entered the realm of TV lore and become every YouTube comic’s dream: A group of no-name acting buds (Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day) filmed a pilot on the cheap and sold it to up-and-coming cable network FX. (You can check out one of the original pilot shorts on YouTube. By the way, the new season will be airing on FX spinoff channel FXX. Check your local listings.) The show’s acting and writing have matured since that original pitch, but its general ethos has remained unchanged since 2005: A group of egomaniacal, terrible Philadelphia bar owners (Charlie, Mac, and twin siblings Dennis and Dee) doing and rationalizing egomaniacal, terrible things.
There’s relatively little carryover between episodes of It’s Always Sunny, but with 94 to choose from—and another 13 set to start airing tomorrow—sorting through the various schemes and hijinks of “The Gang” can be daunting for the uninitiated. And starting from the beginning isn’t really an option: Danny DeVito’s character (eventually the show’s most shameless) doesn’t arrive until Season 2. Season 4’s “The Nightman Cometh” became the basis for a traveling live show (which I once shelled out $100 to see at Boston’s House of Blues), but it requires a certain familiarity with the cast’s established quirks. Season 5’s “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” has become an unofficial guide for a new wave of skuzzy pickup artists, but its focus on Howerton’s character could lead newbies to see the whole ordeal as a one-man show. (It definitely isn’t.)
No, the best episode with which to begin your It’s Always Sunny obsession is Season 2’s “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare,” the intro of which is embedded below. (The full episode, along with the entirety of Seasons 1-7, is available on Netflix.)
The episode begins with The Gang still adapting to the presence of Frank Reynolds (DeVito), the father of twins Dennis (Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson). Frank is transitioning from shady businessman to out-and-out loser, and, fed up with his attempts to run their beloved Paddy’s Pub in an efficient manner, Dennis and Dee walk out on the bar to chase their true hopes and dreams. In order for Dennis to become a veterinarian and Dee to make it big on Broadway, however, they need unemployment benefits, which Dennis rationalizes as “just a little bit of assistance to help us out over the hump.” That little bit of assistance isn’t enough, it turns out, and they eventually apply for welfare—leading Dennis to utter one of the show’s all-time most despicable and hilarious lines: “Hi, I’m a recovering crack addict. This is my retarded sister that I take care of. I’d like some welfare, please.”
As usual, the episode is split into equally appalling A and B plots. Left behind to deal with Frank’s domineering ways are Charlie (Day) and Mac (McElhenney), who set out to find a way around the daily drudgery of operating Paddy’s. Mac finds their solution in the form of Work for Welfare, where local business owners hire welfare recipients with the government paying their salaries. After some trademark rationalizing and faux-sincere promises to not exploit their prospective workers, Frank agrees with the plan and tells the pair, “Go get us some slaves.” Then the fun really begins.
The rest of the episode sees the crew ratcheting up their levels of despicability. Highlights include Mac and Charlie partying with prostitutes and Dennis and Dee naively buying drugs in order to qualify for welfare. (“One, please. One rock of crack.”) It’s this steady escalation that keeps It’s Always Sunny balanced between the unfortunately believable and hideously absurd. Most of the show’s weaker episodes (many of which occur during Season 8) fail because they ramp up at least one character’s immorality just a tad too quickly.
“Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” won’t be everyone’s favorite episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—nor should it be. Half the fun of the show comes in those eerily personal moments when a character’s thought process syncs up with your own internal monologue (the one difference being that most of us stop somewhere short of committing inadvertent felonies). But watching The Gang navigate this early misadventure is an excellent way to determine if their particular brand of horrible is something you can stomach while you laugh.