FXX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia begins its 12th season on Thursday, an impressive feat for a sitcom, especially one in the current cancelation-happy era. Last April, the show was renewed for both a 13th and 14th season, which would tie it with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–1966) for longest-running live-action sitcom. It helps that the seasons run short—between seven and 15 episodes, most often only ten—which keeps the series from overstaying its welcome each season, and maybe also allowing the writers to put ideas on hold for next year.
It's clear that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has staying power. Sunny and You're the Worst are the only shows that are still around after being moved from FX to FXX, a spin-off channel that was less available than the original in most cable packages. Totally Biased, Legit, and Wilfred were all canceled after moving to the newer network. (The League—which bears some thematic similarities to Sunny—had three seasons left in it.) But the question isn't so much whether Sunny can sustain a big enough audience to keep chugging along, but how relevant the show is to 2017. From the get-go, Sunny mined comedy from terrible people doing terrible things while avoiding being actually offensive itself—but how does that formula hold up now, when we seem more aware than ever of real-life terrible people doing terrible things?
The 12th season premiere, "The Gang Turns Black," is perhaps most indicative of the uncomfortableness of watching such a gloriously offensive show. It's a cringe-worthy setup: The gang, which has never shown to be accepting of other races (the pilot, after all, was titled "The Gang Gets Racist," and it still holds up on re-watch more than a decade later), are electrocuted while watching The Wiz and wake up to find themselves trapped in a musical—and black.
Still, I was cautiously optimistic about this episode because It's Always Sunny has always been one of my favorite comedies, even during some of the more uneven later seasons, and it's usually astute at taking these sort of storylines and flipping them into something that catches you off guard. But it's an episode that comes off as boringly, lazily offensive instead of one that's clever and funny underneath a gleefully off-putting and crude surface.
What Sunny does best is use its cleverness to find humor in shitty, anti-PC, asshole characters who are to be pitied and hated, not loved. The exception is Charlie, who is often surprisingly sweet and pure, mostly due to being too dumb to really know what's going on. This is at play in "The Gang Turns Black," too, in the scene where Charlie plainly (but through song) explains his fucked-up life to police officers without ever realizing how alarming it is to an outsider. But it's a joke that falls flat because we're expected to also find humor in the fact that the officers aren't seeing an adult white man singing this, but instead a black child. This would be iffy in most cases, but this particular episode is especially uncomfortable in our current climate. (Spoiler: The musical-within-the-episode ends with Charlie, still being seen by others as the black boy, getting shot by police.) I guess this is Sunny's effort at trying to do something elaborate and ambitious, "boldly" tackling race, and to start the season off with a (literal) bang, but it just doesn't translate—maybe Sunny is best when it goes smaller.
That all said, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia hasn't lost what made it great in the first place. The premiere may have been messy, but the other eight episodes screened for critics are a wonderful mixed bag, and some remain as rude and charming as the previous seasons. That's been the case with Sunny lately: For every two good episodes, there's often one not-so-good one that you mentally mark as skippable during the next binge. At this point, it's a hit-or-miss show, but the fact that the hits still outnumber the misses at this point is pretty impressive.
There are episodes in season 12 that are both great and relevant. In one that involves Boko Haram and reaches new levels of insanity, perpetually put-upon Dee scrolls through social media on her phone and remarks on how it's made up of "people calling me a bitch—a flat-chested bitch. Pretty much everybody wants to rape me." It's comical within context, and it's relatable to any woman who's spent any time on the internet. One of the standouts of the season is a parody mixture of Making a Murderer and The Jinx. It's bent to fit into the Sunny world, and it's laugh-out-loud funny, but it's also deft at reflecting back both why we are obsessed with dark true crime series and the ways they can feel gross and exploitative. Another highlight revolves around one character yelling out a slur while saving another's life; it's aptly titled "Hero or Hate Crime?" There are conversations about slurs and free speech and problematic words, all topics that have become more prominent since the show began all those years ago. It's Always Sunny is no longer at the top of its game, but it's comforting to know that the more the world changes, the more the gang stays the same.