There was this report in Vulture a few weeks ago, one of those year-end statistical roundups that lists some fun facts about TV as we know it today. These are always fun, in part because there are little tidbits you can file away for the next time you’re out with friends and want to sound interesting (“Did you know there’s a show on Hallmark Channel called Chesapeake Shores that gets as many viewers as Westworld? It’s true!”), but also because sometimes you’ll stumble across something that legitimately surprises you. Like, say, this.
The typical viewer of The Americans lives in a home where the average income is just north of $80,000 per year — a larger amount than all but one basic cable drama. Just edging it out: BBC America’s London Spy, whose audience makes an average of $81,600 annually. Interestingly, among comedies, a much more low-brow FX series — the beloved and long-running It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia— actually has the richest audience on basic cable. Sunny viewers take in a healthy $81,300 each year.
That’s right. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has the wealthiest audience of any cable comedy, and is only narrowly edged out for wealthiest audience of any show by London Spy, a BBC drama that sounds like something you’d invent if you were trying to come up with a fake show that rich people watch. (Other examples: Manchester Haberdashery, CSI: Greenwich, Netflix’s The Crown.) And while this struck me as odd at first, because It’s Always Sunny still feels like a “four college roommates sitting on a ratty futon” kind of show to me, it does make sense. The show is now entering its 12th season. A lot of its viewers may have started on ratty futons, but in the decade since have gotten jobs, and started families, and moved into the suburbs. That or, as I originally thought upon reading this fact, Warren Buffett is secretly a huge fan and his income is throwing all the figures out of whack. Too soon to rule this out.
And that realization led to a second realization. It’s Always Sunny is in a place on television right now that it occupies pretty much by itself: a high-quality, long-running, live-action sitcom that focuses almost purely on being funny.
Let’s pull that apart. With shows like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock shuffling off to TV afterlife in recent years, what are the remaining high-quality live-action comedies? Veep is great, but is still only on season five. New Girl has aired more episodes than It’s Always Sunny thanks to its 22-episode network seasons, and while I still love it dearly, it’s had its ups and downs. Curb Your Enthusiasm has it beat in total years (debuted it 2000), but Larry David just took a six year break, so we probably need to dock points for consistency. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Broad City, You’re the Worst, Silicon Valley and such are all fine shows, but still too young. It’s Always Sunny even debuted before Modern Family, which is one of those facts that doesn’t sound quite right in your head until you look it up and realize It’s Always Sunny had four full seasons in the books before Phil and Claire had their first fight over a creaky household fixture. It’s been on television since 2005. I mean, look at how young everyone looked in the pilot.
This longevity also means that the show debuted before the recent trend toward cable half hours mashing drama and comedy together really got cracking. Unlike most of this new breed, It’s Always Sunny has one goal: be funny. That’s certainly not to say there’s anything wrong with these other, new shows. Quite the opposite, actually. Louie broke the mold for what television can be. Atlanta had one of the most exciting debut seasons of any show in recent memory. BoJack Horseman, as I’ve said before, is somehow one of the funniest and heartbreaking shows out there right now. But sometimes you don’t want a gut punch moment in the middle of your comedy. Sometimes you just want to laugh a bunch, possibly at a mix-up between Boca Raton and Boko Haram causing a carbonated beverage scandal in Eastern Pennsylvania.
And this, conveniently, brings us to season twelve of It’s Always Sunny. I am pleased to report that the show is exactly the same as it has always been. Everyone is still just awful and terrible, to each other and anyone they come into contact with. Everyone always has some plan to get rich or acquire power and it never goes well. Kaitlin Olson’s delivery of “Goddammit, Frank” is still one of my favorite things on television. Things are as they should be.
But don’t take that to mean the show has clicked over into cruise control. A lot of the new season’s episodes take on themes that stretch out beyond the little world the characters inhabit. The premiere is a musical in which everyone swaps bodies with a black family and finds out how their antics play devoid of privilege. Another episode starts as an interesting (and very profane) look at hate speech and political correctness and ends with a kind of big development that gets handled in a surprisingly sweet way. Another is about AIDS and water park grifts, which will make sense when you watch it.
(A note: This water park episode, the season’s second, features cameos by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, continuing the love affair between the two shows. This will always be both cool and hilarious to me. The dragon murder castles show is friends with the dirty Philly grifters show. Peak TV is real.)
The bottom line in all of this is that we now live in a world where Mac, Dennis, Dee, and Charlie are the elder statesmen of comedy, and one where a show that will soon utilize the line “I puked on my dick!” has become something akin to comfort food. This is, to be very clear, not a complaint.