The character trait is an important tool for a writer to wield in his kit. You can create a flat, basic character and, slowly over time– whether it be months, weeks or years– imbue that nothing character – the jock, the outcast, the queenie, the lawbreaker (maybe those words are right-ish) with something that really begins to resonate with the viewer on a different level. One of the programs that has been quietly pleasing fans and critics over the last fifteen years has been FX’s IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, following The Gang (Frank Reynolds – Danny DeVito, Ronald “Mac” Macdonald – Rob McElhenney, Dennis Reynolds – Glenn Howerton, Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds – Kaitlin Olson and Charlie Kelly – Charlie Day), a gaggle of demented bar owners in Philly. When it premiered on FX in 2005, it looked like it had been shorn into the shape as the same type of comedies that came and died just as quick on the network (SON OF THE BEACH, LUCKY, STARVED, or TESTEES). It was crude, rude, loud and obnoxiously proud. But what it had that those other shows didn’t have was charm. Each actor has tweaked their character in such a way that feels natural. The show itself has morphed into a sociological study, one where politics are bantered about by complete idiots, whose only investment in the thing they’re fighting about begins and ends with how it affects them. Abortion, racial slurs, and gender are all just arguments through which they can just fight and bash and yell, and they need to end up on the side that gives them profit, morality be damned. The outcome doesn’t matter because they really don’t care. The Gang’s greedy, violent compulsion shows the viewer point blank precisely what kind of tragic outcome can be expected following the malicious machinations they do at least once an episode.
It’s a fifteen season long cautionary tale, especially if one begins to obsessively watch and re-watch key episodes and see how Frank, Mac, Dee, Dennis and Charlie perfectly align with some of the worst types of genre character–someone that’s older, not wiser, and definitely worse for the wear. The characters who looks back on their lives with a mix of regret and horror, but really, truly do not care that they were always a monster. This isn’t the first time someone has attempted to psychoanalyze The Gang, because they did it themselves in season eight’s “The Gang Gets Analyzed” and covered a lot of their troubles pretty well, but skirted a lot. Still, it’s never a bad idea to mine deeper into what really drives these madmen besides their impulsive, hot-blooded, and stubborn need to insert themselves into everything. Since IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA is never a show to shy away from self-reflexive, meta humor (as seen in episodes like “The Gang Does a Clip Show” – a clip show about clip shows, but really about the flexibility of memory), so perhaps it could be an interesting experiment to take a cue from The Gang and break this down into a list so we can settle any confusion and talk about the five types of cinematic character types that The Gang most resemble. It’s time drill as deep as we can into their brains and get the job done, then … we extract.
Cue Heinz Kiessling’ “Temptation Sensation”
Frank – The Lecherous Exec: Frank Reynolds started on the series as a fairly sensible person – a sort of uptight business man, but grounded in a crazy, whirligig world. Until, slowly, progressively, the series began to make him an almost subhuman animal – a warthog with opposable thumbs. Alongside these traits, they always peppered in dialogue about his awful business practices – like sweatshops and sexually harassing women like it were the only thing he knew how to do. The episodes “Frank’s Back in Business” and “Time’s Up for the Gang” pretty explicitly handle this matter. Frank, as a person, is the kind of character we’d see in sleazy sexual thrillers who had characteristics that consisted of waggling their tongues and popping sexual innuendos into inappropriate work and were never the object of sexual attraction. Frank is the Wayne Knight (or George Dzundza, if you’re a tastemaker) of BASIC INSTINCT, the Dennis Miller of DISCLOSURE, the Dennis Franz of HOMER S.: PORTRAIT OF AN ASS-GRABBER. He’s the kind of guy who chases the skirts and skirts the lawsuit from said chasing simply because he’s got money, baby. But now, the life he’s living is pathetic and tragic. He’s withered and useless. He’s Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) from MAGNOLIA, sitting in stillness, reliving it all and deciding a gun to the temple is the way out, but doesn’t come to the realization with any type of regret – if Frank is going to cap his dome, it’s going to be because he screwed something up and is just jabbing the goddamned eject button. The vulgar things he spouts on topics like race, religion, sex and gender feel like fossilized language from a time long ago. The show puts in the work to redeem Frank as he blends into Mac’s storyline in a late series episode, “Mac Finds His Pride,” when Frank is driven to tears by Mac’s performance art dance piece, which is quite emotional, where Mac expresses his queer identity, and Frank’s realization that he finally understands who Mac is as a gay man. But like all things on IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, it is merely a temporary improvement, just another roadblock on the highway to hell. As we learned from “Being Frank” for the elder Reynolds, it’s a wonder it’s really a choice on what he puts in his cranium – the bullet or the blow – and either end or prolong the life of misery and regret.
Mac – The God Bully: Ronald Macdonald started out as an average, thirtysomething dude. He’d hook up with girls, smash drinks and talk trash. He was, like Dennis, Charlie and Dee: your average, boisterous urban hooligan. But, slowly, his sinister character tics bubbled to the surface. He became a religious weirdo. The kind that thinks bad things will cause God to punish him. That his closeness to religion only comes through suffering and attrition, like lashing himself with a cat ‘o nine tails. He must push down the homosexuality, because the only thing he feels a connection with, hates how he chooses to identify. He’s the embodiment of the “Turn It Off” singers in The Book of Mormon, waxing about how they push down the real painful stuff with the words of Joseph Smith. An individual who tries to pray the gay away, rather than embrace who he is, truth and all. The episodes “The Gang Goes to Hell Parts One and Two,” “Hero or Hate Crime,” (where Mac finally embraced his sexuality and came out for good) and the aforementioned “Mac Finds His Pride,” attempt to reckon who he is as a person with what he is as a person. What we see of Mac is, he’s the child whose traumas went unchecked. Slipped through the cracks at CPS. Then, the needy child becomes the grown, belligerent fool. An absentee father, one who deals in drugs and crime, and a mother who’s most likely to strangle you, before her second hand smoke has its chance to kill you. Mac, as an adult is a bully, and as a child, well, was a bully, too. He’s Patrick Hockstetter from “Stephen King’s It,” a sociopathic, sexually repressed kid, shoving cats into refrigerators and getting tuggers from the other boys. His politics seem to greatly align with the tpe of blue collar conservative that resides in every New England town in every Stephen King book. A kid whose demons manifest themselves in a hurtful display of body dysmorphia. He’s Sid from TOY STORY, a kid who grew smashing toys in a shitty house, devoid of parental guidance. It’s easy to imagine that if Mac enlisted in the military and didn’t have Dennis with him, he’d most likely end up like Private Pyle in FULL METAL JACKET. Mac is the perfect example of the kid in mid-progression – they’re growing up, but they really don’t care about becoming an adult.
Dennis – The Horny, Jocular Dudebro: The cinematic trope that Dennis seems to relate to as an adult most is the horny, piece of garbage dudebro. The kind of character that you’d find in SORORITY BOYS (the “let’s dress up like girls so we can bang girls, and not really think of the assault aspect of what we’re doing” movie) or TOMCATS (the “let’s get ladies real drunk and take lots of advantage and pretend like the legal system and consent don’t exist) movie. As an aside, it’s equally abhorrent that these two lurid, objectionable movies were studio comedies, meant to make millions in the early 2000’s. IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA deftly skewered the “sexual assault comedies” of the silver screen past like SKI SCHOOL, HAMBURGER: THE MOVIE or THE BEACH GIRLS with “The Gang Hits the Slopes,” even casting 80’s screen legend Dean Cameron as the perverted ski shack employee, Driscoll. The horrific, sexual things that Dennis let slip from behind his Patrick Bateman-esque mask of sanity are dreadful enough – the “implication” scene in “The Gang Buys a Boat,” is appalling on its own, but when we see it in action during “The Gang Goes to Hell, Part One,” it’s the work of a madman. The many times we’ve heard of Dennis being unscrupulous when committing his various, atrocious acts of sexual congress is truly enough to give your goosebumps their own set of goosebumps, like the end of “Time’s Up for the Gang” when it’s revealed that Dennis may or may not (definitely did) have sent texts regarding the consent of his sexual partners. If Dennis were to pull off a scam from a 1980’s movie, he’d be the one leading the charge to pull off the upsetting and controversial, and rightfully so, scheme that results in the main character Lewis (Robert Carradine) raping his enemy’s girlfriend, (it must be noted that Dennis pretty much did this at the end of “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby.”) If one sees what Dennis Reynolds is now, a sexual monster (and is pretty much confirmed as a murderer, too) roaming the streets of Philadelphia, one flash away from being the voyeuristic serial killer in THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, if his temperament continues to go unchecked and unheard by those around them … and it will, because again, they do not care.
Sweet Dee – The Ugly Beauty Queen: What we know of Deandra Reynolds is that she’s a desperately untalented woman, trying to make a career out of an industry that’s known to mistreat and misuse women, even before they’ve turned twenty-five. Her actions in the season seven two-parter “The High School Reunion” show she’s a foul queen bee, a person whose anger and carelessness rest comfortably along their other personality traits like desperate need for validation (as glimpsed in “The Gang Group Dates” where she bangs a buffet of dudes and gives them dreadful ratings on a dating site, thinking that she’s empowering herself, when really she’s just another animal craving attention and craving the puerile pleasures that come from meaningless copulation.) She’s the perfect example of the subversion of the ugly duckling high schooler trope, like Judy Greer’s Fern Mayo in 1999’s JAWBREAKER. Once Dee shed her disabling scoliosis, she magically gets an ounce of beauty where there once was ugliness, and now she’s thinks she’s the hottest girl in school. She deludes herself into thinking she’s Cher Horowitz in CLUELESS when she’s really Regina George in MEAN GIRLS. .Her narcissistic, unhealthy behavior is glimpsed in early episodes like “Hundred Dollar Baby,” “Frank Reynolds’ Little Beauties,” and “The Nightman Cometh,” to name a few examples. More than once, it’s been alluded to that she set a girl in college on fire. Sweet Dee is the type of woman who would end up on a NBC dramatization because she orchestrated an injury on a fellow student to win a competition – give Kirsten Dunst’s character in DROP DEAD GORGEOUS a few years to morph into Sweet Dee or it turned out, that in reality, even though she’s a proponent for the charge against sexual misconduct – she’s the guiltiest one of them all (at least second guiltiest). She’s what happens when a vain child grows up to be an even vainer adult, and thinks the problem with her problems isn’t herself, it’s everyone around her.
Charlie – The “Intentional” Nice Guy: The series has explored the radioactive ramifications of what sexual assault can do to a character with Dennis Reynolds and the underage seduction/rape he underwent courtesy of his Rick Moranis-esque librarian, Mrs. Klinsky. This was only explored less than a handful of times, because the show’s similar, microscopic focus of the toll of trauma is really filtered through the character of Charlie Kelly. Like Michael Rooker’s portrayal of the titular monster in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER – a kid who was sexually abused by a family member, whose trauma is triggered in “Charlie Got Molested” by the skeevy McPoyles (whose psychological unpacking is far too long to get into here) to seek revenge on a jagoff high school coach, played by Mr. Belding himself. It starts to reveal itself first through subtext and then bold, upfront text, bit by bit, in his musical “The Nightman Cometh,” through the kind of coding that one would see from a child with severe mental disabilities. It’s particularly notable in how Charlie is prone to outrageous flights of fancy in the Pixar vignette in “The Gang Saves the Day” and the terrific noir episode “The Janitor Always Mops Twice,” but also drug and animal abuse. It’s not the only trauma that he shares with the Chicagoan serial killer. Like Henry Lee Lucas and his dramatized counterpart, Charlie was witness to constant visits by men seeking sexual favors from his mother. This in turn, molded his concept of friendship and love (just look at how he treats the gorgeous Alexandra Daddario in “Charlie and Dee Find Love”) – culminating with the series long romantic pursuit of The Waitress. Charlie’s pursuit of The Waitress going back to the pilot “The Gang Gets Racist,” seems like it’s going to take the usual “shaggy-dog comedy route,” where the likable loser eventually wins over the “frigid (read: responsible)” girl who learns that she needs to be more like him, not him like her like in the arrested development movie factory operating under Judd Apatow’s empire. It’s Seth Rogen in KNOCKED UP or .Steve Carell in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. This trope was utilized a lot in the 2000’s, even earlier in movies like CHASING AMY, where Ben Affleck’s lead character just romantically pursues and pursues a lesbian, and after wearing her down, she says, “to hell with my sexual identity, I’ve got a schlubby comics guy into me!” Folks were attuned to see the “wearing romantic interest down” subgenre with a sweet twist on THE OFFICE, so one would assume that perhaps that’s the angle that IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA was taking … but they wanted it differently. Now, the relationship is taken to its darkest, upsetting place – where a man stalks and stalks a woman, rifles through her trash, breaks into her home and ends up ruining her life in the process, until she finally has broken so much that she sleeps with him, and he casts her away. It’s the most recent, but not final hideous moment from this broken, hurt manchild.
The actors– McElhenney, Day, Howerton, Olson and DeVito all engage with the characters and each other in the only way that actors could after being together for a decade and a half. Look no further than the charming moment in “The Gang Gets Romantic,” where Day recreates the PRETTY WOMAN “nearly snapping a jewelry box onto someone’s fingers, and eliciting a chuckle” moment with DeVito and their laughter is real and genuine, especially once DeVito is told the reference that Day is making. They may have started as just four trashy people spitting venom at each other in the bar, but once the show added DeVito, it was the missing part of the ingredient that really made it zing. It turns out the key to comedy really is five people slinging venom at each other in the bar. There’s a reason that the show has gone on to live longer than any of the other comedy shows that debuted right around its premiere and that folks like McElhenney, Day, Howerton, and Olson have gone on to enjoyable programs like MYTHIC QUEST, THE MICK and AP BIO that deserve a lot more love and show their attention to character, and are practically the same characters – but they’re kind, mature, caring and responsible – proving that with the most mature acting and writing, you can sketch out a timeline of those who choose to redeem themselves and those who chose to wallow in their past, reliving their greatest, toxic hits.
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILDELPHIA has never been the show to allow its awful cretins find redemption for their misdeeds, even as they slowly shed some of their macabre behaviors, in lieu of some sort of kindness, but it’s definitely a show that knows that misery is company, and definitely knows that there is no redemption for these vile people, only hope that their toxic behavior, their violent schemes and offensiveness stays contained in a splash zone, where they’re the only ones affected (though it rarely ever does) and that these five ghouls, these unfortunate examples of characters that writers loved to create in the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. It’s what happens when you put the ugliness of cinematic characters types into a room, let them mold and decay, and come to the realization that like Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, “hell is other people.” They’re antiquated archetypes cast away in a world that once found them funny, but now tragic and ugly. They know, and the show’s creatives know, they will see judgmental punishment, by simply being with each other, and by being The Gang.