#TypesTuesday – It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: Crabs in a Barrel
by Guest Contributor Oscar Harding
“Crabs in a Barrel” is the perfect phrase to describe the five core characters in the FX sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
There is a reason this show has endured, lasting 12 seasons so far with 2 more commissioned, and is now the longest-running live-action sitcom in Television history.
There is a way to keep your characters engaging even when they remain stagnant as characters and never evolve. In fact, to some extent, that’s what the most successful sitcoms do- Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld… if your characters evolve, then they eventually reach an end to their journey- you can end your show on a high, like Breaking Bad, or you can outstay your welcome and lose the interest of your audience, like Moonlighting. But if your characters never change, never really learn from their actions, then you can run and run and run.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia revels in stagnation, not out of necessity but out of choice- all five members of “The Gang” are terrible people, and hold each other back. That is why they stagnate- not because of lazy writing, or the creators’ fear of ending a good thing, but because of who they are. Their stagnation is actually character development.
Charlie is, for the most part, an innocent guy manipulated by the rest of the gang. Mac is delusional of both his skills as a bodyguard and of his own sexuality. Dee is arrogant, believing herself to be an undiscovered talent. Dennis is the ultimate sociopath and one of the most insecure Power of Will characters on Television, whilst Frank is just a terrible, disgusting human being all the time. This reprehensible ensemble willingly, or unwillingly. ruin every single opportunity that one of them might have to better themselves or seek redemption.
Let’s look at the different personalities of “The Gang” and see how they contribute to each other’s stagnation in their unique ways:
Power of Will- Dennis
Power of Will characters are often antagonists or occasionally complex protagonists- Dennis (Glenn Howerton) awkwardly falls into both categories, but he is undoubtedly a Power of Will character. The dark side of this Character Type- arguably their only side- is a belief in dividing those around them into friends and foes, or the strong and the weak. Despite having no real reason to think himself as a powerful leader, Dennis refers to himself as “The Golden God” and “A Five-Star Man”. He is protective and territorial over his domain, but unlike other Power of Will characters like Tony Soprano and Daniel Plainview, he has no actual domain- he co-owns Paddy’s Pub with Mac, and The Gang doesn’t see him as a leader or one to get them out of a jam. He has no reason to exert his will, yet it is all he ever attempts.
In every way, this domineering personality never serves Dennis well. Unlike the others, he has no shame and no mercy, to a chilling degree. The others will compromise where they have to in order to get their own way, but Dennis remains steadfast. He has to be in control, especially when it comes to women- he is a complete sociopath with his own troubling method of emotionally controlling the women he seduces called “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System”. If this show has a villain, it would be Dennis.
Power of Ambition- Mac & Dee
Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) represent the dark side of Power of Ambition characters- they lie, cheat and steal to get what they want and to get ahead. It is these traits that are almost always their downfall, and the ones for whom “crabs in a barrel” is the aptest metaphor. Dee thinks she is a multi-talented comedian who can always make people laugh, but the only time anyone laughs at her is when she has injured herself or has been made to look a fool. Mac is equally delusional, pronounces himself a karate master and believing himself to be the Head of Security for Paddy’s Pub. No one else recognizes him as this kind of a professional.
In both cases, this unwillingness to accept their limitations means Mac and Dee are always way in over their head, driven by greed and a need to be not just acknowledged but praised. Their shortcomings could be most easily overcome, but they are totally rigid and unlikely to change. They believe themselves to be better than everyone else- a classic Power of Ambition trait- but nothing could be further from the truth. They are unlikely to cooperate properly in schemes where all five members of The Gang could gain something and are responsible for The Gang’s failure more often than anyone else.
Power of Excitement- Frank & Charlie
At almost every turn, these two agents of chaos manage to sabotage any attempts by Dennis, Mac and Dee to improve their standing in society. Frank (Danny DeVito) and Charlie (Charlie Day) live together blissfully in a squalid apartment, sharing a bed and cooking sandwiches on the radiator. They only seek the next distraction, until they get bored and move on. Their pursuit of distraction is endless, and though Frank is a mean-spirited, grotesque figure and Charlie is a warped innocent affected by his terrible upbringing. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum but both are united in their pursuit of adventure and excitement. They both act ‘forever young’, but Charlie does so out of arrested development, and Frank has spent so long as a businessman and a father that he simply wants to live out his twilight years as carefree as possible.
It is this total lack of consideration for the consequences of their actions that make them typical Power of Excitement characters. However, neither one is charming or rakish, but they are constantly fun and the life of the party, no matter how depraved they may be. It is this lack of cynicism that either helps them win the day through sheer obliviousness to the obstacles they must overcome, or drags them down because they put no consideration into what they are doing. They are unpredictable and totally irresponsible in their own ways. Frank and Charlie definitely represent the dark side of Power of Excitement.
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