It was hard for me to get into It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as a show at first. The pilot episode, “The Gang Gets Racist,” predictably has plenty of racist jokes, as well as queerphobic and rape-related jokes, and frankly, I don’t find much of that too funny. My friends, however, were insistent, and I finally came upon a realization about the show that made it possible for me to enjoy it, and for it to eventually become my favorite show. The protagonists of the show are not meant to be liked. In fact, they are meant to be very much disliked. Not one member of the gang is a very good person, and perhaps the most morally skewed of them all is Dennis Reynolds, which is odd.
In an interview with Interview Magazine, Glenn Howerton, who plays Dennis as well as created the show with Rob McElhenney, is asked whether Dennis’s character arc was planned from the beginning. He says no, and goes on to explain that reviews from the first season pointed out too much similarity between Mac, Dennis, and Charlie, and they latched onto various extremes to separate them. Howerton also further cements the fact that they added character traits later on with his quote, “It was more of an evolution than something we had pre-planned.”.
When the show began, Dennis was very clearly meant to be the “straight character”. He wasn’t the cookie-cutter Jerry Seinfeld, Danny Tanner, or Michael Bluth straight character, no, but he was the embodiment of that trope as it fit the show’s theme. During the seven-episode first season, he was a bit too narcissistic, and just enough on the wrong side of the moral compass to fit with the rest of the cast. For instance, in “Charlie Wants an Abortion,” Dennis flip flops between the pro-life and pro-choice sides of an abortion rally to determine where it would be easiest to pick up women. But although he does bad things in season one, every member of the cast does, and it’s nothing in comparison to how much he grows over time as a scumbag.
Once the writers decided to make Dennis’s character into a borderline psychopath, they descended that slope quickly, but they still manage to use Dennis’s myriad of psychological issues to shock us in new ways every season. In the practically titled season two episode, “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare,” Dennis and his twin sister lie about being a drug addict and developmentally disabled, respectively, in an attempt to get put on welfare. This isn’t going too much farther than we would expect of his character at this point, but it’s still worth being noted as Dennis doesn’t show any sort of hesitation before going through with such a scam.
Later that season, in “The Gang Exploits a Miracle,” Dee tells Dennis that his face looks fat on tv, which is a deliberate ploy to mess with him. It obviously works when Dennis develops an issue with disordered eating and loses a staggering amount of weight. This seems like a one-episode gag, and on the surface it is, but it also says a lot about Dennis as a character. The fact that Dennis would take a small comment to heart that much and immediately change a major aspect of his life just because his sister picked on him is a major indicator of Dennis’s fragile narcissism, as well as a possible hint to some level of innate self-criticism, which could be masked by the egotistical facade that he may only use as a shield. He never shows any other signs of an eating disorder before or after this episode, so I don’t believe that the answer is that simple.
The first episode of season three, “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby,” is an incredibly important episode to Dennis’s character as he goes out of his way to absolutely destroy an environmentalist’s life just because he was snubbed in a one-off comment. When Sage the activist insults him, Dennis steals the man’s friends, has sex with his girlfriend, and psychologically manipulates him into chaining himself to a tree for a stormy twenty-four hours, only to go back to his day-to-day life when the damage is done, feeling absolutely no regret. Dennis has some level of fleeting interest in environmentalism at the beginning of the episode, after he and the Gang go to see Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but this interest quickly dissipates, unlike his anger at the activist who insulted him. The fact that Dennis would go so very far out of his way to destroy this man’s life over such a petty thing says a lot about how much he values others as people.
Once we reach season four, it is increasingly apparent that Dennis is in no way the “straight man” character. He has the idea of publishing a book of his sexual exploits in the episode “Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life” from this season. However, he is instead placed in a rehab facility alongside comedian Sinbad. Later, in the season finale, “The Nightman Cometh,” Dennis sexualizes the role he plays in a musical as a young boy, and is very egotistical during the rehearsal process for said musical. This season seems to focus far more on Dennis’s sexual deviancy than his actual mental illness, but it seems like the mental instability only perpetuates his sexual narcissism and need for self-validation through sexual partners.
“The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” in season five is an incredibly defining episode for Dennis. In this episode, he presents to the gang his “foolproof” method for picking up women, which involves repeated manipulation which Dennis obviously feels no remorse for. It’s even debatable whether or not he sees what he’s doing as wrong, even though it very clearly is. His system is an acronym for “Demonstrate value,” “Engage physically,” “Nurture dependence,” “Neglect emotionally,” “Inspire hope,” and “Separate entirely”. This six-step process is very clearly an act of emotional abuse, and it even points into a dark and startling direction of ignoring consent completely, but Dennis doesn’t even seem to notice, and is surprised when the gang points out how morally skewed his system is.
In the opening episode of season six, “Mac Fights Gay Marriage,” Dennis reveals that he no longer experiences feelings, and he’s confused when Mac says that he does. From this scene, we can draw the conclusion that Dennis doesn’t notice the signs of his sociopathic tendencies, and thinks that many of them are common in the human race. He asks Mac if he remembers feelings, from when they were younger, and Mac’s response - “Dude, are you saying you don’t have feelings? I have feelings every day!” - only serves to confuse Dennis more. It’s also important to note that later in this season, in “Who Got Dee Pregnant?,” the idea that Dennis may have fathered his twin sister’s child in a sexual tryst brought about by alcohol and confused identity is brought up, and although Dennis seems disgusted, he doesn’t seem to be very surprised. This suggests that he believes that the idea that he would have sex with his sister if affected enough by alcohol isn’t too far from his character to imagine, and this wouldn’t come as a shock to him. Is his need for sex and validation so free and all-consuming that not even taboos such as incest stand as a boundary?
Season seven has several scenes with Dennis that point to mental instability. In “The Storm of the Century,” not only does Dennis put in time stalking an attractive news anchor, but he discusses finding women to sleep with during the incoming storm with Mac. In this conversation, he says that he wouldn’t force a woman to sleep with him, but by implying that he would, or that some danger would be in play for a woman who didn’t sleep with him, there is no chance of rejection. Emotionally manipulating women with the idea of sexual assault doesn’t even seem to register with him as an evil act. His lack of respect for consent and his sexual partners’ safety certainly point to something very wrong.
The very next episode in season seven is called “Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games,” and it involves a drinking game invented by the gang. Dennis is on a team with his sister Dee, and they have a long history of beating Charlie and Mac. As the episode goes on, we discover that they have been cheating for years without anyone catching on, but this doesn’t change the disturbing calm that Dennis exhibits during one scene. The game they are playing has a “challenge card” wherein Dennis must have darts thrown at him until one hits his hand, all without flinching. When the dart pierces his hand, he seems to feel nothing. His all-consuming need to win the game and thus prove himself better than his friends is so important that intense physical pain from a puncture wound doesn’t bother him in the slightest.
In season seven’s finale, “The High School Reunion,” it’s also revealed that Dennis keeps equipment such as rope, zip ties, and duct tap in the back of his car. When asked why, his response - “I have to have my tools!” - is a bit unnerving, given his D.E.N.N.I.S. system as well as his rape-apologist behavior. This is yet another hint that Dennis’s character may be intentionally written as a rapist.
Two episodes stand out in season eight. In the episode “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” the entire gang goes to Dee’s psychotherapist to ask her who has to do the dishes from their group dinner the night before. The psychotherapist gives a short psychological analyzation to each character, and when she gets to Dennis’s turn, he reveals that he has compiled his own files on each of his friend’s psychological states, remarking that he began his file on Dee in the second grade. It is also revealed that he had been giving Mac appetite suppressants and lying to his friend, saying that the “size pills” would make him big and terrifying, when in actuality, he was just disgusted by having an overweight friend. This is a new element to Dennis’s character. He’s always shown an intense ego that depends on his own physical attractiveness, but this is the first hint that he also feels the need to be surrounded by other attractive people. In addition, his psychological dossiers on each member of his friend group suggest that he may think of himself as the only sane one, thus labelling some perfectly normal characteristics, such as feelings, as signs of psychosis.
Later that season, in “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer,” Charlie’s mother reveals that she is terminally ill, and Dennis freely admits that he feels nothing about the situation . Throughout the episode, Dennis tries to shock emotion into himself, and his lack of empathy is a recurring theme in the storyline. He finally breaks down into hysterical sobs at the end of the episode, however, when he is tricked into digging up the corpse of his mother. This is one of the only times, throughout the course of the show, that we see Dennis display true, uninhibited emotion. When faced with the certainty and shocking physical proof of his mother’s death, he is confronted with not only familial love, but also his own inevitable mortality.
In the opening episode of season nine, “The Gang Broke Dee,” Charlie, Frank, and Mac trick Dee into thinking that she’s a rising, successful comedian. Dennis isn’t in on the scam, and he also believes that his sister is achieving fame. He starts photographing men and compiling a database of men he finds “suitable” for his sister, and when Dee gets on the plane for the final act of the scam (a fake invitation to perform on Conan) he tells his Dee that he loves her and that he supports her, only to be met by Dee’s shoe in his face as she leaves him behind for stardom. Once he and Dee find out that her fame was all an elaborate prank, Dennis seems to suffer some sort of psychotic break. This is another instance of familial love, shortly after the last, but he seems to be entirely disgusted and broken due to the idea that he freely showed this emotion to his sister. This in conjunction with his need to control Dee’s life makes this an incredibly important episode to anyone wishing to discuss Dennis’s psyche.
Later in the season, in “The Gang Saves the Day,” the protagonists witness a convenience store robbery, and they each have a fantasy of what they’d like to do in the situation. Most of them fight off the robber somehow, but Dennis’s fantasy is incredibly odd. He thinks about getting shot in the head and entering rehabilitation for the injury with a very attractive nurse. They fall in love, but as soon as he’s healed, she gets hit by a bus. After she’s hit by a bus, the accident demolishing her breasts, Dennis smothers her with a pillow. This fantasy is so out of left field and narcissistic - receiving constant attention when he is injured, but offering none when his love is - even shocks Dennis, who has a confused look on his face when he snaps out of the fantasy. This may show that he has an issue with emotional attention - craving it without fully understanding it as necessary for others as well as himself - that not even he fully understands.
The next episode, “The Gang Gets Quarantined” details the gang preparing for a Boys II Men acapella audition when a flu breaks out and they all quarantine themselves in the bar. Dennis is the first of them to get violently ill, but he insists that he feels fine, even when the others say that they think his life may be in danger. The end finds that none of them had the flu to begin with, and they were all just suffering from alcohol withdrawals, which reveals that Dennis (along with all the others) has alcoholism. Dennis repeatedly insists that he has full control over his body and his immune system, therefore making it impossible for him to get sick. This is yet another example of his consuming ego, and I would go so far as to call it a God-complex.
In the second episode, “The Gang Group Dates,” of the most recent season, Dennis obsesses to the point of unhealthiness with a dating app that allows people to rate others that they’ve been on dates with. This is perhaps the first time that Dennis’s worth as a person as well as a sexual partner is not directly controlled by himself, but rather others that have been around him. He loathes the idea that he may not be the “Golden God” that he calls himself, but rather a creepy loser, as the app seems to suggest.
Later on, in “Psycho Pete Returns,” Dennis and Dee plan to lie in order to get antipsychotic medication for a friend. Their plan is to convince them that Dee needs them, as she’s an actress, but the doctor prescribed them to Dennis just for being Dennis, which gives Dennis an official psychiatric diagnosis. This was the first example of proof from a professional within the Sunny universe that supports my claim that Dennis’s ego is more than just that, but actually a complex and consuming personality disorder.
Dennis has always been egotistical, but he truly did begin the television show as a rather normal guy who happened to end up in a number of over-the-top situations due to his zany friends. As the show progresses, however, many of the Gang’s more ambitious schemes are more or less perpetuated by Dennis Reynolds. He goes from being the everyman of the show to being an honest-to-God sociopath within the span of the Sunny’s ten current seasons. Other characters change of course, but in a more natural way due in part to character development. Dennis, on the other hand, simply loses his sense of rational reality. We see Dennis’s sanity decline throughout the show’s ten seasons, and when the eleventh premieres this coming January, there’s no doubt in my mind that we will see him descend further into his own narcissistic insanity.