The most shocking thing from the season 12 finale of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia wasn’t that Dennis Reynolds, the venerable instigator of The Gang, seemed poised to leave Paddy’s Pub, and with it the show, forever. It was why he left.
It’s easy to believe that the continually aggravated Dennis might finally grow fed up with his confederates and bail on them in a fit of pique. (See: “The Gang Misses the Boat”) What’s surprising is that what spurred this angry, womanizing, sociopathic man to leave his partners in crime behind was the simple act of holding his son, a small moment that nevertheless sparked a desire in Dennis to “go be a dad.”
But maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising. It’s Always Sunny isn’t exactly a sentimental show. It’s more likely to embrace sheer darkness or raw absurdity than to offer something sweet, even with a cynical bent. And yet, on the rare occasions when the show wants to go for a little heart, to show a modicum of real feeling in these otherwise deranged characters, it puts them with kids.
Take “Dee Gives Birth” from season 6. Most of the episode features the usual It’s Always Sunny combination of debauchery and insanity, with Frank, Mac, and Charlie assembling the possible fathers of Dee’s baby in what, naturally, turns into a giant coke party. But Dennis, irritated though he may be, stays at the hospital to look after his sister and, in his own unhinged way, try to protect her and her unborn child. In the final act, The Gang reunites and decides that, no matter who the real father is, they’re all going to be dads for Dee’s child and help take care of it (in a Three Men and a Baby sort of way).
That alone is more kindness, caring, and responsibility then we’ve ever seen from the likes of Charlie, Mac, and Dennis. But then, the show offers one of its most sincere bits of emotion. As the dulcet tones of “This Woman’s Work” plays, Dee is wheeled out with an infant in her arms, and even her coarse, nigh-heartless friends can’t help but look on in awe and affection at this little miracle, as the camera pans past them in slow motion.
Yes, the show undercuts that sentimentality with Rickety Cricket lighting up a crack pipe in the midst of the sweetness, and the guys eventually conclude that a baby might mess up their chemistry. But for a moment, the thrust of the scene is clear. Even these debauched boors can’t help but melt a little bit at the prospect of a new young life entering the picture. (And it doesn’t hurt that the episode is dedicated to Kaitlin Olson and Rob McElhenney’s actual newborn baby.)
Despite the general callousness of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s main characters, that reaction makes sense, both because everyone in The Gang has some pretty serious mommy and daddy issues and because they’re all basically overgrown children themselves. Mac, Charlie, Frank, Dee, and Dennis each have the attention spans, impulse control, and respect for others of a toddler. That means that they’re all still chasing their own childhoods, and they can’t help but relate to something (or someone) as simple and immature as they are.
That comes through in “A Very Sunny Christmas”, where each member of The Gang (save for Frank) is trying to recapture the magic of (or at least get revenge for) their childhood holidays. And after scads of disturbing epiphanies about their Christmases past and vengeance schemes gone wrong, the group eventually reaches equilibrium (or at least what passes for that on It’s Always Sunny). In the end, for all their failed Christmas wishes and dashed plans, they revert to throwing rocks at trains, a simple act that takes them back to their carefree days of youth. The episode ends with a fade to Mac and Charlie as kids, celebrating the holiday the very same way and wishing each other a Merry Christmas.
Sure, pitching stones at a locomotive may not be the traditional form of yuletide festiveness, but there’s something charming about it nonetheless. Despite all their fighting and deception and out-and-out cruelty to one another, during the holiday season, The Gang can still come together as a group and do something that takes them back to a time when these thoroughly terrible individuals were at their happiest and most innocent.
Hell, the denizens of Paddy’s Pub don’t even need to be that innocent to be endearing (which is a good thing, since those moments of innocence are few and far between). In what can only be considered a subtle prelude to Dennis realizing he’s ready for fatherhood, “The Gang Goes to a Water Park” sees him taking a young woman named Abby under his wing and nurturing her natural talent for grifting.
Again, it’s not exactly the typical form of heartstring-tugging you might find elsewhere on television. Dennis teaches Abby how to pilfer sunglasses, crash a birthday party, and otherwise put the “artist” in “scam artist.” Still, there’s something strangely compelling about Dennis finding a protege and a kindred spirit in the form of an elementary school student, one as good at pulling the wool over people’s eyes as he is. Dennis is impressed, and perhaps even a bit touched, when Abby’s able to best him as a scammer.
Despite It’s Always Sunny’s impressive level of continuity and its under-the-radar efforts to develop its characters over time, there’s a danger of reading too much into what is, at base, an off-the-wall, episodic series. Still, there’s a common thread in all of these installments and in similar moments where The Gang tries to coach kids through a beauty pageant, to find a common cause with high school students, or even, god help us, traise a baby they find in a dumpster. Frank, Charlie, Dennis, Dee, and Mac may be utterly misguided, completely inept, and the worst set of role models for a kid one could imagine, but what little bits of sentiment and warmth remain in their cold, dead hearts only comes out when there are children around.
So maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a shock when Dennis held his child in his arms and something visibly shifted in him. The light in that little boy’s eyes is enough to give Dennis … well … feelings again. When he compares the prospect of that to the prospect of more time in a bar with these dancing ninnies, it’s not much of a contest.
But it also doesn’t come out of nowhere. Time and again, It’s Always Sunny has shown that when it wants to go for warmth, sweetness, or something just a little beyond the usual raunch, ribaldry, and rowdiness, it pairs its cast of naive, tactless, and impulsive manchildren with actual children.