Sunny’s 10th season follows Dennis’s descent into madness

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“Guys, your true power comes not from outside sources, but from the delusional stories that you all convince yourselves of. And no one – no one – can take that away from you.”

This is the sort of twisted laugh-line that viewers have come to expect from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a dark, long-running comedy on FX. Sunny has always celebrated the dysfunction of its protagonists, mining for laughs in the shadowy abysses of the human psyche.

But over the last few seasons, something has changed. Before, the punchline was that someone would ever actually say something so absurd. Today, the punchline is that Dennis has said it – and that with absolute conviction, with terrible, menacing certainly, he quite clearly believes it.

Dennis has become the most fascinating character study on Sunny.  During the first several seasons, he was only marginally differentiated from The Gang – the show’s standard name for its featured five co-dependents who work at a bar called Patty’s Pub. Like the others, Dennis was a shallow, scheming misanthrope who repeatedly entangled himself in the most inflammatory dilemmas the show’s writers could dream up. A typical instance of early Dennis in a second-season episode, Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare: “Hi. I’m a recovering crack-head. This is my retarded sister that I take care of. I’d like some welfare, please.”

It was an outrageous storyline that set Sunny up to take constant, clever shots at its own anti-heroes, portraying them as obliviously bigoted, exploitive and irresponsible. But it also painted with a broad brush. It didn’t much matter to the storyline that Dennis quit his job and applied for welfare rather than Mac, or that Dee quit with him rather than someone else. The show has since returned to Dennis’s appreciation for crack, but it’s a quirk – not a defining trait.

By season two, Dennis was beginning to differentiate himself. He had assumed an alpha male role in The Gang, routinely dominating the feckless Mack and the naïve Charlie during Sunny’s constant arguments, and outmaneuvering them in schemes – like when he bets against Mac in an underground fighting tournament. And the occasional flashes of sinister narcissism had begun. “I’m not going to take no for an answer,” he explained during season three, “because I just refuse to do that, because I’m a winner and winners…we don’t listen to words like ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ or ‘stop!’”

Those digressions have become more frequent during Sunny’s past seven seasons. Dennis’s breakthrough moment, however, didn’t come until season five, when he revealed the “D.E.N.N.I.S. System” – an insane, personal strategy of monstrous psychological manipulation he’s developed to seduce women.

“Are you kidding me?” Dee asks. “You are not winning their hearts, you’re torturing them and they end up hating you.”

With that line, the writers made their decisive break with Dennis: Dee is clearly speaking for them, for the audience, and for the rest of humanity, which can only watch in astonishment as Dennis’s psychology flies completely off the rails. To put it in the jargon of Russian literary theorist Mikhael Bakhtin, Sunny has achieved a state of polyphony: its characters have gone rogue, and it’s no longer clear that the writers have any control over them. To the audience, watching Dennis is like watching Crime and Punishment’s Raskvolnikov trying to decide whether or not to kill the old pawnbroker. We don’t know if he’s going to do it or not – and Dostoevsky might not know, either.

In the years that followed, Dennis’s personality disorder has mostly just worked as a recurring gag – though one of the show’s strongest. Most often it comes in odd, passing admissions, as when he explains why he’s trying to find a date for his sister: “I’ll put them together, thereby controlling the situation. And her. As I always have, and I always will.” Occasionally it appears in odd revelations, such as when Dennis explains, in “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” that he has always kept personal psychological dossiers on everyone else. And a few times, it has become a central plot point; one episode, for instance, turns entirely on Dennis’s bizarre quest to achieve sexual gratification by posing as a complete stranger.

What has emerged during Sunny’s run through Glenn Howerton’s masterful portrayal of Dennis is the portrait of a deeply troubled clinical sociopath – charismatic, amoral, unfeeling, and embroiled in absolute narcissism. The comedy emerges throught the dramatic contrast between his superficial charm and the sporadic glimpses of deep malevolence. Behind Dennis’s smile, the writers have placed the growing threat of serious danger.

“It’s like the thrill of being near the executioner’s switch,” he explains in The Gang Gets Analyzed, offering us a brief window into his broken mind. “Knowing that at any moment, you could throw it, but knowing you never will. But you could, never isn’t the right word, because I could…and I might…and I probably will.”

This level of writing is already enough to place Sunny in the upper echelon of 21st century television – but the show is still evolving. After years of serving as one of its most reliable punchlines, Dennis’s personality has grown into something more: the setup.

Consider the opening quote, pulled from Sunny’s tenth season, which ended earlier this month. It’s a bizarre moral to the episode, and again, exactly what you would expect from Dennis: an open ode to the empowering magic of solipsism.

But there’s another layer to this scene, which only becomes clear when you remember that Dennis is a sociopath: when he talks about people being delusional, he’s talking about everyone but himself.

“But what about you?” Frank asks.

“Me? What about me? I’m good man, I’ve been doing great.” Dennis replies.

Dennis is clearly not doing good – but neither is the show. As Sunny moves into its season eleven, it is brilliantly making the climb from good to great.

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