Psychoanalyzing ‘It’s Always Sunny’s Dysfunction Through Its Bottle Episode
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“And this is also a great opportunity for you to see how crazy my asshole friends are.”
When you think of the saccharine, warm comforts that are supposed to emanate from classic sitcoms, the ornery malcontents that populate It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia couldn’t seem more ill-suited for the job. The sharp, mean-spirited sitcom that began as a blip on the under-formed FX network’s schedule has slowly grown into the channel’s flagship program that’s just completed their tenth season. It’s not easy for a cult classic to transform into a mainstream hit, but it’s the deep, unrelenting look into this show’s characters that has helped it survive and prosper for so long.
An innocent enough squabble (that’s vintage Sunny) kicks off the episode, which sends everyone seeking the guidance of a therapist to get the answers that they seek (or rather, who is the “winner”). It’s Always Sunny is a show that depicts individuals that are so selfish, sociopathic, and differently damaged, that there have even been audio commentaries for episodes that have had trained medical professionals weigh in and attempt to diagnose these monsters. So for an episode to not only revolve around the gang getting therapy, but for it to be a bottle episode that solely does that for the entire entry’s length, is an exciting endeavor with a lot of potential.
Thankfully, the episode doesn’t squander the opportunity, and due to its restrictive bottle episode nature, we’re given the luxury of an episode that spends all of its time focused on digging into these characters and the science behind this. The episode chooses to waste no time on anything else like supporting characters, scene changes, or even a multi-tiered plot. The framing that’s been established here trims away all of the fat and the outcome is just as dysfunctional as you’d hope it would be.
Many episodes of It’s Always Sunny essentially feel like bottle episodes with these miscreants not venturing out of their dank security blanket of a home in Paddy’s Pub very often. It’s not unusual to just have episodes of this show that let the freefalling dysfunction of these five friends ricochet off of each other while society takes a hit in the process. That’s why what’s so important about this actual bottle episode is that not only does it manage to confine the five of them even more than usual, but it also places an outsider amongst them (let alone one that is a professional in mental health). The minute that Dennis, Charlie, Mac, and the rest of the group enter the therapist’s office, the clash between these two worlds is immediately felt as their homeless man’s bindle of dishes is emptied on the floor.
Now it’s not just a matter of watching these people work around each other and make sense of their corresponding chaos, but the inclusion of Kerri Kenney-Silver’s therapist character pushes the focus on understanding why these individuals are the way that they are. Forcing them to bounce off of someone that doesn’t share all of the same unhealthy tendencies, or rather, hasn’t become used to it by now, results in the cracks in everyone’s armor becoming deeply apparent. The results not only see this group of friends turning on one another, but turning on themselves as the series gets more introspective and causal than it ever has before.
If the episode’s bifurcated focus wasn’t clear enough, the episode even breaks itself up into corresponding sections for each of the characters’ therapy sessions. We’re treated to extended character studies for all of our cast members, with each one feeling like we’re reading a deeply personal diary entry from the character. Seriously. All of these are perfect as we get some brilliant readings on each character that are only possible because of the bottle episode construct. It allows these rapid-fire breakdowns to overlap each other. Even if the episode presented a similar setup, but they were talking to the therapist in Paddy’s Pub, the results wouldn’t be the same. Here because the characters are forced into these unfamiliar surroundings with an outsider who has power (not just in her degree, but more importantly in her ability to tell them which of them should do the dishes), they begin to unravel and tailspin, and the results are some of the funniest revelations the show has ever produced.
Between Dee’s stress-induced psoriasis, Mac’s obvious insecurity regarding his body and sexuality, Charlie’s implied admission that he might be a cat trapped in a human’s body, and Frank’s tragic wormholing into his childhood at a “nitwit school,” the satisfying character examinations never stop coming. Every piece of this episode is an accomplishment and flows effortlessly, but there’s real magic going on in Dennis’ therapy session. Granted, there’s perhaps the most potential to be seen in Dennis’ reading since he’s continually shown the most psychological issues throughout the course of the series (such as how he might straight up be a serial killer), but what follows is such a disaster in power plays and manipulation.
A particularly enlightening admission from Dennis comes after he reveals he was responsible for Mac’s weight gain in the previous season. It highlights his psychosis and his image of himself as the puppet master of the group. He can’t help but equate himself to the therapist:
To be in someone’s mind. To have complete control. It’s like the thrill of being near the executioner’s switch. 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… I probably will.
With Dennis’ segment, it’s worth mentioning just what a different dynamic the episode would have with the simple adjustment of there being a male therapist in place of the female one (even with Mac’s session, there would likely be repercussions felt regarding his sexuality). Dennis’ segment is such a powerful part of the episode that you almost don’t realize what a substantial choice it is for the episode to be set up this way. A female therapist allows the episode to pop in a lot of ways that a male one might have encumbered it, and just the episode’s attention to exploring multiple routes (even if it’s not obvious) is a testament to the many balls that it has in play at once in order to make it work. Also, Kerri Kenney-Silver is just the best.
What’s most fascinating here and the biggest takeaway from what an It’s Always Sunny bottle episode is all about, is at the end of this none of our cast members are any worse for wear. They’ve all gone through tremendous breakthroughs in this episode (whether they’re aware of it or not) but remained unchanged as the credits roll. The person who has gone through something here is the therapist, who is a mess and a broken shell of herself by the time the episode ends. What we see here is that these five people are not only very destructive, but that they’ve also developed such an intolerance to their own poison, that anyone who is stuck spending time with them will be broken in the process as they all scramble to feed their own egos.
The therapist here does her absolute best, and even holds her own for a while. But it’s only a matter of time until she needs to buy into their insanity and can’t help but start joining in the screams at Dee, too.
Someone’s got to do the dishes after all.