What Can We Steal From “Charlie Got Molested,” an episode of the television program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?

Title of Work and its Form: “Charlie Got Molested,” an episode of the television program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Author: Written by Rob McElhenney, directed by John Fortenberry
Date of Work: Originally aired September 15, 2005
Where the Work Can Be Found: There are DVD sets for each season of the show and the episode is currently streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
It’s Always Sunny is not a show for the faint of heart.  It is, however, produced by people who clearly love the sitcom and wish to put their own spin on the art form.  The conceit of the show is relatively simple: four (later five) narcissistic friends who own a bar in Philly stumble through life, creating one uncomfortable situation after another.  While the creators of the show are human beings with empathy and sympathy, the characters do not.

The episode begins as the friends learn that their former gym teacher has been accused of molesting students.  Upon hearing the news, Charlie becomes evasive and leaves the bar in a huff.  There’s only one conclusion: “Charlie got molested.”  Instead of considering how to help Charlie, the remaining three friends debate the exact kind of molestation that happened and Mac is even clearly offended that the teacher didn’t try anything with him.  Charlie seeks out the “gross” McPoyle brothers, the young men who are accusing the teacher.  The McPoyle brothers reveal that they know they were not molested, but are making the accusations in hopes of “making millions.”  Charlie is blackmailed; if he denies also being molested, then the McPoyles will tell the police the scheme was his idea…which it was.  (Charlie was drunk; no surprise there.)  Mac goes to the teacher’s home and tries to seduce Coach Murray, attempting to understand why the man never went after him.  The blackmail forces Charlie to tell his mother that he was molested.  During a trip to the police to lodge a complaint of his own, Charlie rats out the McPoyles.  To some extent, life is back to normal.

The program is notable because the characters are so unlikeable.  On most television shows and in most movies, the writers clearly want the characters to be relatable heroes.  Instead, the denizens of Paddy’s Pub care only about themselves.  Dee and Dennis are trying to help their friend, but they’re really only trying to make themselves feel smarter, putting their college psych classes to use in some sort of disturbing competition.  Mac barely thinks about his friend, instead trying to serve his own ego.

Rob McElhenney (and the rest of the gang) have created memorable characters because they are so consistent.  On a TV show, it’s perfectly common for the womanizer to mutate into a family man (see How I Met Your Mother.)  Charlie, Dee, Dennis and Mac feel like real characters because they are allowed to be selfish and cruel.  Unfortunately, this is what happens in real life.  Most of us have a Crazy Uncle, right?  He’s been Crazy Uncle forever and he’ll be Crazy Uncle twenty years from now.

The show is also compelling because the writers confront important issues in unexpected ways.  The topic of child molestation is obviously very serious and unpleasant.  However, people have all kinds of different reactions to different situations.  The program does not make light of actual child molestation; instead, McElhenney is getting laughs at the expense of people who lie about having been molested.  (Sadly, this happens in real life, too.)  He is making fun of people who take one college class in psychology and then think they are Sigmund Freud.  Most of all, the jokes are directed at people who do not have the “appropriate” reaction to child molestation.

What Should We Steal?

  • Keep your characters consistent and human.  Why bother writing ONLY about great people who never have or cause any problems?  Personal change is not only a very long process, but it’s also rarer than we see it in literature.   Real people sometimes make “inappropriate” jokes and express “inappropriate” thoughts.  So should your characters.
  • Write a new spin on big issues.  Think about Lifetime movies.  Can they be entertaining?  Sure.  But they can also wear you out because there are no surprises in the stories.  Christmas movies are the same way.  We know everything is going to work out at the end of the story.  Most romance novels?  The same thing.  At the very least, the folks involved with It’s Always Sunny can be proud that they create an illusion of life that is much closer to reality than the world most TV writers create.

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