Thursday, December 11, 2008

An appreciation: Charlie Kelly of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

I know I’ve encountered a brilliant fictional character when I find myself wishing I could actually hang out with that person in real life. At the worst of times, palling around with a real world Charlie Kelly would be exhausting, pathetic and downright scary. At the best of times, though, it would probably be a hell of a lot of fun.

Hanging with Charlie is even more of a pipe dream than most of my fictional friendships, because I don’t believe anyone remotely like Charlie exists in real life. In fact, no one else quite like Charlie exists in fiction, either.

The genius of Charlie Day’s performance is that he’s created a character unlike anyone we’ve seen on our TV screens before. He’s manic, he’s depressive, he’s full-bore insane. He’s an illiterate, squalor-dwelling, paint-huffing stalker who platonically shares a bed with a slumming, degenerate millionaire. And yet somehow, he’s far and away the most sympathetic character on a show that actively shuns sympathy.

I’ve always held that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is basically Seinfeld with the self-absorption and misanthropy ratcheted way, way up. In that equation, Charlie equals George Costanza, the biggest loser in a gang of them. There are plenty of parallels, from the characters’ short stature to their inability to maintain an indoor speaking voice.

But even George was constrained by the bounds of logic and the basic norms of society. His constant scheming was at least motivated by hopes of financial or personal gain. Not so Charlie, who frequently dives wholeheartedly into degradation and bodily harm just because the opportunity presents itself. The series has found him filling his apartment with trash, enrolling in an underground fight club and leaping out of a moving vehicle not so much through any grand design, but just because he loves his role as “The Wildcard.”

And George never approached Charlie’s surrealist thought process, displayed in amazing bits like Charlie’s impromptu song snippets (“ROCK, FLAG AND EAGLE!”) or his confusing the concepts of haunting and murdering. He may be completely crazy, but the brain behind “Dayman” is a beautiful mind indeed.

Even when Charlie does act with a specific goal in mind, his approach is far beyond what we’ve come to expect from our sitcom characters. Take his pursuit of his dream girl, The Waitress. Plenty of other sitcom sidekicks have tried to lie, scheme and cheat their way into the hearts of various ladies, but only Charlie has gone so far as to write, direct and stage an entire rock opera as a subterfuge for proposing to the object of his obsession. That The Waitress is apparently willing to sleep with almost anyone who isn’t Charlie just makes his striving all the more exquisite.

In his portrayal of Charlie Kelly, Charlie Day has created something truly special: a disgusting, amoral man-child who manages to come across as almost loveable. He may be best summed up by this lovely exchange from “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”:

Charlie (tapping his temple, his face glistening with freshly huffed paint): “What is going on up here?”
Dennis: “I never know, man.”

Neither do I, and that's why I love the man.

- Ira Brooker

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