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An Ode to the Lawyer in 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia', One of the Best Recurring Characters on TV

By Petr Knava | TV | April 30, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | TV | April 30, 2020 |


One of the very best things about It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the utter degradation visited upon the normal, decent (or just decent enough, relatively speaking) human beings who have the cosmic misfortune to be dragged into the Gang’s orbit. Through military-grade levels of avarice, narcissism, and just straight-up violence, Dee, Dennis, Mac, Charlie, and Frank ruin everyone, functioning as a sort of Biblical plague visited upon the Philadelphia they inhabit, their human forms simply unable to contain the oceanic reserves of pure, boneheaded evil that fuels them. Any semi-functional human being who crosses their path is brought low. The most striking example is, of course, Rickety Cricket (or Matthew Mara, as he was known, once upon a time, while he managed to maintain a healthy, safe distance from the locust horde):

The Devolution of Rickety Cricket from r/IASIP

Cricket may be the Gang’s most lurid ruined canvas, but The Waitress, Ben the Soldier, Rex, Ruby Taft (poor, poor Ruby Taft), and Maureen and Bill Ponderosa—among many others—have all felt the corrosive effects of the flesh-stripping winds that are whipped up by the Gang wherever they go. An interesting thing to note is that those usually least affected are those who are mostly already on the Gang’s level: Artemis, Gail the Snail, the McPoyles, Duncan and the bridge crew. They might get the occasional salting or a bullet in the leg, but broadly speaking, they end up where they started off. It’s almost as if the Gang are on some sort of unwitting mission to bring humanity to this one specific place, a place which in many ways defies categorisation, but which Frank himself might term ‘fringe class’.

And then there is The Lawyer. The only lawyer in Philadelphia, as the Gang seem to believe, calling upon him (against his will) any time some sort of legal trouble or quandary presents itself—‘You are aware there are other lawyers in Philadelphia?’ he sighs rhetorically in response to Charlie and Dee after finding them in his office following one of many forced entries by various configurations of the Gang’s membership. And here’s the thing about that line: It’s perfect. The simplicity of the writing is perfect, and even more than that it is the delivery, by actor Brian Unger, that is absolutely on point. The professionalism of the man, somehow just managing to hold at bay the exasperation, not quite holding in the contempt, yet still preventing it from morphing into outright, entirely justifiable rage—Unger just nails it:

The Lawyer’s arc in the universe of It’s Always Sunny is a fascinating one, because for the longest time he seemed to be the only person who managed to not only survive his repeated run-ins with the Gang but somehow managed to come out on top. That appearance above by The Lawyer is from the season five classic, ‘Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittens’. It is his third episode. By then he had crossed paths with the Gang twice before, and though they had already subjected him to a wealth of very characteristic horrors, he had somehow managed to keep his head above the waterline. The first appearance by The Lawyer comes in a pivotal season three episode, ‘Dennis and Dee’s Mom is Dead’, in which he is drafted in by the Reynoldses to deal with the will of their deceased mother. When he walked into his office that day to confront this as yet unknown motley trio sat in front of his desk, he couldn’t possibly have any notion of what awaited him. In less than three minutes his entire life is thrown into a turbulent maelstrom the likes of which he has likely never experienced. It’s an amazing performance by Unger, and it remains one of my absolute all-time favourite scenes in all of It’s Always Sunny, and probably television history:

Sure, Danny DeVito is a thundering force of nature here—‘Where is that rat bast*rd?! Because I wanna smash his face, until he’s dead! Killed dead! Killed dead!’—and Kaitlin Olson and Glenn Howerton are perfect as always as they stew in their rage and bewilderment, but it is Unger who is the glue that holds this masterpiece together. The cracking composure, the struggle to hold it all together as the situation escalates exponentially, the rapid uptake of new information as he assesses just what he has crossed paths with—and finally that exhausted ‘Jesus Christ!’ at the end. Bravo. Bra-fu**ing-vo.

The next time the Gang meets The Lawyer, they are on opposing sides of the law. This is at the start of the fifth season, in another top-notch episode, ‘The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis’. They are following Frank’s scheme in trying to claim a foreclosed house; he is defending the resident family’s right to stay for a set time before having to vacate. What I love about this scene is it shows why the Lawyer might well stand a chance at surviving his exposure to the Gang’s toxicity: He comes prepared for battle, he does not give any benefit of the doubt, and he goes on the offense. Unger is, again, amazing.

Now contrast that bravado with the following scene. Here, we find Dee and Charlie staking out The Lawyer at a motel. This is after they broke into his office earlier, in the other scene above from ‘Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittens’. Here, Unger shows that despite his successful counter-attack in ‘The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis,’ he is very much feeling the strain of successive interactions with these horsemen of the apocalypse, and he lets his guard down, revealing a bit of himself in hopes that this might ameliorate the Gang’s inexplicable encroachment on his life.

Obviously, it doesn’t, and by that episode’s end, the whole Gang has broken into his office—again—after forcibly restraining his secretary—again—with firearms and at least one prostitute in tow (that’s a novel transgression at least). Seemingly entering the pleading phase of his ordeal, The Lawyer promises to solve all their legal issues at once, so long as they promise never to bother him again. The Gang walk away satisfied, unaware that The Lawyer is about to serve them with an almighty helping of legal justice, spiked with bath salts. Playing on their stupidity, he has them sign a piece of paper that grants him full access to the soon surprisingly lucrative Kitten Mitten patents that Charlie had dreamed up, as well as functioning as a restraining order against them all. He walks away, giddy, victorious, while the Gang survey their defeat, a dejected Mac halfway through an aborted attempt at his usually foolproof legal strategy: literally eating the physical paper a contract is written on, thus nullifying it (the Lawyer made hundreds of copies). The next time we see The Lawyer is a season later, seemingly enjoying a victory lap around the Gang by taking on Maureen Ponderosa’s case in her divorce from Dennis. He does the work pro bono, any damage done to the Gang a righteous cause, and gets Dennis on the hook for not just alimony payments, but also Maureen’s sizeable debt. The glee that Unger exudes is hilarious and perfect, and undimmed by Uncle Jacks and his formidably creepy obsession with his hands.

The Lawyer then makes a brief but key appearance in the season eight episode, ‘Pop-Pop: The Final Solution’, in which he aims to finally terminate his legal duties as executor of Barbara Reynolds’ estate by helping to pull the plug on Dee and Dennis’ Nazi grandfather. The plug pull does nothing, however, and the old bast*rd ends up hanging on for rotten life for potentially a long time. The mystical cord tying him to the Gang surviving, The Lawyer leaves, annoyed, frayed.

And then. And then it all comes to head in the masterful symphony of chaos and violence that is ‘McPoyle vs. Ponderosa: The Trial of the Century’, in which The Lawyer finally confronts The Gang—via the proxy of Bill Ponderosa—in a court of law. At this point, he has been engaged in an infernal waltz with this group of foul and wretched basilisks for nine years. Nigh on a decade has passed since the Reynolds clan entered his office, trailing after them fire, fury, and bird law, and here he stands, in the hallowed hall of his profession, suited and ready to go, prepared to dance circles around them, aiming for maximum damage. Unger delivers a mini tour de force here. His eyes twitching and his soul fraying from years of exposure to the most powerful solvent in Philadelphia, The Lawyer nevertheless seems to be close to delivering the killing blow.

And then.

And then, Charlie Kelly enters. Charlie Kelly, illiterate janitor, denim chicken enthusiast, and bird lawyer extraordinaire takes to the floor. And the Lawyer ends up with a rare bird flying out from Guillermo Del Toro’s hat and launching a frenzied attack of claw and beak at his eye.

That right there, people, is pure fu**ing poetry. Aeschylus himself applauds from the deep mists of antiquity. The Lawyer stood tall for as long as he could. He went tit for tat. He came out on top when he could. But chaotic evil order was, at last, restored. The price was an eye.

That episode was also four years ago.

Hey, Sunny gang, BRING THE DAMN LAWYER BACK! He’ll have an eyepatch, can you even imagine how powerful he will be then?

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

Header Image Source: FXX