By Petr Navovy | TV | April 21, 2023 |
By Petr Navovy | TV | April 21, 2023 |
A few years ago, I wrote a piece called ‘The inspired facial wizardry of Dennis Reynolds’. It was meant specifically as a celebration of the work that Glenn Howerton did on the season eleven episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, ‘Mac & Dennis Move to the Suburbs’, but also as a general shout-out to the actor for his peerless work on the sitcom.
At that point, the show had been on the air for just over a decade. Incredibly, it will soon be releasing its sixteenth season, and completing its eighteenth year. If it was a person, It’s Always Sunny would imminently be of legal drinking age here in the UK. The show has also been renewed until season eighteen, which means it will make it to American legal drinking age.
This is just absolutely mind-boggling.
It’s also the perfect time to acknowledge a truth that has quietly, subtly snuck up on us (you might even say like a demon’s whisper), that is: Glenn Howerton’s portrayal of Dennis Reynolds is the greatest TV performance of the 21st century.
As I noted in my review of the Sunny season twelve opener, any talk of ‘prestige TV’, or however it’s referred to, almost always overlooks comedy. The same is true for cinema, in which comedic performances—no matter how virtuosic—uniformly do not get the clout or respect attached to them that dramatic ones do. Whenever you hear people talking about great performances in television, it’s almost always the (often admittedly deserving) dramatic roles. That’s just the way the industry works, and it’s a shame because there is nobody—nobody—who has put on as much of a comedy acting masterclass on TV this century as Howerton has over the past two decades.
For a start, I can’t think of another actor—in any period, let alone just since the Millennium—who uses their face in the way Howerton does. It is quite simply preposterous what this man is able to do with just two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and some eyebrows. The range of expressions is almost intimidating in its range. Whether it’s that inimitably oleaginous smile, simultaneously winning and reptilian; the paroxysms of Olympian rage; the transient moments of neutered and vulnerable acceptance; or simply the frustration he feels whenever the Gang interrupts him mid-flow and his love of pompous ceremony is not indulged, Howerton works magic with his features every single episode.
I had to forcefully stop myself from grabbing any more screenshots because there are too many moments to highlight. Every episode of It’s Always Sunny has at least three or four faces that Howerton conjures up out of thin air that immediately become all-timers.
Well, okay, since you insist, one more example: The transformation that Howerton performs in the space of just a few frames in the season seven episode, ‘The Storm of the Century’, as his efforts at picking up some women in order to bring them back to his bunker (natch) are scuppered by the existence of boyfriends (the audacity!):
It’s not just his face with which Howerton weaves his spells. The actor is constantly making choices, both subtle and overt, that he manifests in his body language and movements, which are often unbelievably funny, but which also serve to take us further into Dennis Reynold’s fractured and gradually spiraling mental state. All that psychopathic rage, that child-like despair and need, that twisted zest for life that occasionally manifests itself in uncharacteristic moments of innocence—Howerton communicates it all with the skill of a seasoned craftsman, honing things as the seasons progress and giving us a close-up of the slow motion train wreck of a man’s ego.
One of my favorite ways to listen to music is to pick an album that I’m particularly fond of, and to listen through it while paying specific attention to one instrument. Iron Maiden’s 2006 ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ is one of my favorite records of all time, and the way I often listen to it is by noticing what drummer Nicko McBrain is doing throughout. As a result, it’s become one of my top drumming albums by any band, because no matter where you find yourself on the record, you are guaranteed to find Nicko doing something phenomenal.
The same is true for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Howerton’s performance in it. You can jump to any episode in its fifteen seasons, find a scene in which Dennis features, and it’s overwhelmingly likely that Howerton will be doing something inspired. The truly impressive part is that he will be doing this regardless of whether he is a prominent part of the scene or entirely incidental to it. Often, in fact, it’s the latter scenario that is more pleasing to witness. In those scenes, let your eyes wander from the focus of the shot, let them find Howerton and settle on him, even if it’s just for a few seconds, and marvel to yourself: ‘How much craft is this man bringing to work every day, that he is performing better in the background of a scene than many actors do when they are the center of attention?’
The first example of this to jump to my mind—though there are too many to count, and ones in which he is even less prominent—is the opening scene to the third episode of the tenth season, ‘Psycho Pete Returns’. As is so often the case, one or more members of the Gang burst into Paddy’s and set in motion some dreadful sequence of events. In this case, it’s Mac and Charlie, who come bearing music. Blasting out Talking Heads’ classic ‘Psycho Killer’ from an old-school boombox, the Gang burst into spontaneous singalong (who wouldn’t?), and while the main objects of attention are Mac and Charlie, when I first noticed what Dennis was doing in the background, I couldn’t stop laughing. The little shoulder shuffle, followed by the marching movement, and then capped off with the deranged scream and fist pump as he reaches peak excitement? Flawless.
And then there are the sounds. The noises, the grunts, the screams, the sheer variety of little laughs that Howerton has managed to create, all communicating in an instant the various broken and horrific mental states Dennis finds himself in. I will always remember one scene perhaps more than any other. I started watching the show in late 2009. I fell in love immediately. It must have been the quickest I’ve ever vibed with a show, but it wasn’t until the twelfth episode of season five, ‘The Gang Reignites the Rivalry’, that I realised just how good Howerton in particular (though I noted immediately how brilliant each and every cast member was) could be. The scene in question involves Dennis and Frank returning to Paddy’s with their tails between their legs after they’d been punked by some of the new generation of college bros at Dennnis’ old frat house. The rhythm of Howerton’s delivery in this scene, the frenzied crescendo, escalating further and further, the arm and body movements, the intensity in his eyes, the high-pitched screams of ‘idiots!’ This, this is Art:
I think that perhaps some of the strongest testaments to Glenn Howerton’s work on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are the outtakes and blooper reels that the team release. Watching these you can’t help but note how many alternate versions of iconic scenes the actor delivered—and just how hilarious and fantastic so many of the discarded ones are! Comedic acting is notoriously difficult. To deliver at a really high quality and consistency for two decades is nigh on unimaginable. Yet here we are; we don’t have to imagine, because Glenn motherfuc*ing Howerton swooped down with the grace of a falcon and decided to bless us with his gift, and it’s high time we start acknowledging it for what it is.
We can’t stop looking, Glenn, whether you’re talking or not.