Dennis Reynolds

Bruce C. Bates


Throughout the five seasons of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” there is little discussion or depiction of the characters’ pasts, including the current subject; Dennis Reynolds. The piecemeal facts and scenes of his childhood are rarely surprising when observing his behavior as an adult. Surely, in the Reynolds’ household dysfunction has bred dysfunction. Dennis hails from an upper-class family and retains only that socioeconomic status—his personality lacks the etiquette, demeanor, and poise of a person described as having class.
What is known a bout his upbringing is that Dennis was raised in with his sister Deandra (“Dee”), mother Barbara, and father Frank. Their mother’s cold demeanor and alcoholism undoubtedly affected both him and his sister, but undoubtedly more significant was the years of exposure to their devious and amoral father. Frank Reynolds was successful in business through frequent aggressive and unethical practices, yet was able to provide a privileged environment for his children. Rather than show affection and guidance, Dennis’ father provided affection through material possessions with the exception of horribly counterproductive life lessons. For example, every Christmas, Frank would buy the gift that Dee and Dennis most desired and either destroy or enjoy the item while his children watched. This misguided attempt to teach his children not to be spoiled demonstrates the level of dysfunction and sometimes sociopathic environment in which the children were raised.
It is also known that Dennis attended the University of Pennsylvania to become a veterinarian and minored in Psychology. He failed to carry over either of these academic pursuits to his current job as co-owner of Paddy’s Pub. Dennis makes little money in this investment, but gains a place to drink and hang out with Dee and his equally dysfunctional (and more hilarious) friends Mac and Charlie. Dennis lives off of his family’s wealth—dressing in highly fashionable clothes, driving a Land Rover and acting almost entirely without concern for the financial (or legal) consequences of his actions. In the realm of this FX Network series, Dennis is in his early thirties and seemingly exists without recollection of the past or concern for the future. He is extreme in his vanity, narcissism, and selfishness to the point of qualifying as a sociopath. While his behavior often cultivates superbly comedic situations, Dennis Reynolds’ personality would be described from Freudian and Neo-Analytic perspectives as less than fully developed.

Perspective 1: Psychoanalytic Perspective

Any Freudian psychoanalyst observing Dennis would immediately identify the imbalance between his Id, Ego and Superego. Dennis’ pleasure-seeking drives always seem to win out, indicating powerful Id forces or perhaps an underdeveloped Superego. This imbalance is exemplified by the D.E.N.N.I.S. system—an acronym for Dennis’ method of dating women. The letters stand for the steps Dennis utilizes in acquiring, using, and abandoning women: Demonstrate value, Engage physically, Nurture dependence, Neglect emotionally, Inspire hope and Separate entirely. Dennis’ selfish disregard for others’ well-being is more indicative of a failure to internalize societal norms than overpowering Id drives, although both certainly play a role in his personality. The morality learned from society are the tools that the Superego would normally use to balance out the primitive Id drives, and in Dennis’ case it results in the Ego failing to balance the two to determine socially appropriate action.
The traditional psychoanalyst would next seek to determine how these deficiencies in Dennis’ mind originated. There is no evidence of a failure to overcome the early stages of psychosexual development—Dennis is able to trust others and is not overly impulsive. However, his vanity, narcissism, and inability to deeply love romantic partners are telltale signs of stalling in the phallic stage of development. It is also clear that Dennis is stuck in the phallic stage as he certainly has not resolved the conflicts of the later latent and genital stages. His personal life, and example of the so-called D.E.N.N.I.S. system, shows he engages in overt and socially inappropriate sexual behavior. One would normally gain satisfaction through mature relationships, achieving this during the genital phase. In his professional life, Dennis indicates he is comfortable getting by without channeling his talents into socially appropriate pursuits; at thirty he would rather get drunk with his friends than use his degree productively or further any career. In one instance, he and Dee attempt to get on welfare and when they are denied due to their privileged status, both try and become addicted to crack. Clearly, Dennis will use intentional and effortful measures to get out of an honest days’ work.
One might ask how it is that Dennis Reynolds is able to go about his life with little conflict of conscience about any of his inappropriate behavior. A psychoanalyst could only deduce that his ego must employ powerful defense mechanisms to distort his reality to the extreme degree that would be required to keep threatening thoughts from conscious awareness. Dennis never seems to act with the reticence one would expect from an individual whose actions have as many harmful effects on the self and others. Thoughts that should clearly evoke guilt or anxiety don’t seem to threaten his ego because denial, displacement and rationalization prevent such thoughts from making their way into Dennis’ consciousness. Most apparent are the frequent times Dennis takes his frustrations out on his sister Dee. For example, Dennis comments that by getting a pet cat, Dee is displaying “yet another sign of [her] descent into spinsterhood.” Anytime Dennis is rejected or shown disinterest by a woman he scoffs and adds some comment such as “it’s too bad she can’t see how in love with me she really is…” There are also countless examples of Dennis using flawed reasoning in a completely confident and certain manner, often to rationalize a failure or other threat to his ego.

Perspective 2: Neo-Analytic Perspective

Without considering the context beyond Dennis’ familial past, it is much more difficult to understand his behavior in social situations. Neo-analytic perspectives offers this addition to Freudian concepts, allowing for a more complex understanding of Dennis’ personality. Karen Horney’s approach seems to come closest to understanding the origins of Dennis Reynolds’ present personality. From any perspective it is clear that he is not a complete or fully developed individual—and under Horney’s his neuroticism likely results from alienation from his ‘real self.’ Since parental neglect detracts from this inner core of the self, it makes sense that Dennis does not fully accept his real self, given his treatment by his father, Frank.
Sparked by a neglectful childhood, a strong ‘despised self’ likely developed in Dennis; evidenced by the many instances in which Dennis flaunts his looks in a narcissistic manner. For instance, when Dennis attempts to seduce Mac’s unattractive mother to spite him, he is dumbfounded at the notion that she does not find him sexually attractive. He throws a comical tantrum displaying an aggressive coping style and clear signs he is striving for recognition of his physical looks. Dennis’ inability to comprehend that not every woman automatically finds him attractive strongly indicates the presence of a superiority complex. Since he needs recognition of his looks to raise his self-esteem, a neo-analytic psychoanalyst would say he is thus compensating for his true feelings of inferiority.
The neo-analytic theorists’ addition of social context to existing Freudian stage theory adds a useful dimension when considering Dennis Reynolds. The areas where Dennis differs from most well adjusted adults can readily be described as failures to resolve ego crises according to Erik Erikson. With a devious father who would buy Christmas presents just to taunt him, Dennis was understandably unsuccessful during the ‘trust vs. mistrust’ stage, failing to gain hope as an ego skill. Dennis’ reluctance to develop a socially productive career indicates he may also have failed to acquire a healthy sense of competence from the ‘industry vs. inferiority’ stage of ego development. Furthermore, his inability to form loving relationships shows his failure to successfully reconcile the ‘intimacy vs. isolation’ stage and can explain his antisocial and misogynistic attitudes toward women.
Dennis has clearly navigated certain stages well, although in an environment of loose morals, the ego skills gained are of limited use. It is hard to argue that a man who goes to extreme lengths to blackmail his friend in charge of work tasks at the bar in order to get out of cleaning toilets and other ‘Charlie work’ lacks sufficient will. Dennis no doubt gained this skill in infancy and its application in an adult context shows his proficiency in wielding this ego skill. The virtue of purpose was certainly acquired by Dennis through the ‘initiative vs. guilt’ stage since he takes on challenges in adulthood with a high degree of confidence and autonomy. Finally, the self-confidence that Dennis displays indicates that he has gained the ability to become competent in his endeavors. As proponents of this stage theory point out, an individual can revisit and gain these skills at later ages. While Dennis is competent in his devious scheming and attempts to evade responsibility in elaborate ways, there is little evidence he has wielded these ego skills in a pragmatic setting. The stage that Dennis is currently working through is clearly ‘generativity vs. stagnation,’ with little progress made in this area thus far at the current point in his adulthood. Perhaps because he failed to successfully resolve the preceding stages of ego development, Dennis is stagnating rather than contributing to society and future generations. His concern for himself makes the ego skill of caring very difficult to acquire. At the present stage in Dennis’ life, his personality is well explained by which ego skills he has gained and which psychosocial crises he must still address.


Dennis Reynolds seems to behave in simplistic ways, leading one to believe he has a two-dimensional personality. His actions are decisive, derisive, and seem impossible to explain rationally. Using what little is known indirectly about his childhood and observing his antics by watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” it is possible to reconstruct a model of his personality. Traditional psychoanalysts would point to the abnormal function of, and lack of balance between, Dennis’ Id, Ego and Superego. Due to his overtly sexual behavior, Dennis can be easily classified stagnating in the phallic stage. Adding to these Freudian notions, neo-analytic theorists can explain his behavior in a social context. Dennis’ self-concept and coping styles can explain his often neurotic behavior while a clear cut analysis of his ego development provide reasons for his shortcomings. Those who have seen the television series can find humor in Dennis Reynolds’ eccentric personality and also find comfort in knowing that he is a fictitious person.


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