"Relationship Goals" is a new column celebrating unconventional and weird love stories that are far superior to traditional romantic tropes.
Not to get too romantic too early, but I’d like to start with a story about a tapeworm named Jerry that is growing inside of Frank Reynolds, a lovably depraved bar owner played by Danny Devito, on a season 11 episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It is Valentine’s Day at Paddy’s Pub, the charmless establishment where the gang congregates, schemes, and yells a lot, and Charlie—Frank’s roommate and alleged son—is upset. “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. I’m so sick of hearing about Jerry,” he says. “Everything is Jerry out of your mouth.”
For the first time in possibly the whole series, we witness a being—that butt worm—be more intimate with Frank than Charlie, who not only sleeps in a bed with Frank, but also shares everything that is meaningful with him: an unwavering love of garbage, squalor, sewer crabs, and a game called Night Crawlers (spelled “Nyte Krollers” by Charlie), where they crawl on the floor of their apartment like worms in the night, “mining minerals.” It’s Valentine’s Day, and Charlie’s Valentine is more preoccupied with a parasite than the person he loves—and who loves him—most. “I can’t even play Night Crawlers with him anymore because it will offend Jerry,” Charlie says. “Frank’s going to leave me for Jerry, man.”
After 23 minutes of classic sitcom hijinks and mix-ups—Charlie makes a Valentine for Jerry, to show Frank just how not jealous he is—the truth is revealed: Frank had ordered parasite-laden poop off the dark web and inserted it inside of himself “with the tip of a teaspoon” to lose weight, because he thought he’d overheard Charlie calling him “flabby.” In reality, Charlie had just been calling him “crabby” because he smelled like all the sewer crabs he’d been eating. “I love it when you smell like crabs,” says Charlie. “Hey, wanna go get Jerry out of your butt?” They walk off together into the sunset, i.e. the run-down apartment that they blissfully share, where they sleep together (“butt to butt”) on a pull-out couch and routinely eat cat food to help themselves fall asleep.
Frank and Charlie, who have the tiniest egos on the show, seem quite comfortable with being superior to no one. In their apartment, they are partners in squalor; at any moment, Frank may be chipping away at his feet with his “toe knife,” while Charlie might be peeing into any number of the open urine cans scattered around the apartment. This equality in baseness, perhaps, allows them the requisite intimacy for true emotional honesty. Whenever they work up the courage to speak their insecurities or uncertainties—making themselves more vulnerable than seven lifetimes of therapy could ever make me—they never mock the other, or act superior. One example of many: Charlie learns, as an adult man, that some people drink orange juice plain, without vodka. (“Like the mixer?” he wonders. “Yeah, people drink it,” Frank says. “That’s crazy to me,” Charlie responds. “When was the last time you had straight mixer?” “I had Diet Cola mixer a while ago,” Frank says, speaking Charlie’s language rather than mocking it.)
They express their love in deeply unconventional ways, whether by fishing for sewer crabs or eating cat food in the night.
To me, Frank and Charlie have the ideal relationship, because it transcends the social conditions that limit the possibilities of love. Unlike most of the coupling-offs you see on television, their arrangement isn’t a trope: No one could say, “Ah yes, that classic love between vulgar white-collar criminal and illiterate-but-low-key-brilliant paint-fumes addict who is probably the son he tried to abort.” Together, teamed up as The Gruesome Twosome, they express their love in deeply unconventional ways, whether by fishing for sewer crabs or eating cat food in the night. Love is not, however, always patient, always kind. In the episode “Frank Falls Out the Window,” Frank almost dies after—you guessed it—falling out the window, where Charlie makes him sit to fart.
Frank: Charlie, can I come in already?
Charlie: Well, that depends, Frank. Are you done farting?
Charlie: Well, then, you're gonna keep hanging your ass out the window till you're done, all right?
The first cohesive theory of the grotesque is often attributed to the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. The grotesque body, a trope in the grotesque realism of François Rabelais, hinges on the idea of degradation: “To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth,” Bakhtin wrote in 1984. “Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth.”
Frank and Charlie’s conscious, communal commitment to lives of degradation—to worshipping the gross comings and goings of a body, to finding joy in the curiosities of the unspeakable—makes space for the “new birth” that is them together, a single unit, unburdened by the social pressures (don’t eat cat food or let your friends eat cat food!!) and obligations of civility that would threaten their intimacy, if not render it impossible.
Their love story is alienating and gross, but aren’t the best love stories? Other people can have their Seth and Summers, their Luke and Loreleis, their Ross and Rachels, but me, I root for these guys. I root for the freaks for whom romance looks strange but is no less special for it.
The greatest loves of my life are the grimy ones: the ones I tweeze my nipple hairs next to (love you, Gaby), the ones who’ve received my ugliest nudes (love you, Holly), the ones upon whose couches I accidentally discharged on during The Bachelor (love you, Burt, and so sorry about that, and I guess your boyfriend knows now, hi Richie.) Free from the tyranny of traditional understandings of romance, so often stuffed into the oppressive, heteronormative confines of “fucking involved,” my loves are bigger—wider—than that which popular culture ever lets me see or imagine. That’s why Frank and Charlie mean so much to me.
I told myself I’d never write about love, let alone write about it for Valentine’s Day, but Frank and Charlie’s love is one for the ages, one worth screaming from the tops of mountains and the depths of the sewers.
“Charlie, he's my buddy,” Frank broadcasts in one episode, speaking to confused passengers on a tour boat he hijacked on the Schuylkill River. “We sleep together, we hang out together. Once I pooped in the bed. I blamed it on him.” There are stars in his eyes. He laughs, clearly in love.