Confession: when I first started watching Sunny, I thought Rob McElhenney was the weak link in the cast. Next to the others, his performance seemed artless; I found his acting style exaggerated and overly indicative, all on the surface, with none of the sophisticated layers that the rest of the cast brought to their characters. He lacked the full-body control and exquisite micro-detail of Glenn Howerton, the feral energy and deranged mannerisms of Charlie Day, the go-for-broke slapstick and grotesquerie of Kaitlin Olson. Rob McElhenney, I thought, just telegraphed Mac’s emotions, with no subtlety, as the scene called for them.
It was only in the later seasons that I realized how wrong I was. Rob McElhenney plays all of Mac’s emotions on the surface, because all of Mac’s emotions are on the surface. Mac is sensitive and has no poker face; whatever happens to Mac, he feels it fully, deeply, and immediately. Rob isn’t artless; Mac is artless, and guileless. Rob doesn’t use complicated emotional trickery to play Mac, because Mac doesn’t do complicated emotional trickery. He’s missing a layer. What he feels, we see – unfiltered.
Nowadays I go back and watch the scene in “Mac Bangs Dennis’s Mom” in which Mac shyly twists Barbara Reynolds’s bedsheet into a knot as he exclaims, “That was, like, so special, and, I mean, it was like magic” – and I wonder how I could ever have watched this scene without realizing that Rob McElhenney has always known exactly what he’s doing.