By Beth Lindsay
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a show that is pretty hard to describe. Yes, it is a satirical sitcom, that much is clear. But if you showed someone who has never seen the show before just one clip from any episode, they are likely to be pretty baffled.
Most of the one-liners of It’s Always Sunny, heard without context, (and sometimes even with context,) make no sense (“Cat in the wall. Now you’re talking my language”), and even the episode titles can be perplexing despite their bluntness, such as “Frank sets Sweet Dee on fire” or “Mac kills his Dad”.
The creation of the show stems back to 2005, when Rob McElhenny and Glenn Howerton wrote and filmed a pilot episode that cost between $85 and $200 (depending on who you ask). Shot with a digital camcorder and in their own apartments, it’s crazy, and inspiring, to think that 16 years later it’s still running and will continue for at least another four seasons having been renewed late last year.
The show is known for its characters having terrible morals and a ‘there’s nothing they won’t say’ approach to the dialogue, which has led to some pretty controversial stuff being said. Despite this, there’s something truly addictive about It’s Always Sunny and it can be hard not to love these characters. They ruin pretty much everyone’s lives that they encounter, have little to no respect for anyone or themselves, and can be downright disgusting (to put it lightly). Yet we still want to see them have even just a glimmer of success and happiness.
Not all fans want the characters to find happiness in the same way it seems. Some viewers found the unexpected turn of events in the season 13 final jarring, and couldn’t see why a show, especially one like this, would want to tackle a serious issue. Not everyone enjoyed seeing real emotion in a show that is known for being heartless, but why do people believe it was inappropriate for the show to tackle this storyline in the beautiful and heartfelt way that they did, rather than in the usual, crass style that It’s Always Sunny is known for?
So, Mac’s Gay.’
In It’s Always Sunny, you can count the amount of truly emotional moments on one hand, and considering there are a whopping 154 episodes, that’s quite a feat. However, last season’s final episode left many viewers in tears due to the unexpected beauty and wholehearted arc that the character of Mac, played by Robert McElhenny, underwent.
The moment in question is, when Mac manages to express his inner feelings towards himself being gay to surrogate father, Frank (played by Danny DeVito), through performing a gorgeous, sensual, and emotional partner dance. This is made even more heartfelt due to McElhenny being raised by two Mothers in real life, inspiring him to write such an LGBTQ+ positive storyline.
Despite this seeming like a progressive and positive leap forward for the show, using their huge audience to tell an important story, many viewers weren’t happy, as the episode was totally different from the approach that the show usually took regarding this subject.
Denial in Philadelphia
“First of all, through god, all things are possible, so jot that down.” – SEASON 8, EPISODE 5
Since the early seasons, Mac has preached the bible’s views on homosexuality, how it is wrong and a total sin yet behaves in a way that would suggest otherwise. For example, in ‘Mac Day’, a personal favourite episode of mine, Mac gets to pick the day’s activities for the gang and they are not allowed to complain, so, Mac chooses to take them to a gym where they will “grease up” some bodybuilders.
It’s never been a storyline taken seriously, but in season 12, after many innuendos and ‘bits’, Mac comes out to the group, to which they act relieved and support him fully. Out of all of the horrible things that the gang says and does, reacting negatively to Mac’s coming out is not one of them. It happens, they are happy for him, and then they move on to their usual shenanigans. A seemingly fitting end to the long-running joke of Mac denying his sexuality.
It’s Always Sunny finds it’s Pride
Right from the start, this episode had a different vibe from every episode before it. When Frank tries to persuade Mac to dance on the gang’s pride float, since he’s the “Prize gay” of the group, Mac refuses, explaining “I don’t know where I fit in as a gay man” in an unusually sombre and serious tone. This sets up the premise of the episode, in which Frank will help Mac to ‘find his pride’.
Skip ahead a few failed attempts of Frank trying to help Mac express his inner feelings and fit in with the LGBTQ+ community, Mac reveals he has been working on something. That something is a dance, which he performs in his Dad’s prison after coming out to him. Watching this scene, I felt the tension as his Dad, a psychotic criminal and drug dealer, walks out during Mac’s dance. I can honestly say I’ve never felt tense in an episode of It’s Always Sunny before, never mind shedding a tear.
Progressive or inappropriate?
It can be argued that a lot of viewers do not watch this show to see real-life, emotional issues being addressed. However, for the viewers of the show who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, the treatment of Mac’s storyline is a confirmation that this show and its creators are their allies, rather than using a storyline of a gay character to queer bait their audience or use him as a butt of the jokes. When speaking about the episode with ‘Rolling Stone’, McElhenny said “The response was so overwhelmingly positive, certainly from the people that we cared about…. It felt good that we were recognizing a part of our audience in a way that was not pandering, that wasn’t offensive or upsetting or a caricature”.
The shock of the reveal of Mac’s dance was something many viewers found very special, with AV club calling it “a stunning, game-changing finale”. The fact that a show with a reputation like It’s Always Sunny would take such a risk in order to show their support and to treat this particular storyline with respect is admirable. It also proves that McElhenny is not a one-horse pony, and has the ability to write other things aside from crude comedy.
A History of Controversy
Despite this positive step forward, It’s Always Sunny is not without its controversies. Over the years there have been many things said on the show that have made viewers question the limit of what is acceptable in comedy. Back in 2019, ‘BuzzFeed’ even wrote an article titled “Why Hasn’t Cancel Culture Come For “It’s Always Sunny”?”, questioning how they are able to get away with using slurs that would never be used in 2021 to describe transgender people and disabled people. Simultaneously, one of the longest-running jokes in the show is whether or not one of the gang members, Dennis, is a rapist and murderer. How this show hasn’t been cancelled is quite a mystery.
When asked about these controversies, McElhenny stated, in the same interview with ‘Rolling Stone’, “We’re certainly not lauding characters for their homophobia or misogyny or casual racism…people will watch the show and say, ‘Well, clearly the characters are homophobic, but the writers and/or creators and/or directors are not.’ That’s the most important aspect for us.”.
Despite saying this, it is debatable whether or not this argument is acceptable. I don’t believe this is the case with It’s Always Sunny, but stating that the audience is laughing at the characters and not with them could be an excuse to neglect offensive content. There will be people out there who are laughing with these characters and believe their behaviour is acceptable.
The beauty of It’s Always Sunny is that the quality of each season is so consistent. The writers know what the audience wants to see, yet they are not scared of doing something, which in the world of the show, is totally different and unexpected. It has always stuck to its roots, by keeping the same cast even down to the well-loved side characters that appear every so often, without becoming repetitive. The downfall of the gang and their descent into further madness makes It’s Always Sunny one of the most entertaining and accomplished shows on TV, and the realistic and heartfelt story-telling of Mac’s journey has only added to this success.