Finding pride with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

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It’s seldom that the chaotic characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia ever grow as people, but that’s always been the appeal of them. In this season we saw Charlie develop a little after drawing a boundary at eating a live rat (only once he’d already eaten it), but it’s in small comedic situations like those where the growth ends.

So, it was something pretty special when a smiling Mac (Rob McElhenney) announced “I think I’m out now. Yeah, I’m gay!” only a year ago in an episode titled “Hero or Hate Crime?” 11 seasons of subtle hints and not-so-subtle jokes had lead up to that moment, but no Sunny fan had ever expected it to actually happen. Mac’s repressed homosexuality was as much of a ridiculous running joke as Charlie’s bird law practice or the gang’s terrible home videos. But nope – Mac was out and for the first time, it wasn’t a joke. There was no punchline, no reverting to heteronormativity by the end of the episode; just McElhenney’s most earnest performance of the whole show. It was a high point for the series and one of the season 12 moments that made Sunny’s future look extremely promising.

I’ve always thought this show to be among the most consistent currently on television – for a whopping 12 seasons, it’s managed to stay fresh, surprising and funny all the way through. But for me, the streak unfortunately ended with season 13. I and many other fans had gone in with incredibly high expectations, if only for the fact that it was a season of Always Sunny. Somewhere between the lazy rehashing of an old episode and the Home Alone parody limping by with tired shock value, the show’s previously unchanging charm seemed lost.

This past Wednesday marked the conclusion of season 13 and after what I’d trudged through so far, I didn’t expect much from it. In fact, while the first two acts of the finale were fun, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable about them, no classic Sunny moments to keep me coming back to the episode in rewatches. Then the end of the episode rolled around: it was classic Sunny without being Sunny at all. To quote the words that punctuated the episode: ‘I get it’.

Last year saw Mac announce that he was coming out as a gay man. This year – this episode, in particular – we got to watch him come into his own as a gay man. “Mac Finds His Pride” follows Frank’s quest to get Mac to dance on Paddy’s Gay Pride Parade Float. The dilemma? Mac is despondent about being unable to find a place for himself in the gay community. None of the offensively stereotypical activities Frank forces him to try out will change that. Rob McElhenney gave us a slight glimpse at this side of Mac in “Hero or Hate Crime?” but for “Mac Finds His Pride”, he went all in. There’s no over-the-top, cartoony quality to Mac in this episode; just a nuanced human bogged down by real pain. It’s out of place in an episode of Always Sunny, but after watching Mac grow, subtly but surely for 13 seasons, you feel that pain too.

The episode culminates in a strangely beautiful interpretive dance performed by Mac (yes, the real Rob McElhenney, who trained from no prior dance experience to pull this off) in his attempt to depict his battle with his sexuality, something he fails to do with words. He’s joined by Kylie Shea, a real life ballerina, taking on a role that personifies Mac’s internal struggle, which has has previously described with very little eloquence: “God comes down to me, and it’s a very hot chick”. After a line like that leading to this, you may think the episode accidentally cut into the wrong show – it’s thoughtful, powerful and most importantly, it lacks the absurd punchline everyone was waiting for. Mac’s not a running joke anymore, he’s the show’s emotional centre.

The season stumbled around quite a bit, but it found footing quite gracefully on this final episode. While a majority of the experimentation with the format didn’t land in season 13, after such a bizarrely touching finale there’s no way they can make the leap back to their usual for season 14. Some may complain about a moment like this not being what they tune into Sunny for but I don’t think that’s a bad thing – they’ve dared to do something different, something more real and meaningful, and that should be commended.

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