Go ahead and Love Something an Embarrassing Amount: The Gang's Philadelphia gets rainy for a change

There are no more perfect seasons in the future of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Season 13 (Sunny the 13th!) is no exception. The show has been running for A. Long. Time. and I don’t think anyone expected it to make an 8th season, much less a 13th. Every season of late has had high highs and pretty low lows. I think its fans tend to agree, though, that the quality of the highs together with a faithful maintenance of the show’s agreement with its audience about the kinds of people it’s interested in exploring has made it worth watching anyway. Even the lackluster episodes are still pretty funny, and frankly, I’m only disappointed when an episode’s shortcomings are owed to its reluctance to take risks. If there’s one thing Season 13 has given us, it’s that this show may actually have an infinite number of unexpected tricks up its sleeve, even when we think we’ve caught onto its subversive tactics.

Case in point: s13 ep7, “The Gang Does a Clip Show.” Remember when Friends was on and every season featured at least one clip show, just to, I don’t know, give everyone a week off from doing any work? WTF? Why not just air a rerun, my Friends? What a waste of time, getting me excited for a “new” episode that was not new at all. So originally, when the title of this Sunny episode proclaimed that the gang was doing a clip show, I thought there was no way they would do an actual clip show but rather do a send-up of the laziness of the clip show. Turns out, I was wrong: the entire episode features the gang sitting around waiting for their phones to complete a software update, taking the opportunity to reminisce, i.e. cut to a series of clips from the show’s past. What the hell, guys? I was pretty mad about it, actually! But then, this happened:

Despite ourselves and despite our annoyance over the clip show, my husband and I both laughed out loud. Hard. Hard enough that I’d actually watch the episode again just to get to see this scene a few more times. “The Contest” is one of the all-time greatest and best-known episodes of Seinfeld to begin with, and the Gang thinking they remember having a contest without realizing that they’re actually just remembering a TV show as if it were their actual past is totally classic Gang behavior. And each of them fits perfectly into their respective roles in the Seinfeld friend group (another friend group, for the record, made famous by what terrible people they really were). Dee (Kaitlin Olson), who loves to fantasize about herself as a star, not to mention about actually getting any amount of respect from her male friends, would totally picture herself as Elaine. Even better is seeing TWO Jerrys in Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Mac (Rob McElhenney), perfectly synced in every shot here down to their facial movements. We’re used to Mac slavishly imitating Dennis as he tries to work out who he is and how he fits in (more on THAT in a moment!), and my god, that Jerry Seinfeld hair is hilarious on both of them. Then of course the perfect entrance of Charlie (Charlie Day) as Kramer, the wild-card wacko with perfect comic timing. Plus an uncharacteristically silent Frank (Danny DeVito) as George, which is great just because of how understated it is and how well it works. Frank practically disappears into the scene, which is, to put it mildly, not his usual thing. The execution is perfect on every level, and the unexpected appearance of such a little masterpiece in the middle of an otherwise blah and underwhelming clip show is inspired. Is that what they knew would happen, exactly that, my annoyance turned to genuine adoration in the space of seconds? Were they just willing to make a shitty episode purely for the sake of surprising us with this one scene? I might be okay with that.

 Mac and Dee think they’ve won a point in the bathroom debate by arguing that minorities deserve to be the ones to use the good bathroom until Dennis and Frank unearth the statistic that in their particular part of Philadelphia, white men are actually in the minority. Meanwhile, Mac’s biceps are distracting.

Mac and Dee think they’ve won a point in the bathroom debate by arguing that minorities deserve to be the ones to use the good bathroom until Dennis and Frank unearth the statistic that in their particular part of Philadelphia, white men are actually in the minority. Meanwhile, Mac’s biceps are distracting.

Sunny isn’t afraid to make me trust it for a while before it reveals what it’s up to. And I say “it” in reference to the show rather than “they,” the characters, because it’s the spirit of the show and the ethos of the show that I am most interested in. What does the show want from me and what is the show trying to do? I generally think that It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has a good heart, an excellent way with irony, and an ever-growing (it seems) sense of social responsibility. The characters who make up “the Gang” - Dee, Dennis, Mac, Charlie and Frank - have none of those things. They are all terrible, terrible people who are out for themselves and, most of the time, capable of seeing beyond themselves. I feel fairly confident that this will never change, and I don’t think that even this last episode that I’m slowly working up to talking about will necessarily change it. I do think, though, that the show cares about its viewers and even cares about these terrible people it’s been telling us about for years. This very season, which I mentioned was at times pretty lackluster, gave us “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again”, “Time’s Up for the Gang”, "and “The Gang Solves the Bathroom Problem," all of which are willing to get right in your face with the social issues they’re going to discuss. The Gang doesn’t learn anything in any of these episodes, and you can bet that no one is going to become a better person. But the show still uses them to great effect to shine a light on the asinine ways in which people (supposedly better people than The Gang!) are willing to protect themselves at the expense of, let’s say, basic civil rights for transgender people. If anyone in the Gang is on your team in any debate, there’s a good chance that your side is fucked up. As Dennis says to Frank in the bathroom debate, “Please don’t help me. I hate it when you’re on my side.”

Of all the characters on this show, I have always been most drawn to and frustrated by Mac. He’s a self-absorbed asshole like they all are, and he has no particular loyalties or ideals that aren’t completely self-serving. He’s also, as it turns out, a closeted gay man for the first 11 seasons of the show. That everyone constantly teased Mac and called him gay in the early days didn’t immediately make sense to me. Was this a mechanism by which to show how horrible the rest of the Gang was, or was it actually something they planned on exploring on a deeper level? I don’t think anyone watching the show in its early seasons could be blamed for thinking that it would never amount to anything. Mac being gay and closeted meant everyone else on the show got plenty of opportunities to be cruel to him, and Mac himself was never not trying to impress others. He wanted everyone to think he was a big strong, manly man, and he in turn took every opportunity to be cruel, particularly to Dee, the only woman in the Gang. His inner insecurities and his deep sadness and desire for love behind his cruelty became clearer as we viewers got to know Mac better, and to Rob McElhenney’s credit, he plays all sides of this character at all times. His complicated relationship with his Christianity, too, with which he identified strongly at moments where it best served him, also began to come out slowly as time went on. Similar to the increasing clarity of Dennis’s moonlighting as a serial killer, Mac’s true identity as a gay man transitioned from weird quirk the show kept insisting on to something blatantly obvious to everyone but him.

When Mac finally does come out to the Gang in the 6th episode of Season 12, the show engineers the event such that it could have easily backed right out of it in the subsequent episode and returned to the status quo (to make a long and ridiculously complicated story short, Mac tells everyone he’s gay in order to convince them to give him a lottery ticket…which would absolutely be a believable tactic for getting what he wanted in the context of this show). But no - Mac is gay now. And from that moment, Mac’s gayness becomes a tool in his hands that he is clearly trying to learn how to use. He’s not especially good at it (starting every statement with “As a gay man” wins exactly no points with the rest of the Gang) but we see that his struggle with who he is and how he fits in with his friends is an honest one. Mac’s sad, depressing upbringing (the details of which we mostly surmise from our many glimpses of his hilariously horrible mother and his frighteningly, murderously horrible father over the years) gives context to his neediness and insecurity and selfishness, and it makes us sad for him even as we find him just as annoying and narcissistic and terrible as the rest of the Gang. And, for that matter, we get why the Gang generally rejects his attempts at winning them over. Frank speaks for all of them when in the final episode he says to Mac, “You know, I never got you.”

Before you continue reading, I have to say this: if you have not watched the finale of Season 13. “Mac Finds His Pride,” and you ever intend to, I beg you not to read any further until you have seen the episode. I went into it completely blind and with no notion of what was coming, and I want every viewer to have the experience watching it for the first time that I was lucky enough to have. To be more explicit: spoilers ahead!

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After a fairly scattered episode opening and a series of increasingly ridiculous scenes in which Frank tries to plug his nose to keep it from bleeding and ends up unrecognizably swollen in the face, we get to the point where Mac realizes, mostly thanks to Frank’s finally letting his nose drain, that he needs to come out to his father if he is ever going to be able to accept himself. I’m going to steer clear of trying to describe and analyze what happens in this scene on a visual level, because I do not know how to read a dance number the way some people undoubtedly do. I will say this, though: I have now watched the scene a few times, and it doesn’t get less moving for me. I cried more, actually, the second time I watched it. Rob McElhenney learned to dance and trained every day for seven months in order to make this scene happen. It is not funny, and it is not ironic, and it doesn’t end with a smash cut that completely strips it of its seriousness, the way Sunny has trained us to expect. It’s just beautiful, which sounds like a cop-out of a description. If you’ve seen it (and again, I hope you have if you’re reading this!), you don’t need me to describe it any more than that.

All of a sudden, I get Mac. I’m there with Frank, who is crying right along with me and applauding Mac’s performance. The last shot before the episode cuts to black is of Frank, his eyes full of love and sadness.

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Danny DeVito, man. I think the reason I didn’t get Mac before now is different from Frank’s reason - Frank just doesn’t get being gay, whereas I at least recognize that I do not need to ‘get’ it in order for it to exist on the same plane as my own sexuality. I just didn’t get Mac in the context of this show. I got that Rob McElhenney wanted to use Mac as sort of a “wouldn’t it be funny if” kind of stencil. Wouldn’t it be funny if he got fat on purpose just for the sake of the show…then lost the weight again the following season…then no one cared anyway? And then, this season, what if Mac got distractingly ripped, unrealistically so, and again, no one cared? Mac’s physique this whole season has been staring us in the face, and I’d been operating under the assumption that it was yet another Mac gag. A not-unworthy statement on the unrealistic beauty standards of Hollywood! But I still stopped short of seeing it as part of Mac the character rather than another satirical move on the part of Sunny the show. Now, though, we see Mac perform this beautiful, physically demanding partnered dance, in front of his father and a crowd of other prison inmates. And through that dance, Mac’s body becomes explicitly central to who he is and whether he can accept himself and whether he can make others accept him or even love him. Seeing the rawness and the vulnerability of Mac even as he inhabits the body of a stereotypical Hollywood superhero was profoundly affecting. Of course Mac’s relationship with his body would be one of struggle and denial and discomfort and uncertainty. Of course, this would be his way of reaching out for acceptance. And, of course, his father watches all of this unfold, stands up, and walks out of the room. Mac breaks down and cries, muscles and all. If Mac’s entire arc over thirteen years was engineered in service of this moment, then it was worth it.

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 Mary-Elizabeth Ellis as the Waitress, who ditches Tom Brady for Nick Foles in the eleventh hour of Superbowl LII, to Mac’s utter disgust.

Mary-Elizabeth Ellis as the Waitress, who ditches Tom Brady for Nick Foles in the eleventh hour of Superbowl LII, to Mac’s utter disgust.

I spent many years not particularly liking this show, for reasons I could rarely explain very well. It was grating, and intense, and I just didn’t get it (although I am sure I never admitted that last part). Like The Waitress in Episode 9, cheering for Tom Brady and rubbing the Patriots’ lead in the rest of the Gang’s faces until he fumbles the ball and gives the Superbowl to the Eagles, I became a fan of Sunny in my own time, I think due in part to a certain game known as CharDee McDennis. I ultimately grew quite fond of it, finding myself at times fascinated by it, but I would never have said I truly loved it. With this episode, I am Sunny’s forever. What happens at the end of Season 13 makes me retroactively love the show’s entire run in a way that I never could before. I have re-watched this scene now several times, and it doesn’t stop getting to me.

I would never have expected Mac’s revelation to unfold in this way, but it elevates the show’s entire run by appearing when we least expected it and refusing to turn itself into a joke. It confirms what I’ve suspected all along: that these people might be terrible, but the show that has stuck with them for 13 years has a good heart, a curious mind, and an inspiring openness. While there’s no question that Mac’s dance is a departure from the Sunny we’ve grown to expect on all levels - tone, content, structure, aesthetic, precipitation level - there is also nothing in the show that precludes its existence within the world of Sunny. No one ever said that bad people can’t contain multitudes. I don’t see this as an irreversible redemption of Mac’s character, and I don’t think the show has to make him a good person, now. Mac finally understands himself and has found a way to tell others what he understands. That fact doesn’t redeem him and it doesn’t make him any less who he has been this entire time; in fact, the person he has been this entire time now makes total sense. I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to watch all 13 seasons again (some of them I’ve already watched multiple times, but what the hell) and see what more I see.