In It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s controversial Season 12 premiere, the series’ characters found themselves stuck in a Quantum Leap–style switcheroo, suddenly appearing as their black semi-doppelgangers with no explanation as to how or why. At first, the high-concept twist provided the show with yet another opportunity to satirize cultural conservative talking points. Although the gang quite literally assumed black identities, they remained, inside, as obliviously white as ever. “I don’t know why it took them so long to realize that their lives matter—but then, don’t all lives matter?” ringleader Dennis (Glenn Howerton) asked. “It’s kind of tough out there right now for everybody.” Their surreal predicament exposed them to racial profiling and obvious differences in treatment, but they remained mixed on whether they were actually being discriminated against. Near the episode’s conclusion, Charlie (Charlie Day), taking a relatively sensitive approach, tried to explain that white people and black people “have a lot in common, but too much of it is fear.” His plea for unity landed nicely, until moments later, when a cop appeared out of nowhere and shot him—an unarmed black man, gunned down in the streets without cause.
Over the course of 12 seasons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has exploited the crude delusions of its core quintet—Dennis, Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Charlie, and Frank (Danny DeVito)—to mine comedy from the disaffected, anti-P.C. crowd. (While their political ideologies never add up to much, it’s not hard to imagine the gang getting behind a blowhard figure like our current president.) But the show has become increasingly shrewd about recognizing and playing with that formula. This is especially true of its recently concluded 12th season: Rather than merely skewer its politically incorrect protagonists, the show has made a robust, increasingly pointed argument for political correctness. “The Gang Turns Black” provided the first indication of this shift, fleshing out their contempt for Black Lives Matter and sensitive language before presenting an act of shocking, racially motivated violence as an aggressive rebuke. From there, the show has returned again and again to questions of marginalization, trauma, and tolerance with surprising force.
“Hero or Hate Crime?” serves as the season’s centerpiece. It begins with a grand piano plunging directly toward Mac, its shadow growing as he stands obliviously below on the sidewalk. Mac is deeply closeted, a running joke since his sexuality is painfully clear to the rest of the gang. And so when, by way of a warning, Frank yells “Look out, faggot!” and effectively saves his life, Mac’s closely held secret is abruptly publicized. “Hero or Hate Crime?” initially plays like a legal farce, structured around who is entitled to a $2 scratch-off lottery ticket that was purchased prior to the episode’s start: Mac was holding it at the time of the incident; Frank rescued it by saving his life; and Dennis and/or Dee originally bought it. Endless arbitration ensues. Yet what starts out as a typically absurd debate—see the episode’s title—as to who gets a (potential) reward develops into a touching examination of the sting of a slur.
Frank sees nothing wrong with his choice of words—it’s what jolted Mac to move to safety, after all—and everyone else initially rushes to his defense. But Mac pleads that they understand the slur’s significance. “Did you know that a faggot is a burning bundle of sticks on top of which they used to burn homosexuals?” he asks (erroneously, but with genuine pain). “Basically, when you call someone a faggot, you are saying that they should be burned at the stake.” The rest of the gang is left stunned. “That’s dark,” Charlie says. “Maybe there are a few words that we shouldn’t be throwing around.” Seeing Mac is hurt, the gang—in their own clumsy way, to be sure—tries to assure him that they don’t care about his sexuality or intend to demean him for it. (“He’s in the closet, he’s out of the closet—we don’t like you either way,” as Dennis snarkily explains.) Then, in as sweet and sentimental a moment as Always Sunny can manage, Mac officially comes out, finally prepared to live his life as an openly gay man. Though it wasn’t Frank’s intention, his slur inadvertently dragged Mac out of the closet and gave him an opportunity to stay there.
In the equally outrageous “PTSDee,” a newly out Mac, immersed for days in a virtual-reality war game, is having visceral nightmares, and Dennis is again coming to grips with middle age and his diminished sex appeal, this time turning to stripping. It’s not exactly uncharted territory for Always Sunny, but the episode gets harsher and more detailed than we’ve come to expect. In the case of Mac, his estranged relationship with his father—an inaccessible homicidal maniac—manifests in dreams that are alternately terrifying and wistful. His daddy issues have been a point of focus in earlier seasons, but the post-traumatic stress disorder angle of the episode (emerging via his VR immersion) brings his trauma to the fore, revealing how he’s repressed decades of damage inflicted upon him. With Dennis, a critical detail of his past is unveiled, and it instantly informs his creepy, stalkerish behavior of seasons past. “What happened with you [and] Ms. Klinsky, the librarian,” Charlie recalls to Dennis of their time in high school. “I mean, you were raped …. That’s got to affect you. That’s trauma.” Dennis angrily rejects it. But tellingly, the stripping show he puts on in a subsequent scene is profoundly sad. You’d feel bad for him were the moment not so horrifyingly funny. And regardless, it feeds beautifully into his abrupt but tender season-ending epiphany.
These developments are a natural extension of what Always Sunny has been doing for years: expanding on its cast’s defining characteristics so that they provide not just easy humor but political and emotional texture as well. The show is not fundamentally changing its comic philosophy so much as investigating why its inhabitants make for such specific, funny, pathetic reflections of society. Indeed, it’s precisely because Always Sunny depicts such a defiantly anti-P.C. group of people that its turn toward sharper social criticism feels so rich. Its observations about racial sensitivity, the significance of slurs, and the shadow of trauma resonate all the more strongly because they’re reinforced by characters who strive to reject them.
Perhaps the clearest proof of the season’s evolved approach came in its penultimate episode, which focused on Matthew “Rickety Cricket” Mara (David Hornsby), a recurring character whose life has been meticulously destroyed by the Paddy’s Pub five. (He started out as a priest; he’s now a homeless junkie.) The episode argues that even a character treated—both by the show and its characters—as derisively as Cricket deserves a second chance, some humanity. We learn of his fractured family relationships and his “black sheep” reputation; he’s granted complexity to the extent where the unfortunate direction of his life no longer appears to be, at least exclusively, a consequence of the gang’s mistreatment of him. By the end, of course, he’s back at square one: wandering into the bar, showering in the urinal. But we can see his scars more clearly, understand him a little bit better. And the same goes for the gang—his tormentors. That familiar image of the six of them, together in the bar, suddenly takes on powerful new meaning. There’s the message of Always Sunny Season 12, in a single frame: Even the jerks deserve our empathy. Even assholes can be snowflakes.