It’s been an… odd season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Between dealing with the semi-retirement of one of its main characters, the struggle to keep the show fresh after 13 seasons, yet also satisfy those craving what they’ve been familiar with for all these years, the ever-changing landscape of television and what is supposed to make for good television, not to mention the ambitions of a very creative cast and crew, ambitions which are becoming harder and harder to contain, it’s made for a batch of ten episodes that could only be fairly described as inconsistent.
We started the season with The Gang trying to replace Dennis, only to realize that they couldn’t, and yet, even though the premiere promised his return, he was still absent from nearly half the remaining episodes, excused with some sort of contrivance such as a flashback or one character or another going off on their own adventures. We saw The Gang Minus Dennis celebrate Philly’s big Super Bowl win from last year over two uneven, incomplete-feeling episodes. We saw Dee try and recreate the Wade Boggs challenge from a couple of seasons back with only women, the start of a string of very topical episodes tackling #MeToo, the bathroom debate and much more, a run that crescendoed through three diverse, amazing episodes that could very well wind up on a list of best ever IASIP episodes. “Time’s Up For The Gang“, “The Gang Solves The Bathroom Problem” and “The Gang Gets New Wheels” are all instant-classics and they all work for very different reasons. The first two represent the tremendous new directions this show could wind up going, with a writer’s room stacked with newer, younger, more diverse voices capable of translating this posse of monsters to an era that’s much different than the one in which this show began nearly fifteen years ago. The latter is the kind of classic Sunny shenanigans featuring violent crime against children that remind us of how this show hasn’t really lost sight of what it’s always been, despite its aspirations to try new and different things.
And yet, even though the show was clearly preparing to launch us in an entirely new direction, I don’t think any of that prepared us for what happened in this week’s season finale, “Mac Finds His Pride”, an episode which veers so drastically to the left in its final act that it leaves you wondering where IASIP could go from here. After fifteen minutes or two of usual Sunny shenanigans, in which Frank is tasked with convincing Mac to dance on their gay pride parade float in order to I guess trick gays into coming to Paddys, the episode and the season goes somewhere very different, ending in an uninterrupted, jokeless interpretative dance in which Mac tries to convey to his father and his fellow convicts his internal struggle with being gay and coming out of the closet.
There’s no punchline. The woman Mac is dancing with is not Dee being grabbed by her private parts like the most raucous moment of that first #MeToo episode. The convicts don’t interrupt into violence after learning there’s no Blake Shelton concert, Frank doesn’t make some crass joke. Instead, the show decides to pay off the seeds they’ve been setting about Mac’s sexuality for over a decade. It decides to prove that being gay is not a punching bag for a show that’s cool with dunking on everybody. That it’s not just a character trait for Mac. Even though it was pretty cool when Mac came out of the closet last season and nothing really changed, this contextualizes it and him as a character and makes his arc meaningful.
In a weird way, it works almost the same way that the season 12 finale does. In that episode, Dennis decides he has to grow up and go raise his family. Despite the show’s best efforts to convince us that he didn’t really change upon his return this season, I think we can all agree that he sort of did. And the same could be said about Mac here. For the past season and a half, the show has been trying to convince us that Mac didn’t really change, other than being more open about what his dildo bike is for or what he’s doing with his Dennis real doll or all those peaches we see strewn across his apartment in this episode (an unsubtle nod to last year’s Call Me By Your Name and its most discussed scene). “Mac Finds His Pride” throws that out the window by admitting to itself and to its viewers that you can’t just play it cool with such a big character defining moment, especially one with as much cultural baggage as coming out of the closet. And both the show and Rob McElheney play it with style and class, not only in the amazing choreographed and performed dance at the end of the episode, but with how Mac comports himself as a real human being throughout.
And the low-key best thing about this episode is how it frames the story around Frank, believe it or not. Mac’s struggle is one we’ve seen in other shows and that, as the show hilariously points out, is hard to believe coming from someone who, in real life, is straight. McElheney and Charlie Day don’t want to shove anything down our throats and they certainly want to treat this topic gracefully, so instead, the story is told from Frank’s perspective, as an old, bigoted curmudgeon who readily admits he doesn’t and will never understand Mac and homosexuality. And yet, he’s just as surprised as we, the viewer, when he declares at the end of Mac’s dance, raucously cheering along with all the other convicts in attendance, that he finally understands.
It wasn’t only in that moment that I was pleasantly surprised by how they were treating this. All throughout the episode, Frank displays how he’ll do anything for The Gang. He’s tasked with getting Mac onto that float and never questions it. He just does it, and is willing to go to extreme lengths to satisfy his friends. And even though he has ulterior motives and questionable tactics, he decides to help Mac find his pride, his mojo by taking him around town to the gayest spots he knows. It’s weirdly sweet, as Frank reveals himself to be the true father figure on the show, which is especially interesting juxtaposed against Luther’s outright rejection of Mac, no matter his sexuality.
Of course that doesn’t take away from the last scene of the episode, which is really groundbreaking for the show and for McElheney’s character. It begs the question of where the show could go from here, if it’s forever changed or if this will just be another pivot point, much like Dennis’s departure last season. Either way, it proved that IASIP can be a lot more than just the same old show about assholes. I don’t know if this means that it will strive to be the next Louie or Atlanta in its already-announced 14th season, or if this is just an occasional out of the box thing that they could do, but it’s a great way to end a season of change. “Mac Finds His Pride” gets 9 sexy gay dances out of 10.
The Best Lines from the season finale of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
- No goddammits this week, and obviously with the the more serious tone of the final act there were less jokes than usual, but there are still some great lines and gags in this episode. Frank’s increasingly grotesque face and how they use it to sell the point about Mac letting the blood flow or whatever is pretty great, in particular.
- Vulture did a great piece today about the dance, including interviews with Rob McElheney and others from the show. It’s a must-read.
- Frank: “We’re making a float for the parade… to rope in the gays.”
- Frank: “They give me one job and I gotta deal with your feelings?”
- Frank: “This is a much better spread than they have at the straight orgies.”
- Frank/Mac: “One false move and these fairies could poke me full of holes.” “What year is it in your head?”
- Mac/Frank: “You don’t know what’s going on inside of me.” “Well I’m sure there’s five or six super viruses eating out your insides.”
- Frank: “You’re gay and you’re dancing with a hot chick who is god? The catholics really fucked you up.”
- Luther: “My cellmate ratted on me for having an extra pillow. I cut out his tongue with a rusty pair of pliers and fed it to the maggots.”
- Luther: “If it’s not a boy you flush that shit out and try again.”
- Charlie: “What, are you gonna have you and me dancing on top of the gay float? The press will murder us. We need an authentically gay man. They’ll see right through us.”
- Charlie: “Come on man, he looks like a monster, and you look like a monster. We’re not trying to invite a bar full of monster men.”
- Sweet Dee: “You can’t get a straight man to dance, the press will murder us.”
- Mac/Luther: “My name is Ronald McDonald.” “Haha, I named him that.”