Growing up is a part of life. And if a TV show is on the air long enough — say, 12 seasons — it grows up too, along with the people who write and star in it. Now more than a decade into its existence, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is showing real signs of maturation. Wednesday night’s episode, “Hero or Hate Crime?,” in which Mac seems to finally come out of the closet for good, is the latest example. But Always Sunny’s transformation was underway long before that.
The beginning of Always Sunny’s evolution can be traced back to “The Gang Misses the Boat” and “Frank Retires,” two late Season 10 episodes that directly address the gang’s overall stagnation and the realization that they haven’t accomplished anything with their lives. It’s the first hint that the show’s characters, and by proxy its creators, maybe have higher aspirations. That process continued in Season 11, the show’s most self-referential to date. Out of that season’s 10 episodes, six focused on either mortality or nostalgia. The standalone, caper-style episodes the show did so well in early seasons were nowhere to be found. The season’s two-part finale, “The Gang Goes to Hell,” had the characters maturely owning up to their true selves — Mac even embraced his new lifestyle.
Fresh off a tour of self-acceptance and growth, Season 12 kicked off with “The Gang Turns Black,” an episode that outwardly and carefully discussed race and privilege. And then Wednesday night, Mac came out for good, and we were given an admirably sober explanation of why the word “faggot” has no place in the lexicon. Always Sunny approached both of these episodes in their trademark style — “The Gang Turns Black” was a bizarre parody of The Wiz and “Hate Crime” was more focused on a lengthy arbitration process to decide the rightful owner of a $2 scratch-off lottery card — but that they did them at all is the point. “I think it actually does more sort of societal good to finally have Mac make that decision,” Always Sunny writer and executive producer and star Charlie Day told Uproxx’s Mike Ryan after Wednesday’s episode. “So we decided, all right, let’s find a way to actually have that happen.”
Societal good? Since when does Always Sunny care about that?
The show has thrived on willful ignorance for so long, gleefully depicting the worst people in the world and finding humor in the most offensive things. These characters have debated the merits of blackface, filmed a jihadist video, and faked having cancer on multiple occasions. But as opposed to Seinfeld, Always Sunny’s spiritual predecessor, executive producers Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney seem to want their show to become wiser over time rather than remain the same. After addressing the characters’ mortality in previous seasons, in Season 12 the trio are actively joining these Important Conversations instead of letting the show function as pure escape.
Growth is natural, but so often with TV shows, “growing up” is just another way of saying “feeling uninspired.” For Always Sunny, continuing to focus on the characters is the key to avoiding that criticism. Their commentary is welcome, but secondary, like it was in “Hate Crime.” In the episode, Mac comes out because he wants the arbiter to award him the lottery ticket. That his motivation is so petty is as important for Always Sunny as the societal good done by his resolving to stay out of the closet once the scratch-off ticket is his. The show also can’t be afraid to go back to that well of immaturity. For every “Hate Crime,” it’s OK to have a “Who Pooped the Bed?”
If the show can continue to find that balance between irreverence and conscientiousness, pitch-perfect episodes like “Hate Crime” will become even more frequent, and Always Sunny will cement itself as an all-time great sitcom. The new, more mature approach is already showing dividends — “The Gang Turns Black” set a viewership record for FXX, and critical praise for the show is louder than it’s ever been. Always Sunny is different now. So far, that isn’t a bad thing.