“Hero or Hate Crime,” the sixth episode of It’s Always Sunny‘s twelfth season, is a victory lap for Philadelphia’s worst group of human beings. Without the FX censors on their back – the show switched to the offshoot channel FXX a couple of years ago – the Gang is free to do what they please however they choose to do it. Last week’s “Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer” was the first time anybody in Sunny dropped an uncensored f-bomb since season six. This week, on the other hand, is an all-out assault on the senses, with appearances by every dirty word on Carlin’s list and then some. And that’s just the beginning.
To understand what makes this episode great, you almost have to be a day-one fan. “Hero or Hate Crime” opens with a stroll on a Philadelphia morning – in actuality, it’s most recognizable as the set used for most exteriors on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother – amongst the gang. Mac and Charlie are talking about this new exercise bike that Mac has been using which, for some strange reason, is making his ass sore. Dennis and Dee are close by at a bodega getting coffee when a gust of wind blows Dee’s bag from her hands, causing a cheap scratch-off ticket to blow towards Mac, Charlie, and Frank, who’s standing nearby across the street staring up women’s skirts with a homemade contraption that involves tiny mirrors glued to the top of his Crocs. Distracted by the ticket, Mac is oblivious to a large piano hovering above him, one that inevitably begins falling towards his unprotected body until Frank yells “Look out, faggot!”
The exclamation sends Charlie into action as he dropkicks Mac to safety while Dee and Dennis look on, horrified. When Mac gets up, he’s in shock. Not that he almost died, mind you, but rather that Frank had the audacity to call him “the f-word.” The piano scenario perfectly represents the element of broad comedy that’s necessary to pull off a premise as silly as this one, and it’s always nice to see the Sunny crew winking at the audience through these clever visual gags.
The Gang then debates the validity of Frank’s word choice. On the one hand, it was a shocking word to use, getting everyone’s attention in such a way that Mac was able to avoid certain death. On the other hand, he called him a faggot. However, when the case makes its way to a professional arbiter, we learn that the Gang isn’t concerned with the episode’s title – determining whether or not Frank’s actions were heroic or the product of a hate crime – in the slightest. No, they want to figure out who gets to keep that damn lottery ticket.
Each member of the Gang has their own side of the story. Dee bought the ticket, but it turns out that she bought it with Dennis’ money. Mac had the ticket in his possession when all of this went down, but Charlie and Frank insist that they each played a significant enough role in saving Mac’s life to warrant ownership of the ticket. As with any given Sunny episode, the ticket itself isn’t what’s most important to the Gang, but the potential that the ticket carries. It hasn’t been scratched – “As long as you don’t scratch it, you’re not a loser,” says Dee – meaning that it could be worthless, or the key to bringing the Gang out of the hellish existence that is every single day of their meaningless lives.
There’s always an undercurrent of sadness to just about anything the Gang says or does. As Dennis put it in season 10’s “The Gang Group Dates,” “your true power comes not from outside sources but from the delusional stories that you all convince yourselves of.” It’s a line that carries a self-awareness that the Gang doesn’t seem to possess on any level, at least not outwardly, but the cracks are forming. With every year, the Gang gets older, more desperate to find happiness in a self-insulated pit of despair that each of them thrives on and can’t seem to escape from. Being happy is no longer a priority for anyone in this group. At this point, they’ll settle for being right. And will spend $9,984 dollars – most of the $10,000 dollars that the ticket ultimately ends up being worth – to do it.
On that note, it’s also important to mention the double life that Mac has been keeping up for at least a decade. Mac’s sexuality has been hotly debated since It’s Always Sunny debuted in 2005. What started as little more than an amusing character quirk, many fans argued in favor of Mac’s straightness, claiming that the central irony of the character was that he acted gay accidentally but was, in reality, straight as an arrow. The opposing side reasoned that that Mac’s gayness itself was revealed accidentally, which wouldn’t happen if he were straight. But, as many shows do, Always Sunny “flanderized” its characters – named after Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, the word basically means to take a single character trait and exaggerate it for comical effect until eventually it becomes the foundation of that character’s entire personality – meaning that Mac only got progressively gayer with each subsequent season.
This culminated in the season eleven finale, “The Gang Goes to Hell Part II” in 2016, where Mac finally comes out of the closet and admits that he’s gay… kind of. In keeping with the cardinal rule of sitcoms – “Don’t Let Anything Actually Change” – Mac reverted back to being straight just in time for the end of the episode, which allowed for the central conceit of each character – namely, delusion – to remain intact. But I don’t think fans were too happy about this. For Mac to finally come out of the closet after so long, it almost seemed like an insult to have him run right back inside of it. Unlike the “Dennis is a serial killer” theories, Mac’s homosexuality became undeniable at a certain point, perhaps sooner than the creators anticipated.
“Hero or Hate Crime” is fully aware of this and plays with the audience as much as it can in 22 minutes. And as much as the Gang would like to disregard Frank’s use of “the f-word” in regards to Mac, they can’t help from examining it further in an attempt to finally allow for Mac to be his truest self. But not before saying and discussing some of the most outwardly offensive topics Sunny has ever tackled. If season 12, up to this point, has been an exercise in finding the line and toeing it playfully, “Hero or Hate Crime” speeds past it with reckless abandon faster than a criminal barreling across a state border.
To be honest, it’s well deserved. Fans of the show know how politically active its cast members are. The characters they play are reflections of their worst selves. The things they say and do are beyond the comprehension of a rational human being, and it was only a matter of time before they really put our loyalty to the test. I can definitely imagine a scenario where this episode would upset a number of people. For starters, the language really is just filthy. And yes, if you’re wondering, they do say that word. I don’t assume to actually know what word you’re thinking of, but if it popped in your head, they probably said it.
There’s also the question of whether or not Dennis is courting an underage girl, leading to an unbearably creepy diatribe about maturing and waiting and withdrawing and depositing and how the deposits are actually just loads. I don’t know, it got weird for a bit. But this is all just a warm-up to the big reveal, a callback to the beginning of the episode when Mac complained about his new exercise bike. To be clear, “exercise bike” is a euphemism for a gay act that Mac has done off-screen. But that act does involve an exercise bike, a dildo cut off at the head, and the rubber fist attached to the head of the disfigured dildo that was used to replace the tip of the penis. Words can only do so much because the actual thing is just…. well, it really is just a work of art.
With all that said, you might be asking yourself what “Hero or Hate Crime?” is really about. I think the beauty of it is that it really isn’t about anything in particular. Like “The Gang Goes to Hell Part II” – coincidentally, the other Sunny episode that deals heavily with Mac coming out of the closet – the Gang knows that just sitting in a room together and arguing for 30 minutes is enough to make a classic episode. It’s also a subtle remark on how everything except homophobia is on the table for these people, as they’re pretty adamant about the fact that they support Mac’s sexuality, and want him to come out of the closet for no other reason than to just get it over with. It’s not that they don’t hate him; they totally do. They’re just tired of having to pretend like they don’t know the truth. In fact, they have stopped pretending. It seems like Mac is the only one keeping up the act and it’s really just annoying at this point.
This ties into the current proceedings when the arbiter – the third of the day, I might add – determines both Mac and Frank to be the rightful owners of the lotto ticket on the grounds that, since Mac doesn’t actually admit to being gay, it can’t be a hate crime. So Mac comes out of the closet. Initially thinking he’ll run straight back in after he collects his winnings, Mac insists that this is for real. It’s one of the most genuinely emotional moments in Sunny‘s entire history. Only a handful exist, and I’m not using that word as an expression. I mean I can literally count all the times Sunny gets emotional on just one hand.
What a season it’s been. If the show hadn’t already been renewed for two more seasons, I’d start gearing up for a series finale in a couple of weeks. That said, I do think we’re in for some big changes. Who knows if Gay Mac is going to be different from the Mac we’re used to? Will Frank’s unexplained disease – I have my money on a brain tumor – be mentioned again anytime soon? Is the Gang planning to get rid of the bar if Frank dies? There’s still four more episodes left in the season so there’s definitely time, but Sunny isn’t operating like most shows that are as old as the average American 7th grader, that’s for sure.
GEEK Grade: A
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs Wednesdays at 10pm on FXX.