Frank Reynolds stands on a street corner, arms folded over his front. He loiters, whistling the old Enzyte (Viagra) theme tune, bouncing casually and suspiciously from one foot to the other.
Mac and Charlie round a different corner. Charlie is puzzled at Mac’s limp. Behind them, a boy holding a red balloon walks by with his mother.
Dennis and Dee Reynolds, psychopathic twins, bump into each other outside of a small shop. Dennis, a smug expression plastered all over his face, carries a bottle of champagne in his hand; Dee, concerned and distracted, reads a weighty tome titled ‘Physician’s Essentials’.
Slowly and subtly, in the background, the score builds. Tension mounts.
There’s no two ways about this: for all intents and purposes it’s high noon.
Some shit is about to go down.
‘Hero Or Hate Crime’
From that masterful, pieces-setting cold open to the surprisingly emotionally resonant finish, the sixth episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is one for the ages. Loaded with lore without being overly self-referential; conceptually ambitious without forgetting that the (barbed wire) heart and (blackened) soul of this show are its characters; and just plain laugh out loud funny—this Howerton/McElhenny/Day-penned entry is a pure joy to watch.
Quite a few times during this season I have said that despite the consistently high quality on display I longed for an episode that consisted mostly of the Gang arguing—ideally while somehow ensnaring an outsider into their orbit—because whether otherwise well crafted or not, episodes that are centred around this conceit are a specific kind of treat for people attuned to the show’s sensibilities. ‘Hero Or Hate Crime’ gives us exactly that format, and it delivers it with real aplomb.
It all begins when, having set up its pieces, it lets them fall—literally, as soon proves to be the case with a piano being hoisted high above the street, which then becomes the catalyst for everything that follows. It turns out that all the various sub-groupings of the Gang that we were individually brought up to speed with are orbiting the same patch of street. Frank’s shoe-mirror-perv-spot (a new, yet somehow expected low) is across the road from Mac and Charlie’s path, and Dennis and Dee’s shop is just down the block from both. Dee, acting suspiciously, is startled by Dennis, and drops her bag. A lottery scratcher gets blown out from it (Frank, seconds earlier: ‘It’s very windy today isn’t it?’), and then settles in front of Mac and Charlie. This proves just enough to distract Mac from Charlie’s inexplicably targeted step in a sizeable pile of dog shit—‘Oh, man. Look at this: dog shit.’ ‘Did you just step into that on purpose?’ ‘Oh no, I just—… You know, I didn’t really see it.’ ‘You pointed it out to me!’—and Frank, his attention freed after having been rebuffed by a victim of his disgusting perving, gets to witness a potential disaster unfold.
Yep: Mac, lured by the breeze-delivered lottery scratcher, ends up standing just below the elevated piano, when the rope holding the piano suddenly snaps. Frank, in a confusingly mixed tone of concern and bigotry, yells: ‘Look out, faggot!’ Cut to everyone’s reactions and a split-second decision by Charlie to fly-kick Mac out of the way. The piano comes crashing down and demolishes itself against the pavement. Mac’s life is saved, his t-shirt is ruined by a shit-stained boot print, and the whole Gang converges on the scene. Mac, though visibly relieved, is more focused on Frank’s disgustingly offensive language. Frank’s contention is that it doesn’t matter what he called Mac, he still saved his life. Smash cut to title. The rest of the episode is dedicated to unpacking this apparent conundrum, as the Gang—in contrast to their usual style of solving delicate matters ‘in-house’—decide to visit an arbitration attorney.
Except it’s not that at all. Well, not really, anyway. Instead of the question that gives the episode its title being the focus, the Gang reveals itself to be more concerned with the question of who gets to claim ownership of the unscratched lottery scratcher. The potential hate crime plays second fiddle.
It is entirely fitting that this group of people—so mean and selfish and venal and narcissistic—would go to war with each other over who owns a token that represents a statistically insignificant chance of bestowing some unearned wealth. Especially considering that one of their number has access to what amounts to essentially a Scrooge McDuck-sized reservoir of money, and who isn’t shy about using that to finance whatever harebrained scheme any one of them might dream up. But never mind the money, really—because this isn’t about that either. This is about what the scratcher actually represents. Perhaps an explanation of that is best left up to the Gang’s de facto spokesperson, though. Cue Dennis, trying to explain this to the bemused arbitrator (which leads to one of the best delivered and funniest exchanges of the season, and one of the all-time great straight man reactions to the Gang’s madness):
‘Hold on. Is it Phil? Is your name Phil?’
‘It’s Phil, yeah.’
‘It is Phil?!’
‘This ticket represents hope. Potential. Yeah. Promise. The very foundation upon which this group rests.’
Dennis’ endless aptitude for bullshit aside, what a strange thing that is to hear in reference to the Gang. Does he honestly believe that the glue that holds his group together is something as noble as hope? As pure as potential? The Gang’s agreement with him only reinforces how deluded this pack of IDIOTS! SAVAGES! IDIOTS! must really be. These are the people after all who, in response to one of their number writing a musical, responded with a cynical, ‘Who is this versus?’ These are the people who were also entirely right to be cynical, as the musical turned out to be a strangely-sweet-if-completely-misjudged stealth proposal of marriage by a stalker to his stalk victim. These are the people who want it to be believed that the foundation of their group is hope? Potential? Promise? Pull the other one!
And yet it feels like maybe there is some truth to that. Somewhere deep down. Like, really deep down. Twisted and contorted and half-cloaked in garbage. Because these people, terrible as they are, still sometimes show signs at least of being aware of their place in the order of things. They know that they exist in a purgatory of their own making, and sometimes they pray for an escape, even if it that praying takes the form of a subconscious yearning manifesting itself in incidental, banal symbols.
Like, maybe, say: a lottery scratcher. Which Dee, having bought, claims is rightfully hers. Dennis counters that, as Dee bought it with his money (while he was using her to D.E.N.N.I.S. an inappropriately-aged cashier), the ticket belongs to him. Charlie, he of the life-saving poop kick, claims it should be his. Mac, who picked it up, naturally believes that it is tied to him. And Frank, who sees himself as Mac’s saviour, would lay claim to the ticket, or at least to half of it.
So that dispute over who is the rightful holder of an unscratched lottery scratcher is the character-based engine driving the narrative in this week’s episode. It sits alongside Mac’s much-belated and wonderfully character-consistent coming out in the final minutes: he only does it, really, when it becomes apparent that it could be a tool to help him win out against the rest of the Gang. He climbs out of the closet to ensure that Frank’s offensive, life-saving warning can actually be classed as a hate crime, thus guaranteeing him full right to the ticket, and then—against the rest of the Gang’s resigned confidence—he doesn’t climb back in again.
As is often the case with Sunny, the episode does also address a larger issue. This week it’s offensive language—with the Gang really going so far beyond the line as to what is considered acceptable that the line isn’t just a dot to them, it’s now winked out of existence altogether. However, unlike, say ‘Old Lady House’, the bigger themes are tackled here in such a way so as to harmoniously complement the story and character stuff, rather than being shoved upfront.
Because it really is the jokes and the people who take centre stage here.
Case in point: after the Gang explain their situation to the arbitration attorney, he—very surprisingly professionally (a joke that pays off at the end)—agrees to move forward, but under one condition:
‘Each of you will have an opportunity to plead your case. The only rule I have is that you each treat each other with respect, and common courtesy.’
The Gang’s reaction?
Smash cut to a new attorney, with whom we spend the bulk of the episode, until even she is reduced to smoking cigarettes with the Gang in despair. Eventually she too is replaced, and then that final conclusion is reached: if Mac is actually gay, then Frank’s warning counts as a hate crime. So Mac comes out in order to win, and then stays out, exiting the building with his dildo-bike in tow, realising that he is actually quite content.
Mac’s final (hopefully, we’ve already had a fake-out after the cruise) coming out is in many ways the crux of the episode, and—much like The Dude’s rug—it ties the whole episode together. Yes, we get fusillades of scandalously offensive language. Yes, there are some of the best examples of the balletic dance that is the Gang arguing over each other. Yes, there are larger issues addressed. But, really, all that turns around those final few minutes, seeded as they are by the inciting incident in the first few. Mac is gay. We know that. The rest of the Gang knows that. On a deep level, Mac knows it too. But now—maybe, finally—he feels comfortable to say it. To affirm it. And the Gang? That vicious pack of immoral id-monsters? They accept it. They’ve known for years, and they accept it. Fully and completely. They hate Mac anyway. They’re happy for him, but they still hate him anyway. But that’s not a gay or straight thing. It’s just a Mac thing. They even give him a day to enjoy his apparent ten grand victory (which, once the arbitration fees are deducted becomes a fourteen dollar one). In some ways, that is all so sweet and rude and mean and loving, all at the same time. What more could we expect from a group of people trapped in a Sisyphean cycle of vice? At least they’re trapped together.
And don’t even get me started on Charlie’s scent-masking techniques. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. (Dennis: ‘Oh, you know what. Go to the first smell. THE FIRST SMELL THAT BEGAT ALL THE OTHER SMELLS!’)
Also? The boy with the red balloon knows. He saw.