Now comfortable in its 12th season as a cult hit on cable, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems to be one of TV’s great reliables. Engaging even when off its peak, the show always finds its way back to the starting point: Striving siblings Dennis and Dee (Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson) will never find their way out of the pub where they work while; Mac (Rob McIlhenney) and Charlie (Charlie Day) will never get to the bottom of their respective psychoses. There have been cosmetic changes, but—as with other great repetitious sitcoms, like Seinfeld or The Simpsons—very little forward movement.
That is, until recently, when the show made a giant leap ahead. In an episode entitled “Hero or Hate Crime?,” Frank (Danny DeVito) appeared to have saved Mac’s life by calling his attention to a piano falling, Looney Tunes-style, from the sky—and in so doing, used a vulgar anti-gay slur. (It’s been heavily signaled through the show’s history that he, indeed, is gay but that his ability to admit this even to himself is occluded by endless personal hang-ups.) During a subsequent arbitration session, Mac realizes he can con the others out of money if he says, or admits, he’s gay, making Frank’s language hate speech.
“I claim to be gay!” Mac declares at first. “I’m out! Totally out!” Over the protests of his friends, who believe he’ll go back in the closet with his money in hand, he sticks with it: “I’m out now. I’m gay. It feels pretty good!” His friends all agree, after he’s left, that they’re happy for him, and then stick him with the arbitration bill.
Despite the ending, the moment is oddly high-voltage. Though Mac’s friends have all borne witness to his latent homosexuality and urged him to come out (including by introducing a special device of his, too vulgar to describe here, into evidence at arbitration), they’re outright encouraging him to go back into the closet. It’d be easier for everyone; introducing any kind of change has the potential to throw off a long-established balance.
This seems like a fairly apt depiction of a certain sort of polite society in 2017—everything is permissible, so long as differences are never explicitly acknowledged. No one on the show has a problem with a hypothetical stranger being gay, but for Mac (who is not merely their friend but an unkempt MMA obsessive entirely incoherent with whatever is the common stereotype of an out gay person) to come out is, despite their claims to want him out, a destabilizing and odd bit of news.
Unlike The Simpsons‘s dated stereotype Waylon Smithers (who himself came out in a torturously sentimental 2016 episode), Mac exists on the show for reasons entirely outside of his sexuality. Unlike other gay characters on TV, he’s something less than a role-model when it comes to bearing or personal grooming. He recalls Max (Adam Pally) on the late ABC sitcom Happy Endings, a character whose lummoxy personal presentation seemed intended as a direct response to the preening perfection of Will & Grace—but for the fact that neither he nor his friends have a fully actualized response to difference. They’ve spent their entire time on-air mocking anyone different from themselves. Mac’s coming-out is, at first, tortured, obtained under duress and with his friends telling him it’d be easier to elide. Its aftermath (continuing in Wednesday night’s episode, in which he finds himself fantasizing about one of his friends before “pushing it down with some brown,” binge-drinking liquor to forget) will make for some of the show’s most meaningful instances of plot development.
Mac’s protracted coming-out was all the lovelier for the ways in which it didn’t have to happen. It’d have been easier for a show on which stasis is the norm to have a long-running joke about his attraction to men, edging up to the line of antigay sentiment but pulling back just enough so that the audience knew it was all in good fun. Instead, it showed us both the ways in which coming-out is liberating and the ways in which it is only the beginning of a long conversation among friends, and a reframing of one’s own self-image. “Gay Mac rules!” Mac bellows, loutishly, after coming out. “Gay rich Mac!” Fans of the show on which he and his friends are constantly degrading themselves and other people can only be happy for him; dirtbags, after all, deserve love too.