David Hornsby, Renée Felice Smith (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FXX)

There once was a man named Matthew Mara. But now there is only Rickety Cricket. The moniker—like the innumerable disfiguring injuries and debilitating humiliations that have transformed him into the homeless, drug addicted creature we see here—was inflicted upon Matthew by a quintet of infinitely thoughtless assholes. That said assholes are the protagonists of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has always made the running joke of Cricket’s ongoing destruction an effectively sick one. The Gang, ultimate losers themselves, yet have one lone human being who’s lower on the food chain than they are. “A Cricket’s Tale” shows just how low that chain goes.

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I’ve said before that Cricket is like the Gang’s Picture Of Dorain Gray. No matter how many times they set each other on fire, get stabbed with forks, get addicted to crack, fall out of high windows, get shot in the head, or any other of the innumerable, destructive hijinks they get up to, no member of the Gang is ever going to be permanently affected. It’s like their bottomless, completely oblivious awfulness is a collective force field that prevents any of their shit from sticking to them. Unfortunately, it all winds up coating Cricket, sometimes literally, as when, tonight, his impressively desperate, parkour-heavy flight from a local merchant (Cricket stole a loaf of bread) sees him flunk the dismount, right into a dumpster filled with manure.

That’s where his father finds him. Mr. Mara (Robert Pine) has come looking to bring Matthew home, his plan to have his son take over half the family business undeterred by the fact that Matthew is shit-caked, drug-addicted, and—as he hears when Cricket mistakes his fatherly concern for a stranger’s proposition—willing to do just about anything sexual for more of the drugs that fuel his degraded existence. “You gotta pay to spray” is not the welcome Mr. Mara was hoping for, but he persists nonetheless.

Sunny has become more at home to experimentation over the years, and the narrative gambit of filtering an episode through a single character’s perceptions has paid off richly in outings like “Charlie Work” and “Being Frank.” If “A Cricket’s Tale” doesn’t quite scale those heights (or sink to those depths), it’s because Cricket’s status as the Gang’s sick joke isn’t as central or well-developed. Still, David Hornsby (who cowrote the episode with Scott Marder) has always found the humanity inside Cricket, even when watching that humanity get crushed occasionally makes you wish he hadn’t.

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Matthew Mara was a boy in leg braces, in love with a girl in a back brace. Unfortunately, that girl was Dee, who spitefully made Matthew eat a horse turd while Mac and Dennis spent their school years taking pictures of themselves tea-bagging him. He grew to be a priest, his final vows only derailed when Dee used her wiles to further one of the Gang’s idiotic schemes. (“I’m the type of gal that makes men’s lives better!” protests Dee tonight, unfortunately right before the shit-slathered Cricket walks into Paddy’s.) From there, it was all downhill, with broken legs, gaping neck wounds, partial blindness, horrible burns, dog orgies, urinal showers (and showers of urine, no doubt), and a rat’s nest of drug dependencies sapping his soul until the transformation from Matthew to Cricket was complete, and seemingly permanent. We’ve seen proximity to the Gang destroy people (R.I.P., Maureen Ponderosa), but none so irrevocably as the man called Rickety Cricket.

So “A Cricket’s Tale” primes us for another inevitable fall from, if not grace, then at least a real bed to sleep in. (Though the street-wise Cricket, spotting a comfy cardboard box at his father’s company’s loading dock, explains that a bed is “too exposed.” He prefers a crawlspace or cupboard.) Reluctantly reuniting with his asshole brother, Davy (Zack Ward, ever remembered as A Christmas Story’s ultimate asshole, Scut Farkus), Cricket nonetheless sees the value in money that doesn’t come from humiliating himself for the Gang’s amusement or selling his body (figuratively and literally—he’s down a kidney). Especially once a pretty co-worker named Bell (Renée Felice Smith) inexplicably takes a shine to him, despite, as his asshole brother discovers, Cricket smells like pee, and parts of his scalp come off mid-noogie.

“A Cricket’s Tale” suffers most because we know to look out for how this Cricket’s going to get squashed. Still, Hornsby does lovely work conveying the stirrings of long-forgotten Matthew as he rises to the challenge of straightening himself out, wooing a pretty girl, and, most shockingly, standing up to Dennis and Charlie when they call offering him a typically degrading task for a few bucks. There’s a touching flicker of Matthew when Cricket’s abrupt “Hey, date?!” is followed by an abashed “Shit, sorry.” It’s like Cricket briefly sees how far he’s fallen from even the most cursory human behavior.

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The Gang appears here only intermittently, their roles as agents of Cricket’s destruction as offhand as they are cruel. Even Charlie delights in joining Dennis’ plan to lure Cricket to Paddy’s for what turns out to have been the abortive strip show from “PTSDee.” Dennis teases Cricket about how they tracked him down at work, only for Charlie to delightedly blurt out that, at some point, they’d inserted one of those pet-tracker GPS devices in his body. Similarly, Charlie joins in when the Gang refuses to pay Cricket the measly few bucks he was counting on to take Bell on their date, once again getting him to accept payment in the form of no-doubt grubby Paddy’s bar lemons. (They speculate—not unwisely—that he needs them to fend off scurvy.)

So when Bell shows up just as Cricket is devouring lemons in an alley (Hornsby has an outstanding zombie growl as the citric acid repeatedly hits Cricket’s ravaged mouth), it’s all clearly leading to a crushing letdown. The unreality of this seemingly normal woman finding the pungent wreck that is Cricket palatable is only enhanced as we see their night progress from a swooning outdoors waltz to a Lady And The Tramp-style dinner of alley spaghetti and a night of contentedly spooning in a cardboard box. As it turns out, the reality that Bell is actually his father’s affectionate golden retriever is the least awful outcome, really. At least the pooch genuinely appears to like Cricket (full-on make-out session included). The twist that Cricket’s episode-opening decision not to smoke angel dust in Paddy’s bathroom is a Sliding Doors-style fake out/hallucination (the drugs land outside, rather than in, the trash in this reality) makes Cricket’s downfall that much more tragic. We get a glimpse into Cricket’s ideal vision of how his father’s offer could turn out, and it’s not even that different.

It’s a time-honored move to turn over the show to a minor character. Seen as a way to energize a long-running show by allowing a different perspective on the action, the gimmick can seem underimagined or disposable, which isn’t the case here. Hornsby, integral to Sunny for so long, makes Cricket’s return to being the Gang’s dancing monkey reflect on the Gang’s toxic dynamic in a way that’s both illuminating and sad, without ever betraying the show’s dark comic soul. When Cricket—given one last chance by his dad, even after the whole dog fiasco—contemplates actually giving a life of marginal dignity a go, the shot lingers just long enough to make his decision to come back to Paddy’s that much more depressing. But it makes sense, too. When Davy mocks the Gang, Cricket’s “Those guys are my friends!” is as desperate as it is, in his mind, true. When the Gang taunts Cricket with those lemons, Mac responds to Cricket’s objection, “I’m a person!” by telling him earnestly, “Cricks, I love you, but this is so boring.” Matthew Mora was as decent as the Gang is fundamentally indecent, but there’s a streak of masochistic need that has always drawn him inexorably to them. When Cricket returns to the bar, we see it’s the moment from “The Gang Tends Bar” when the Gang was chanting his name, delighted that he was there to amuse them some more. When Charlie tells him, “We don’t judge!” it’s even more poignant (and horrifying) since we know that Matthew’s really gone, having shucked off all pretense of ever returning. He’s Rickety Cricket, now and forever.

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Stray observations

  • While he’s not on screen much, Dennis (seen shirtlessly wearing the leather duster from “PTSDee”) really brings home the catlike contempt he has for Cricket in the way he tauntingly draws out, “We need a decision, Cricket…”
  • “Has anyone claimed your organs? I had to ask, it’s a seller’s market right now.”
  • After unwittingly helping Dee destroy a man’s life in the “PTSDee” flashback, Cricket exclaims, “I gotta say, it’s kinda fun being on the other side of it sometimes.”
  • Dee, foreshadowing: “I’m sure whatever street mongrel you’re dating is into lemons, too.”
  • Cricket’s victory in winning back a client (Wayne Federman) for the business is too abruptly handled, his threat to cut the man’s heart out brushed aside in service of the brief episode’s conclusion.
  • Extra props to Sunny stunt coordinator Marc Scizak. “Street rat” Cricket’s acrobatics are funnier for being so smoothly integrated.

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