Danny DeVito, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Glenn Howerton (Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FXX)

The five main characters of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are often described as “the worst people in the world.” And, sure, they pretty much are. Scanning around their Paddy’s Pub HQ most weeks, one can hear the ghostly echoes of Ben Kenobi’s pronouncement about Mos Eisley as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” bouncing off the ill-washed glasses and even more ill-washed regulars. And the Gang, of course, variously huddled in ever-changing factions to hatch whatever plot its members imagine will satisfy the selfish needs of their twisted psyches.

Still, the Gang isn’t really the worst, is it? Making a sitcom about actual evil people would be an even harder trick than the one the creators of Sunny have pulled off for 12 seasons. The secret of Sunny’s dark comedy is that the main characters live in their own awfulness. They create it, they cause it, they’re product and victim of it, and, ultimately, they can never escape it. The Gang is a gang because there are no other people in the world who would, or could, have them.

That interdependent hell that is the Gang’s daily existence comes to a hilarious head in “Hero Or Hate Crime,” where a stray breeze, a wayward $2 scratch ticket, a falling piano, some dog shit, and a gay slur cause Dee, Charlie, Frank, Mac, and Dennis to run through a series of very expensive professional arbitrators in order to settle their latest dispute. Normally, the argument over ownership of a potentially worthless (they haven’t scratched it yet) lottery ticket would be taken care of, as Charlie puts it, “in-house.” Like their legendarily nonsensical and horrifying rainy day board/endurance game CharDee MacDennis (“The Game Of Games”), over the years the Gang has developed an elaborate system of jurisprudence to hash out its constant, hysterical squabbling. “Motion for sub-arbitration to determine whether or not that’s sad!” cries Mac, after Dee explains that she hadn’t scratched the lottery ticket, because “as long as you don’t scratch it, then you’re not a loser.”

As arbiter here, I’ll say that is sad, though less in the mocking way that Mac, Dennis, Charlie, and Frank accuse Dee of being, and more in keeping with the idea that, on some level, the Gang is aware of how awful its awfulness makes each of their lives. As Dennis explains to the first of their referees tonight, “This ticket represents hope, okay? Potential. Promise. The very foundation upon which this group rests.” Glenn Howerton gives Dennis’ spiel the maniacal edge of one brazening out a position to avoid the yawning abyss of ugly truth, something that goes a long way toward explaining the Gang’s signature, hair-trigger enthusiasms. Every scam, every scheme, every newfound obsession and pursuit is the thing that will lead them out of the darkness that is their daily existence. As we see, eventually tonight, even the genuine victory of a $10,000 winning scratch ticket will ultimately be consumed by the inescapable reality of the fact that their 17 hours of professionally arbitrated backstabbing to obtain it have eaten up all the money they were fighting over. The pursuit has to be the point, because the reality is that happiness is simply not something these people will ever know.

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Luckily for us, there’s plenty of joy in watching these characters and these actors play out the inevitable. The circumstances surrounding the lottery ticket form a filthy Rube Goldberg device of disaster, as Charlie and Mac interrupt their argument about whether Charlie intentionally stepped in a pile of dog crap (he did) to almost get creamed by a falling piano. Fortunately(?), Frank—out looking up women’s skirts with his trusty shoe-mirrors like the dirtbag he is—sees this and screams out the full-throated warning, “Look out, faggot!” allowing Charlie to karate kick Mac out of the way. Sure, this leaves a shoe-shaped dog crap imprint on Mac’s shirt, but alive’s alive. And potentially rich. Well, potentially, potentially rich, as Dee’s windblown, unscratched ticket ends up in Mac’s hands, sending the Gang off to the lawyers’ offices. (Sadly, we don’t get an appearance from Brian Unger’s unnamed, always-funny lawyer. He’d find a way to cheat the Gang out of that ticket, especially after it may have blinded him.)

As far as the legal arguments go, the labyrinthine circumstances surrounding the ticket’s ownership are enough to test the wisdom of Solomon, including as they do, Dennis bribing Dee to overtip the barely legal shopgirl he’s grooming as sexual conquest; Frank’s offensive but life-saving warning; Charlie’s heroic (if poopy) kick; and the fact that Mac actually has possession of the thing. The actors playing the lawyers (especially Karen McClain, whose character hears the bulk of the argument) are all excellent at deadpanning their way through the shenanigans. (As is revealed, they know they’re getting well-paid.) As for the arguments themselves, the pressures of avarice and a ticking clock sees the Gang turn on each other with all the chaotic ingenuity their feverish minds can muster. Which is a lot.

A major theme in the arguments is Frank’s slur against Mac. Mac’s tortured relationship with his sexuality has been mined for jokes for well-on a decade, and, yes, the revelation that he’s constructed a makeshift pleasuring device out of a decrepit exercise bike and a fist-topped dildo isn’t the subtlest gag. (There is a moment where the seat-mounted dildo rises unexpectedly that is timed to absolute comic perfection, though.) But the joke, as the rest of the Gang asserts, has never been that Mac is gay (“He’s into the closet, he’s out of the closet—we don’t like you either way,” explains Dennis), but that Mac’s contortions to deny his homosexuality have turned him into a joke. (He explains that he’s been working out on the machine with assless bike shorts for “air flow.”) Like Dennis’ desperate assertion of the meaning of that unscratched ticket, Mac’s denial about just what he gets up to down in Paddy’s basement partakes of that strain of humanizing denial that keeps the Gang, for all its undeniable awfulness, relatable.

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The same goes for the Gang’s long digression here about hate speech. Like most social issues that Sunny incorporates into its plots, “political correctness” isn’t on trial as much as it’s used to examine the Gang’s various double standards and blind spots. When Frank protests that his use of the word “faggot” wasn’t disqualifyingly offensive, it’s due to Frank’s adherence to old-school, pragmatic assholery. “There was a lot going on. I needed something that would cut through. As soon as I said the slur, everybody knew to look at Mac,” says Frank. Mac’s response that “a bigot should not be entitled to a hero’s payout” is self-serving (he really wants that ticket), but also points to how, within the Gang, finding offense in the others’ actions is often the best offense against them. When Dennis cautions, “You know what, we’re treading on some dangerous territory,” his objections to hate speech are more about standing (in the Gang and as the upstanding citizen he fancies himself) than about whether Frank’s assertion that “You’re allowed to use any language to save a man’s life” extends to the word “nigger” in a similar situation. (McClain’s arbitrator, who is black, still manages to maintain her impartiality, which deserves some sort of medal.) So when all four of the guys turn on Dee for trying to apply the same logic to the word “cunt,” the shouting match that ensues (“We can’t lose that! Especially when it’s directed towards a woman when you’re trying to insult her,” yells Charlie) illuminates the shifting nature of the Gang’s outrage. On It’s Always Sunny, morality is, indeed, a moveable feast, depending on who’s doing the eating.

In the end, the ticket comes down to Frank and Mac, the final arbitrator’s ruling finding that they have to split the ticket, since Frank’s claim can only be nullified if his hate speech was actually directed at a gay person. (Again, I’m not saying these are necessarily good arbitrators.) “Here’s where things get just a little bit tricky,” explains Dennis, before bringing in that bike (“The Asspounder 4000,” according to the deliberately oblivious and proud Mac) to show that Mac is, indeed, gay. (Or, at least, as Dennis puts it, “a sexual deviant.”) Sunny lives on the edge, and, if the bike gag is crude, the payoff of Mac’s dilemma is transcendent.

Seeing a way to get the whole ticket (now worth 10 grand), Mac quickly proclaims his gayness to snatch the prize. (“Gay Mac rules! Rich, gay Mac!”) But given the chance to renege on his claim once the cash is safely in hand, Mac demurs. Rob McElhenney makes Mac’s hesitation one of those improbably affecting character moments that Sunny wields so expertly. After the others sneer that he’ll retreat back into the closet now that he’s won, McElhenney’s look of clear-eyed relief is genuinely heartening as Mac says softly, “I dunno, maybe I’ll just stay out. No, I think I’m out now. Yeah, I’m gay. Actually… it feels pretty good. See you guys.” Naturally, the Gang’s momentary, shocked silence is swept away by the revelation that all the fighting has cost them all but $14 of Mac’s winnings (which they’ll make him pay), but, even then, Dennis says, “Maybe let’s make him pay this tomorrow. Let’s let him have this.” In the Gang’s Philly, the smallest of victories are not victories at all. Not if you’re trapped there.

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Stray observations

  • As the only female member of the Gang, Dee is always outnumbered, her objection to the insult “cunt” laughed out of court by the guys. “When you’re trying to make a woman feel small!” the delighted Mac says of the word’s usefulness.
  • Dee also gets shafted when she reveals that she’s started smoking because she found out she has a heightened risk of Parkinson’s disease. (Weirdly, there is some evidence that smoking can prevent this.) Regarding the smoking, the guys all launch into their usual, unforgiving appraisal of Sweet Dee’s physical appearance, Dennis saying dismissively, “Oh, my god, who gives a shit. This isn’t about whether or not you have some horrific neurological disease, or whether your hands are the right size. They are by the way, but your elbows are a mess.”
  • On the research front, however, Mac’s etymological explanation of the historical origin of the word “faggot” appears to be wrong.
  • Charlie’s been smoking with Dee, thus “explaining” his dogshit-stepping in a very Charlie-like display of logic: “I was trying to cover up the smell of the skunk I let spray me, so that there would be no questions.” “Well now I have more questions!”
  • Dennis’ explanation of how he lays the groundwork for sleeping with very young women/girls makes unfortunate use of “withdrawal/deposit” financial metaphors. Dee: “Just to be clear, a deposit’s a load, right?”
  • The Gang ditches the very reasonable first arbitrator upon hearing his one rule, that they have to “treat each other with respect and common courtesy.”
  • Gay slur and dog crap aside, Frank and Charlie did make the split-second decisions to save Mac’s life. Just sayin,’ on Sunny, you take what you can get.

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