It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Longevity is often the enemy of good TV, chipping away at originality and nudging writers rooms toward dull formula. But the widened canvas of ten-plus seasons can also enrich a show by affording room to map out a wider ensemble of bit players with more finely developed identities. The great miracle of The Simpsons was how it could shift focus to any one-joke citizen of Springfield and tell a funny story about them and their struggles just out of frame. Having the space to move away from the main characters and explore a more obscure corner of a show’s universe keeps things fresh and opens up more avenues of storytelling. By doing so, a hangout sitcom like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia can temporarily assume the shape of a bleak character study about an addict trying to scrape what’s left of his life together.
Along with the Waitress and brassy broad Artemis, Matthew “Rickety Cricket” Mara is one of the most frequently seen characters who isn’t in the Gang, and while It’s Always Sunny has filled in his backstory in past episodes, “A Cricket’s Tale” concerns his present and future. The show has consistently tracked Cricket’s downward spiral, following him as he resigned from the clergy to naively pursue a couldn’t-be-less-interested Dee. He’s gotten his legs broken, his face slashed, and half of his skin burnt to a Freddy Krueger–esque crisp. He recreationally joins dog orgies and does gay-for-pay work on the mean streets of Philadelphia, and he’s got more addictions than can be counted on one hand. As is the case with many stories about junkies, “A Cricket’s Tale” asks if it’s not too late for this man to make a bid at redemption. We already know the answer, even before you take Sunny’s trademark upbeat misanthropy into account.
Cricket has popped up in Paddy’s three times over the last two episodes, each appearance coming off as nothing more than a throwaway cameo. This half hour ingeniously builds a story around those three points of intersection, revealing Cricket’s casual visits to shower in a broken urinal or smoke PCP in the bathroom as pivotal moments in a fully formed emotional arc. These brief appearances, when cast in this new narrative light, turn into peaks of hope and despair for the Gang’s resident punching bag.
The episode joins Cricket as he stumbles upon a chance at a better life for himself. After purloining a loaf of bread in a sequence that plays like a stingily budgeted live-action reshoot of Aladdin’s opening scene, he encounters his father, who’s summoning him home to run the family construction business. Just like that, everything’s comin’ up Cricket: He tidies himself up a bit (though his horrific facial disfigurement and cloudy eye prevent him from cleaning up too nice), gets a real live bed for sleeping, and meets a romantic opposite in the cheery Belle.
But something’s off about Belle. She’s too cheery, too pixieish, too unrepulsed by the invisible stink lines emanating from Cricket. When she mentions that she doesn’t like the way their firm’s newest client’s shoes smell, it’s clear that all is not as it seems. But weird people pop up all over this sunny Philadelphia, and while Belle’s oddness raises a red flag, it doesn’t overtly indicate that everything we’re seeing is a lie. Which it is, of course.
The twist hidden up the third act’s sleeve is more of a deception than anything else, but in the words of esteemed television critic Linda Belcher, “A lie can be a twist!” Cricket’s big moment of tossing the sherm stick he stashed in the Paddy’s bathroom didn’t go as planned. Apparently, he got so high that he hallucinated not getting high at all, as well as envisioning a charming and sharp-nosed woman in place of their new client’s dog. Even if the “twist” is kind of a cheap shot, the sentiment behind it is true: Cricket is beyond help, and to make matters worse, it’s pretty much all his fault. Usually, the Gang’s interference forces him to stray from the path of the righteous, but this time, they’re guilty of nothing other than enabling. (It’s not incidental that the last line we hear before the credits roll is Charlie exclaiming that Paddy’s is a judgement-free zone.) Cricket has sunk so low that he no longer needs help to screw up or get high.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but Cricket’s already found his tragic second act, having long since fallen from good Christian grace, and this episode finds him struggling to break through into a third. That may seem like a meaningless distinction, but it underscores the complete annihilation of any chance at normalcy that Cricket may have once had. He’s got no future. If you’ve seen the past few episodes, you already know that Cricket will conclude this one by delivering the line about smoking PCP in the bathroom from “The Gang Tends Bar,” lending his whole plight a dark sense of inevitability. He’s a casualty of Paddy’s, where self-respect goes to die — or at least pass out in a puddle of its own vomit.
• You can tell Cricket’s an especially skilled prostitute because he’s got his own professional philosophy: “You gotta pay to spray, that’s my motto. That, and ‘You can’t finish inside me.’”
• For a night’s worth of work in character as Matthew McConaughey’s “Dallas” from Magic Mike, the Gang compensates Cricket with one bag of lemons. He appears to hate eating them, but does so anyway. Considering his weakness for chemical vices, Cricket would most likely prefer lemons of a different sort.
• Zack Ward as Cricket’s rage-choked brother Davy is a coup of casting. He has just the right “I could pop a blood vessel at any moment” look as he yells that not even Olympic great Carl Lewis could catch their client before he leaves the building. Robert Pine delivers the goods as Cricket’s put-upon father, too, conveying just the right mix of battered affection and long-simmering aggravation.
• It’s not quite clear why this episode includes two elaborately choreographed chase scenes that find a clear stand-in for Cricket parkouring up and down the sides of buildings or double-backflipping off a moving truck. The incongruity might be a joke of its own, as could the total obviousness with which the stunt double is barely concealed, but neither one’s especially funny.