Pianos only crush unsuspecting dopes on the sidewalk in cartoons, right? There’s something slightly conspicuous about the danger that threatens Mac’s life in the opening minutes of this week’s ingenious It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It just feels off, like a contrivance that makes no effort to obscure just how forced it is. That’s precisely the point, however. “Hero or Hate Crime?” functions as a thought experiment with a handful of shifting variables, closer to an ethical word problem than the first act of a sitcom script. Then, in time, this logic puzzle transforms into a weirdly elegant metaphor for the show itself and its uniquely inflammatory brand of social criticism.
“Hero or Hate Crime?” places the gang in a 12 Angry Men–ish pressure cooker of legal proceedings. It starts out as the pettiest dispute the group has ever undertaken: the rightful ownership of a two-dollar scratch-off is hotly contested, with each member of the Gang claiming entitlement to the ticket and its potential riches. Dee purchased it, but she was only able to do so by using Dennis’s money and the ticket fluttered out of her purse. Mac seems to have a pretty good argument, as the current holder of the ticket, but Charlie and Frank both posit that they deserve at least part of the money, having collectively saved Mac’s life by kicking him with a poop-covered shoe and calling him a “faggot,” respectively.
The entire case ultimately hangs on that word, a slur so vile that it’s now supplanted fuck as the referent of “the F-word.” Everyone agrees that the term itself is reprehensible, though it does take a quick lesson on the medieval etymology for the Gang to grasp the full depths of its capacity to hurt. Their communication only breaks down when they start to discuss the utility of the word itself, and whether there’s any instance in which using it could be productive. Frank mounts a pretty solid argument, positing that the net total effect of his choice to use the word was indisputably positive — after all, it did alert Mac to the falling piano — so his good deed superseded the naughty word.
The real meaning of this rambling spat comes into focus as the conversation shifts to the power of language, and whether its capability to upset and offend can be a useful tool for good. In other words, the episode finds It’s Always Sunny making a case for its own existence. The blurry line between satire and bigotry has turned into a battleground in recent years, as campuses and other social spaces have struggled to differentiate between allowing free speech and cracking down on hate speech. The ability to make use of objectionable words is integral to It’s Always Sunny’s specific brand of satire, which relies on shock to expose greater truths. Words have power, the episode argues, but the power to do harm can be harnessed and repurposed for good.
Their exchange over Frank’s use of the F-word dovetails into a larger and far more colorful roundtable on the wide, woolly world of the most verboten curses, all of which are thrillingly spoken aloud on basic cable television. The recurrent notion uniting these bluer bits of language is the gap between the words’ definitions and their understood meaning in context. This concept even has a clear foundation in linguistic theory, tracing back to the core principles of semantics (conventionally defined meaning), pragmatics (culturally understood meaning), and the gap between the two.
When Charlie is the one to actually utter the N-word, it rings as a particularly strategic choice: His guileless tone and childlike voice convey that he sincerely feels no hate behind the word itself. Meanwhile, Dee argues that cocksucker shouldn’t even be considered an insult, seeing as pretty much everybody enjoys the act the term literally alludes to. And to confirm that this isn’t about potty-mouthed writing for its own sake, the torrent of obscenity emphasizes the fact that language can place some at an unfair disadvantage — specifically that women have no equivalent of the C-word to use on men.
The episode’s coup de grace comes in the final minutes, proving the show’s commitment to a positive social profile beyond any shadow of a doubt. After having talked and talked around the absolute necessity of using the F-, C-, N-, and various other words, It’s Always Sunny puts its money where its mouth is by taking a hard-line stance on Mac’s long-debated sexual orientation. Mac’s closeted homosexuality has been a long-running joke, with the character’s cluelessness about the charged undercurrent of his comments constantly played for laughs. (Another instance of a disconnect between what’s said and its intended effect.) It looks like business as usual when he introduces the Ass-Pounder 4000, an exercise bike that forcibly fists your anus if you start to slack off, and at first, his admission that he’s gay could’ve been little more than a cheap ploy to claim ownership of the ticket. But what would’ve otherwise been a sublimely cynical gag takes on a stronger emotional heft as Mac commits, his excited yelling about “GAY RICH MAC!” giving way to a quiet and sincere admission that, yeah, he’s coming out for real this time.
After more than a decade on the air, nothing’s more difficult for a show than radically altering its own status quo, making change that feels real and far-reaching in spite of reliance on familiarity and formula. Nudging Mac out of the closet over what ends up being a $14 scratcher won’t alter the show’s style of comedy or overall tone, but it demonstrates a willingness to commit where the show previously refused. It’s both no big deal and a very big deal, introduced casually but offering valuable visibility to another queer character on TV. This is the closest that It’s Always Sunny will get to a Very Special Episode — a major character revelation, rooted in progressive good, awash in hair-curling profanity.
• Charlie clearly learned his legal technique from the great Johnnie Cochran, busting out the rhyming Cochranisms of “If the shitshoe’s a matcher, then Charlie gets the scratcher!” and “If it smells like shit, you must acquit!”
• Dennis gets the best line of the episode when piling on Dee during the swift sub-arbitration to determine whether her life is sad. There’s nothing wrong with her hands, he explains, but then informs her, “Your elbows are a mess, they’re too sharp. It’s like they’re stabbing me.”
• The quick cut from the first attorney telling the gang to “treat each other with respect and common courtesy” is inevitable but still loses none of its punch in the delivery. That’s the mark of a great joke.