Once upon a time, sitcoms rested on the comforting notion that at the end of an episode, everything would be “back to normal.” They resisted meaningful changes or developments in character that might warp the frame of the show. In 21st-century television, serialized comedy still requires that sense of resolution, but its writers seem willing to mock this artifice — and to meanwhile let their ensembles evolve over time.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a series that started out as “Seinfeld on crack” and was initially preoccupied, á la South Park, with a litany of hot-button issues, has aged damn well, largely due to that kind of subtle drift. Although it will and must always foreground the grimy hell that five loud-mouthed jackasses have made for themselves, the behaviors displayed have taken on a good deal of nuance and backstory. Dennis, formerly just a preening narcissist, was slowly revealed to be a borderline personality and sexual predator. Frank, played by the incomparable Danny DeVito, has nosed deeper into intoxicated senility. Dee took on the hysterical edge of a woman harassed, gaslit and put down every waking moment of her life, while Charlie, the mad fool, fittingly turned out to be the glue that holds this foul universe together.
But no player has marked the show’s progress as obviously as Mac, whose macho bluster gave way to a very fluid sexual identity, emotional instability and body issues. Having gained 50 pounds as a gag for season 7, Rob McElhenney, who created Always Sunny and stars as Mac, decided to get shredded for Season 13, joking about the process on Instagram:
McElhenney was maybe in part responding to the overawed buzz around “Buff Mac” and reminding us that these physical fluctuations are fairly extreme, not the result of a normal health regimen. It also felt like a critique of the laudatory coverage that follows “serious actors” who radically reshape themselves for different roles. (See: Bale, Christian, who recently packed on the fat to play former Vice President Dick Cheney.) But above all, the post underscored McElhenney’s commitment to his alter ego’s distorted self-image. Commenters who complained that rippling abs just aren’t as funny as a sweaty beer belly missed the point — that the transformations are what make Mac who he is. This was cleverly addressed in a Season 8 episode, “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” when a psychiatrist speculates that he suffers from body dysmorphia:
Mac suddenly getting hefty for the visual alone wouldn’t quite have worked. It’s not grounded in the bare minimum of realism that makes a show like Always Sunny so hilarious. But by creating a storyline wherein Mac insists he’s feasting on garbage bags full of chimichangas to “cultivate mass,” McElhenney was able to do something more than invite viewers to laugh at obesity. The joke instead circled Mac’s denial of what he was doing to himself, up to and past the point of a diabetes diagnosis — a joke that was doubled and justified by McElhenney’s actual inflation. A lesser comedy might have made do with a fat suit and, again, cheap fat-guy cracks. To be sure, the rest of the gang is viciously blunt regarding Mac’s appearance in that season, but we understand that it’s this exact form of cruelty that feeds his inner-conflict between self-loathing and vanity. He balloons in hopes of being respected for his sheer size.
The dynamic has endured into the current season of Always Sunny, whose premiere saw Mac repeatedly attempting to show off his newly yoked physique, only to find that no one cares. (It seems the writers knew some fans would be quick to dismiss muscles as inherently less humorous than flab.) The punchline of the episode, moreover, has Dennis — absent for most of the episode — pointedly ask a bewildered Mac if he’s put on a little weight. As usual, the show is mining risky territory; it’s essentially making light of a legitimate disorder. But its honesty as to the possible factors of the condition, which may indeed involve past trauma and peer-abuse, means we’re offended, entertained and educated all at once.
It’s one more example of how well the series has matured since 2005, sometimes even correcting its problematic trajectories. For many seasons, Mac was depicted as a homophobe who couldn’t admit he was gay himself, but eventually, it felt like his queerness, not his hypocrisy, was the object of ridicule. The solution was to have him abruptly come out of the closet once and for all, thereby heading off the impulse to continue writing toward “lol he wants to bang dudes” material.
My fellow viewers or Always Sunny’s producers could definitely accuse me of thinking too hard about this, and McElhenney has said that Fat Mac was as much an attempt to spoof TV characters’ tendency to get better-looking over time as it was a chance to explore Mac’s true nature. But I’m consistently impressed at how a basic-cable sitcom that some haters have impugned as “a bunch of people yelling over each other” has tested the limits of its genre and format while demonstrating a clear meta-compassion for its cast of broken jerks.
Mac is an unlikable dirtbag with a toxic friend group, yet it warms your heart to see him struggling to work through his accepted dogmas and deluded sense of masculinity in such an unsterile environment. And I, for one, am excited to see his journey of self-discovery continue — at any weight that suits him.