As a TV show that often strives to show its characters to be as offensively aloof and selfish as possible, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has featured myriad moments of cringe-worthy ideas, opinions, behaviors and more. (Never forget that the series premiere goes by the title "The Gang Gets Racist.") However, there has been an evolution of sorts regarding the way It's Always Sunny tackles certain subjects, such as the LGBTQ community, and co-creator Rob McElhenney has opened up about the show's arguable sense of maturity.
In one of It's Always Sunny's most controversial plot lines concerns Rob McElhenney's character Mac, who has long held deep-seated issues with his own sexuality, taking interest in the character Carmen, who is revealed to be transgender. The Gang once again proved themselves to be monsters in the episode, Mac very much included, and it's a situation that McElhenney learned from as time went on. Here's how he put it to Esquire:
[The characters] were calling her a slur during the first few years, which was most definitely out of ignorance. It was never supposed to be inflammatory or hurtful, but nevertheless, it was. We can’t go back and re-edit those episodes, but what we can do is make sure that as we’re moving forward, we’re making those adjustments and doing our due diligence. . . . [More organic representation was needed], not even for any kind of political correctness, just because it felt like the show was starting to get stale, and like it was from a bygone era.
To Rob McElhenney's point, as the world around them was becoming a more connected and diverse place – both in real life and on television itself – It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's might have come across as aged as reruns of All In the Family and other '70s shows that also walked the thin lines between comedically crude and flat-out mean. After Carmen's first appearances, though, the creative team brought her back in Season 6 (post reassignment surgery) to give Mack his true comeuppance in a slightly less problematic way.
The same idea spreads elsewhere for Mac's character as a whole, as far as his sexual identity confusion went. Having played with the concept of Mac's inherent gayness for years, It's Always Sunny actually had Mac come out at the end of Season 11, only to immediately reverse the reveal. It was only after seeing the fan backlash online that McElhenney had a true awakening about how deeply this vulgar and scandalous show had affected its core audience over the years.
Here, McElhenney talked about the journey of Mac's sexuality and the urge to get more inclusive.
It came partially from recognizing the lack of diversity in the show, which was something unfortunately we just had zero consciousness of at the time. An important distinction that I think we try to make in Sunny—and don’t necessarily always succeed—is that for as homophobic or racist or ignorant or terrible as the characters are, I think it’s clear that the people behind the show are not. And where we have blind spots, we try to ameliorate or at least recognize them.
Mac's sexuality came out in full force at the end of Season 13, when he invited his hate-mongering father to watch an amazing dance routine he knocked out of the park. The episode was a truly glorious feast for the eyes, and it broke open Mac's obsession with Dennis in a new way for Season 14.
But for all that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is working to keep its LGBTQ viewers pleased, the series has a much more erratic track record with racially driven comedy. Take, for instance, the two episodes in which the Gang creates homemade versions of the Lethal Weapon movies – one of them featured Richard Jewell star Paul Walter Hauser – where Mac and Dennis make use of blackface in order to play Danny Glover's Murtaugh. Granted, both eps were produced before the more recent flurry of politicians and entertainers getting ousted for using blackface for Halloween and other occasions, and as it went with Tropic Thunder, the choice was entirely to show just how distant from a the characters themselves are.
That said, the most recent season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia featured the episode "Dee Day," with the conceit that Sweet Dee had the privilege of getting the guys to do anything she wanted. Which, for better or more probably for worse, resulted in Danny DeVito darkening himself up, while Mac was left with a severely awkward impression of a Chinese person that was probably more timely (but still heinous) around the turn of the 20th century.
Since FX will likely keep It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on the air as long as Rob McElhenney & Co. have more fucked up stories to tell, it's possible there will be a day when the show's cast and crew end up reflecting regrettably about using blackface with any amount of regularity. But you can be damned sure Frank will never apologize for any of it, unless it would get him laid, of course.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia hasn't yet been renewed for any seasons past the fourteenth, but conversations are happening behind the scenes that will likely lead to a multi-season deal similar to the one granted to the show back in 2016. Stay tuned!