Those who make us laugh can make us cry the hardest. Characters and performers who win us over by amusing us wield the capability to devastate us, to cut deep, because we never really go in expecting the clown to weep. From Ruggero Leoncavallo’s iconic opera Pagliacci all the way to the end of Toy Story 3, audiences have routinely proven themselves unprepared to watch funny people being sad. Just because you wear red shoes doesn’t mean you can’t dance the blues.
This year, Rob McElhenney danced his feet and our preconceptions off. The creator of the savagely funny sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is also one of the stars of the show, a role he wears with considerable self-deprecation. The show (streaming on Hotstar until recently, now available on Amazon US) is about five awful people. These are eternally inappropriate and sociopathic scumbags who know no bounds; one of my top episodes, “Manhunters" from season 4, involves two of them developing a disturbing fondness for what they believe to be “human meat".
Mac, the character McElhenney plays, is a fitness-obsessed fool, a frequent target of the gang’s jokes. McElhenney bestows Mac with a glorious obliviousness, often toying with the character for unusual comedic effect: for season 6 of the show, McElhenney gained 60 pounds to turn his otherwise studly character into a fat slob, as a response to his observation that sitcom characters get better looking as the show goes on. Budgets go up, and actors get wealthier and more aware of camera angles and clothes. McElhenney instead decided to throw away vanity and turn into the funny fat guy.
This year, Mac showed up all jacked. The first episode of season 13 has the gang rolling their eyes at this unbelievably buff Mac, all too eager to take his shirt off. He’s surprised the others don’t care, and he doesn’t sound sure about why he decided to get all chiselled, but he cites some grand plan that doesn’t add up. It’s a solid laugh scored by a clueless character who is grappling with his homosexuality while, being a devout Catholic, fighting his homophobia. Mac’s gayness is frequently played for dismissive punch lines by the rest of the gang. They are, as mentioned before, not nice people. At the end of the season, though, Mac gets serious.
This is a massive departure. Imagine, if you will, a brooding Seinfeld episode that explored the innate loneliness in the life of Cosmo Kramer. Better yet, get hold of a M*A*S*H* disc, turn off the laugh track—those DVDs possess the best special feature of all time—and try to hold back the waterworks as Hawkeye Pierce and his friends grimly take on the futility of war. The idea of sad comedy is best exemplified by the justifiably adored Netflix series Bojack Horseman, an animated show full of talking animals and visual puns that is frequently the most cripplingly bleak thing on television.
Woody Allen’s uneven 2004 film Melinda And Melinda had the remarkable premise of two playwrights narrating the same story as a comedy and a tragedy; as they continue talking over dinner, the comedy becomes melancholy and the tragedy buoyant. Television characters are human too. It all depends on where we’re standing, and if a show is truly confident about what it’s doing, it can upend expectations and catch us by surprise by turning into something else for a minute. Breaking Bad is mostly blue methamphetamine and blood, but the episode “The Fly" is a celebration of slapstick, a straightforward and superb Tom And Jerry-esque episode about two men flummoxed by an elusive insect. Astounding.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has performed many a miracle over the years, and earlier this season it tackled #TimesUp with immense sharpness, but the final episode is an actual thing of beauty. In “Mac Finds His Pride", McElhenney’s character is unwilling to exhibit himself at the Gay Pride Parade. He hasn’t yet embraced his sexuality, and is forcibly goaded into doing so (and fast) by Frank, the oldest and most politically incorrect oaf of the bunch, played by Danny DeVito. Most of the episode therefore plays out like an overdone take on homosexuality clichés, but it is constantly unnerving and heartbreaking to see Mac this scared, and—unfamiliar to us all—this sincere.
At the end, Mac lets dance do the talking. Accompanied by ballerina Kylie Shea and an achingly great Sigur Rós song, McElhenney soars into a whirlwind of interpretive dance, a moment so spellbinding that the show transcends itself. Set inside a prison with a rain machine and spotlights, this dance is an absolutely absurd way for Mac to communicate with his hateful father, but he says what he must say before starting to move. The next sequence may be the most profound moment on television this year. We get it, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, we get it. There is a fine line between tickling and tears.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen