When Showtime petitioned to have Shameless designated as a comedy series at the Emmy Awards, I was—perhaps embarrassingly, but I must acknowledge my truth—angry. Shameless is a dramatic television series, and its finest moments come when it explores the stakes of life as a Gallagher. Emmy Rossum is giving one of television’s finest dramatic performances, and yet she’s being deemed a comedic actress simply so that William H. Macy and Joan Cusack can add to Showtime’s nominations total. It’s cynical, and misrepresents what has drawn me to the show.
But in sitting down to take over writing about the series in its sixth season, I found myself thinking about what Shameless is about in its sixth year. Let’s ignore what the show does best (or worst, for that matter), and focus instead on what the show boils down to. And although the finest moments may be dramatic in nature, the actual structure of the show could be reasonably read as a family sitcom. Set against the backdrop of south side Chicago, Shameless is the story of the Gallagher family growing up too fast and too slow simultaneously.
But unlike a family sitcom like The Middle, the stakes are high on Shameless. In this sense, it’s a distinct televisual artifact, unlike any of the premium—or even basic—cable shows around it. It is at its core a family “soapcom,” adopting the dense serialization and action/consequence plotting of soap operas but within a more tightly focused character structure seen in sitcoms. The “plot” as it were rarely extends beyond individual situations, and is almost always driven by characters and their relationships. It’s created one of my most dysfunctional television viewing experiences, as I find myself wanting to spend time with the Gallaghers like they’re a sitcom family, whilst simultaneously spending entire episodes watching through my fingers as they flirt with tragedy at every turn.
The sixth season premiere, “I Only Miss Her When I’m Breathing,” bears out this balance, eschewing major plot developments for a test of how existing characters and storylines can be sustained within the soapcom structure. We’ve watched the Gallagher children grow over the past five seasons, and although we’re highly familiar with the world they live in, seeing them become more actively part of that world is a different story entirely. This is a world where teenagers get pregnant, but to see 15-year-old Debbie so desperately wanting to be pregnant has been excruciating; plenty of teenage boys from the South Side end up in juvenile detention, but seeing it age Carl so quickly is not exactly a laugh riot. Whereas the series started by using characters like Carl and Debbie as evidence of Frank’s failures as a parent and Fiona’s struggles as a sister, they are now part of this world, and that fact still terrifies me on a weekly basis.
There isn’t necessarily as much “terror” as there has been in the past when the season begins. Fiona has a stable job, complete with the possibility of a promotion—her marriage might have fallen apart, and she might be sleeping with her boss, but the daily struggle to pay bills and balance her own life and that of her family is no longer as overwhelming. Lip might be embroiled in a messy relationship with his professor, but he’s not in danger of being kicked out of college, and thriving in his role as a teaching assistant. Ian is still struggling to find himself in the wake of medicating his bi-polar disorder, but he is taking his meds, and—slowly, but surely—working at the diner to get his life back in order. Even Frank, so often on the edge of self-destruction, is limiting himself to 6 oz. of alcohol a day and wallowing in grief over Bianca’s death instead of wallowing in his own filth.
These characters don’t have everything figured out. You can see Ian struggling with how to feel for Mickey, who is working hard behind bars to tell Ian how much more he cares about him than he cares about proper spelling. Their conversation only happens after Svetlana bribes Ian, in part because the physical glass between them mirrors a metaphorical wall that Ian is still learning how to break down while medicated. Lip’s maturity in the classroom is all undone by his petty jealousy of Helene, and he looks every bit the teenager when he mistakes her son for her lover (a twist that is pretty easy to read when you’re not in Lip’s shoes). Fiona doesn’t see herself as management material because she’s been conditioned not to, and never entirely acknowledges that her hesitance goes beyond the lack of tips. Frank is showering more regularly and telling his family how much he loves them, but he’s still spending his days badgering religious leaders and his mornings humping Bianca’s grave.
But while these characters might have problems, you sense they have the structure in place to figure them out. They are adults, whose life experience and knowledge of how the world works means their greatest battle is with themselves. The system has, at least on a surface level and for this particular moment, worked for them: Ian is getting his proper medication, Lip is using loans to prepare for a better future, Fiona’s recovery program has led to stable employment, and Frank got his second liver. While there is always uncertainty about how they will take advantage of these opportunities, and always the possibility that everything will fall apart, the premiere never draws its tension from these characters in the way it has in the past. Although there are signs of future struggle—Lip’s idiotic cell phone photo that could be used as evidence of the affair, Fiona’s co-worker’s discontent over her promotion—there is not the feeling that these characters are headed down a dark path.
The same cannot be said for Debbie and Carl, although in different ways. The show’s efforts to transform these roles into more substantial ones have been a struggle in recent seasons, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Both Emma Kenney and Ethan Cutkosky have done some strong work as they’ve evolved into central characters in the drama, such that I feel the show can reasonably anchor storylines around them. But the show has consistently committed to a storytelling choice that is equal parts satisfying and infuriating, where the characters are both wholly embracing their adolescence while simultaneously having no conception of the gravity of their situation. It is exactly what you would expect from a teenager, totally consistent with the show’s vision, and also deeply, deeply frustrating to watch as a viewer.
I wanted better for Debbie. I still have some doubt about whether the character we met in the early seasons—responsible, conscientious—would rape one boyfriend and willfully lie to the second about birth control in an effort to get pregnant. I know the show is making an argument about what happens to young women as they enter adolescence and get exposed to bullies and mean girls and social expectations, and there’s no doubt this reflects what a lot of young women experience. But the speed at which Debbie fell down that slippery slope has been alarming, and the way she’s pushed away Fiona—here resisting her presence during the Planned Parenthood appointment and lying to her about being pregnant—has felt haphazard. All of the Gallagher children somewhat resent when Fiona attempts to mother them—see Ian’s withering “Yes, Mom” as she badgers him about his meds—and I get how Debbie’s reaction would be particularly strong, but her refusal to communicate has felt arbitrary, designed to heighten the character’s sense of isolation.
The best thing the premiere does with Debbie is avoiding delaying the inevitable. There’s a version of this story where Debbie’s lie festers for weeks, but everything unfolds at light speed: the second Derek’s parents get involved, he’s shipped off to Florida and the parents show up at the house to blow Debbie’s cover with Fiona. It’s a development that reaffirms the show’s use of the pregnancy as a season-ending provocation, but the premiere at least acknowledges that it isn’t something the show or the character can necessarily sustain moving forward.
Similarly, Carl’s trip to the big house—or the small house, I suppose—ends up being equally unsustainable. We see brief glimpses of prison life, but the show brushes past the prison feud with Chuckie when Carl is given an early release. There’s some easy jokes with “White Carl’s” embrace of a broadly deployed gangster culture, complete with cornrows, but that isn’t the ultimately goal of the story. Although there’s some tension and concern with Carl’s friend—a large black man who set his father on fire and was tried for murder at 9—that is undoubtedly inflected by race, the real tension here is that Carl is suddenly acting like an adult, and it’s incredibly unnerving.
The gap in maturity between Debbie and Carl fascinates me. Debbie thinks she wants everything about womanhood, but has lost all sight of the consequences and is struggling to navigate the result. But while Carl got himself in over his head with the drug business, his time behind bars has given him a clearer sense of responsibility. He makes his way home on his own without telling his family, supported by his new prison infrastructure. Although he doesn’t necessarily understand why a convicted murderer staying in their home might unnerve his family, he takes in his new friend because he was kicked out of the system at 18 with nowhere to go. Beyond his voice falling multiple octaves (and, per self-reporting, his balls dropping in kind), Carl has gained a sense of self-assurance that will keep him alive in the tough years to follow.
It’s alarming that Carl has found this self-assurance by effectively embracing what Frank refers to as the “family business.” But it’s a central theme of the show that these characters will take stability wherever they can find it, no matter how messed up that situation might be. And so as a viewer, although I felt deeply uncomfortable with Carl’s storyline last season, I’m oddly soothed by the stability he presents here. When you compare it with Debbie, or with how we’ve felt about Ian, or Lip, or any other character, there is something almost comforting about Carl evolving into a seasoned thug. Shameless is never going to be the televisual equivalent of a warm hug, but it’s trained us into accepting even deeply concerning situations as welcome ones.
By and large, “I Only Miss Her When I’m Breathing” handles the burden of a premiere well: the reiteration of central storylines moves swiftly, the balance between Frank—always kind of off in his own world—and the rest of the show is well-handled, and John Wells’ script covers a lot of ground without feeling overworked. There are challenges this season: the loss of Mickey to prison (again) backgrounds the show’s most dynamic relationship, featured here but unlikely to be a major part of the season with Noel Fisher bumped to special guest star. And the premiere stumbles as Kevin and Veronica are relegated to the ongoing (and compelling) gentrification storyline, and Will Sasso makes an unwelcome appearance as a dumpster fire of a human being whose bigotry is overwritten and overperformed to the point of stripping all comedy from it. While I remain interested in the show exploring the community outside of the Gallaghers, the premiere doesn’t quite find the right angles to make the hipsters invading the Alibi into more than a distraction, and I hope we get more substance in the future.
Every serialized show will eventually run out of story to tell, and I do think Shameless will eventually get there (and in some of the storytelling with Fiona last season, it got close). But the soapcom structure means Shameless lacks a predetermined end point, and so it’s up to Wells and the writers to find the substance in the everyday. And while there are always concerns over how that substance is generated, and the way the show’s commitment to tonal imbalance colors its story developments, I ultimately have faith that the show still has something to say about class and family through the lens of the Gallaghers, and the premiere reflects that.
- I don’t know whether or not we’ll ever be seeing Sammi again, but I’m glad to see the show acknowledge her as a transient presence. I don’t mind her serving—like Monica—as an occasional spark for storytelling, but let’s allow her to rot in prison for a while. We need the space. Meanwhile, if you want your Emily Bergl fix, she’s got a supporting role on American Crime this season.
- Reserving judgment on the magic realism of Frank’s call to religion—the montage of his search for religion was fun, but until we get a sense of the greater purpose (of the storyline, not Frank’s life), I’ll wait to comment on the Jesus statue eyetracking moment.
- Gallaghers seem pretty terrible at reading body language: the fact that Lip didn’t see the clearly parental—okay, so maybe it was a little creepy—touching with Helene and her son is only challenged by Debbie not reading the sheer panic exuding from her baby daddy as she reminds him of their Planned Parenthood appointment like it’s no big deal.
- While the professor in me could relate to Lip’s experience with the plagiarist—just don’t do it, y’all—and certainly related to the “call to teaching” moment with the mentor figure, I also have a lot of questions about why there isn’t a graduate teaching assistant who would be more qualified for Lip’s role here. I’ll try to avoid going too inside baseball as the story continues, but expect “University Verisimilitude Corner” to recur in the Strays.
- On a similar note: professors sleeping with students is my least favorite TV trope, and I would really love the show to move on from it as soon as possible.
- “Maybe Debbie should go to prison?”—this is not a thing that I should be thinking, and yet my notetaking reflects my desperation for her to acknowledge the gravity of her situation.