It can be embarrassing to try to explain what’s happening on a television show to someone who doesn’t regularly watch that television show. It’s so easy to become absorbed in the characters and the world they inhabit that you start to just go along with whatever is being presented, such that even when it’s not quite working, it doesn’t seem like the most ridiculous thing in the world. I watched this week’s Shameless with a friend of mine who had never seen the show (he stopped by halfway through, making matters worse), and I had to explain that Sheila, who now operates a hospice specializing in death by smothering, was blending up some Grand Marnier-soaked vanilla cake to feed to a drooling, deaf crackhead who was smoking through his tracheotomy stoma, while her son-in-law tried to convince her to have sex with him again.
That’s pretty much the most ridiculous thing in the world, and represents the stuff of Shameless I like the least: the scenes in which I can practically hear a room full of writers saying “Oh my God, you know what would be the craziest thing ever?” then embellishing until the story no longer represents actual human behavior. So, as is usually the case with an episode of Shameless, “A Good Cause” was a battle between the version of Shameless I like—the one that is poignant and rings true even when its class shadings are foreign to me—and the version that completely drains me, the one that seems to exist only as an exercise in boundary-pushing rather than a character-based story.
For the most part, the version of Shameless I like dominates “A Great Cause,” thanks to Monica’s latest return. It was only a matter of time before Monica returned to her selfish ways, but I didn’t expect the fall from grace du jour to come quite so quickly. But as she refuses to take medication to control her bipolar disorder, she goes into a flight and obliterates everything in sight. It starts with she and Frank waking up the kids in the middle of the night for a Halloween-candy binge and a viewing of a shoddy Paranormal Activity 3 bootleg. It’s not that Frank and Monica aren’t good parents, it’s that they’re willfully bad ones, sneaking around mischievously to do whatever they know Fiona would disapprove of. But where Frank is an indifferent asshole, Monica is more destructive as she insists on being involved in the children’s lives. Monica doesn’t look the other way as the kids make their own messes, she makes the messes herself as she spins manically from one bad idea to the next. Even as she slowly breaks down, she gives enough of an illusion of responsibility to convince Fiona that she finally has enough latitude to focus on getting her own life together.
Perhaps a better way to put that is to say Monica doesn’t convince Fiona that things have changed, but she allows Fiona to convince herself. When Monica appeared last season, Fiona was as reluctant to share her responsibilities as she is this time, but at the time it seemed mostly to do with the fact that taking care of her family in the absence of her ne’er-do-well parents had become her entire identity. This time, Fiona has a concrete plan to better herself and start establishing a life and career of her own. She’s progressing with her GED classes, sniffing around community-college courses, and persuaded Meg to give her a shot at running the bar at a new upscale club. This time, Fiona really needs Monica to be well because she needs time and energy to work on herself, so she convinces herself that Monica is a new person, and conveniently ignores any evidence to the contrary.
At least, that’s my working explanation for why Fiona and the family allow Monica quite as much freedom to screw up as they do. Given Monica and Frank’s past—and how they manage to bring out even scummier parts of each other—it’s amazing that Fiona leaves the squirrel fund in such an accessible place. Even ignoring the ever-present possibility of a Monica visit, given how much random, shady foot traffic breezes through Gallagher Manor— like the pregnant Chinese woman or Double-Bag Bev—it’s hard to believe Lip hasn’t rigged some sort of makeshift retinal-scan security system to keep the money safe. It’s even harder to believe that Monica’s shopping spree doesn’t raise any more suspicion than it does prior to Lip raiding the squirrel fund for bail money. A car? A Rug Doctor? A small army of American Girl dolls which cost, like, $100 a pop? If the point here is that the Gallaghers still have a Monica-sized blind spot, no matter how many times she screws up, the writers certainly drove it home, though I’d argue that letting her wreak this level of havoc before anyone catches up to her strains credibility.
By the time Hurricane Monica has cut her swath of destruction, the squirrel fund is wiped out, Ian is rejected from every branch of the Armed Forces due to his age, and Carl has gotten into his first car accident. Thankfully nothing happens to little Liam, who Frank and Monica take on their post-drug-binge trip to the zoo. Here’s hoping she isn’t pregnant yet again. And as usual, Fiona is left to shoulder the blame, as Lip accuses of taking her eye off the ball. It’s true, of course, but the unfair consequence of Fiona taking responsibility for everybody and everything is that she has to take responsibility for everybody and everything. Lip could have just as easily put a stop to Monica’s frenzy had he been around, but in the Gallagher house, everyone does whatever they want to do, except for Fiona. Fiona attempts to confront Monica, to get some kind of reaction out of her—an apology, at least an acknowledgement of how badly she’s harmed the family—but Monica is at the bottom of her cycle and practically catatonic, and after a brief breakdown, she sets about doing what she always does: cleaning up the mess.
Speaking of messes, as usual, Shameless is a bit shabby at its fringes. My mileage tends to vary on anything going on at Sheila’s house, and I didn’t get a whole lot out of the Ruben affair, which is gross, over-the-top, and not particularly funny. (Karen is absent this week though, so that’s something at least.) Veronica finds out she’s the reason she and Kev haven’t been able to conceive, but there is such little time spent on the development that it doesn’t feel substantive. Most annoying of all, as usual, are Steve’s attempts to try to get Estefania’s true love Marco into the country via shipping container. There’s so much of this that doesn’t make sense to me that it almost pains me to engage with the storyline, but here we are. Why exactly is Marco so imperative to a dissolution of Steve and Estefania’s marriage again? If she’s in love with another man, and her father the dangerous warlord is still a few thousand miles away, what’s stopping them from carrying on separately? Why is Fiona introduced as Steve’s cousin? What difference does it make to Fiona whether or not Marco is in the country? I’m already exhausted thinking about this, but anything involving Steve and Estefania makes me feel like I missed three episodes, and this level of contrivance is hard to swallow considering the result will be a reconciliation between Fiona and an irritating douchebag.
The resolution of last week’s cliffhanger fares a little bit better. “A little bit” being the operative words here, as Terry Milkovich spends the episode trying to track down and kill Ian, only to find out later that he impregnated his own daughter. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about this development, but I was glad that even though it leads to the comically slanted abortion fundraiser, the writers didn’t play the revelation itself for laughs. Karen raping a drunken Frank is supposed to be funny. Mandy being raped by her drunken father is not supposed to be funny. It’s nice to know that even in their pursuit of putting the most depraved stories on television week after week, these writers have some level of restraint.
- Kudos to Ethan Cutkosky, who plays Carl. There’s not usually much to say about his performance, but when he’s given dramatic bits, however small, he does really well with them. He only has a few wordless seconds to communicate his fear and disappointment when he’s at the police station with Monica, and he nails it.
- Carl also has a great line about the “fun razor:” “You want ’em to show up? Make ’em think someone’s getting cut.”
- Seriously, what’s it going to take to get Ian fired from the Kash And Grab?