The word “uneven” gets tossed around a lot in episodic television criticism. I use it quite a bit myself, so I’m partially to blame for overusing it in a way that sort of robs it of its meaning. So apologies in advance for saying, man alive, what an uneven season of Shameless this is shaping up to me. Honestly, what better adjective can describe a season of television that careens so wildly from nearly great to totally inessential? I really dug "Father's Day," and I was hoping for some continued momentum. But "Can I Have A Mother" represents the opposite of momentum. It is, at the very least, a speed bump.
There's a certain level of leeway that you have to lend to an episode that exists primarily to move pieces into place, and "Can I Have A Mother" is certainly one of those. Still, it was almost devoid of any sort of payoff for anything that has been laid out prior to now, and just generally stumbled with the storytelling. The issues lied mostly with the reintroduction of two characters: Peggy Gallagher, Frank's mother who was released early from prison, and of course Steve who casually strolled back into Fiona's life last week. I have to assume that the reasons for bringing Grammy Gallagher back into the picture will become clearer as the back half of the season plays out, but based on this episode I'm already over her.
Most of my issue with the early episodes of season two is how deeply unpleasant it can be to spend time with Frank, particularly in situation where his behavior doesn't involve or affect members of the family somehow. Frank just isn't a character you want to spend a lot of time with. While it's understandable to make Peggy exactly the type of mom you would expect to have raised Frank Gallagher, the result is now I'm forced to watch the repugnant, sociopath misadventures of what really amounts to two Franks. Peggy was trying to muscle $200,000 out of Noah Pitts, her former meth partner who has since opened a cosmetic surgery practice. When he's unable to come up with the cash in 24 hours, she decides to kidnap his children for ransom. Luckily, Frank has the presence of mind to lean on Dr. Pitts until he coughs up the last $75,000 he has left, which of course Frank then tries to skim off of.
When Peggy wasn't terrorizing her son and former associate, she was savaging poor Sheila, and in her own home, no less. Peggy Gallagher is absolutely how Sheila describes her to be when she finally melts down; she's a loud, mean, vicious bitch. And if there's one thing Shameless doesn't need, it's another deeply unlikeable character. Look, I really like Louise Fletcher, and there was something really funny about how William H. Macy played his bratty tantrums. I'm willing to keep an open mind here. As Nana Gallagher is clearly having some serious health issues, it wouldn't be surprising if the Gallaghers were mourning her within a few episodes, and I can see that bearing fruit. But for now, the reintroduction of Peggy feels like a poor facsimile of Monica's bracing return in season one. The only character really struggling to adjust to her return is Frank, and while I understand Frank's utility, that's not the same as being emotionally invested in the character.
Even more problematic was how inelegantly Steve was crammed back into the story. I've never been a huge fan of Steve, or the Steve and Fiona relationship, and I've always felt the way I'd feel watching a friend of mine having a relationship with someone who seemed nice enough but wasn't the one. But that relationship is central to the show, regardless of how much mileage I get out of it, and I've accepted that. But if the stuttering romance between these two characters is of such vital importance, the writers need to treat the machinations of that relationship carefully and reverently. At the end of last season, Steve was left with no choice but to flee the country, and Fiona had to decide whether or not to go along. For viewers really interested in their relationship, that was a moment with genuine stakes. But what was it all for when Steve can just waltz back into the country whenever he gets ready with apparently no consequence? Steve shows up at the Gallagher-adjacent house he bought and talks to Tony, who now lives there with his Asian girlfriend. An envelope of money and a smarmy-Steve smile later and it was all water under the bridge.
Of course, reestablishing a relationship with Fiona isn't going to be as easy, because now Steve is legally married to Estefania, because of oh-my-God-you-can't-be-serious. By that I mean, Steve ran afoul of a drug lord and made amends by marrying his daughter in order for her to live in the States. I've complained a lot about the writers' tendency to do whatever seems the most outrageous, and this is a perfect example of that. It's a wacky story element intended to bring Steve back, but with a complication barring him from reuniting with Fiona right off. Of course, because angry, animal sex is such a big part of their relationship, that doesn't stop Steve and Fiona from an almost-tryst in the bathroom during the world's most contrived double date. If I'm supposed to care about Steve and Fiona, I need to feel like I'm not going to be jerked around endlessly. The story of two people who love each other but just can't seem to get it together is one audiences have seen enough that it has to be executed in a meticulous and credible way, and this felt forced, rushed, and even nonsensical. It made me dislike Fiona for a few minutes too. Sex with another man in the bathroom during a date? That's the kind of behavior that led Lucy Jo Heisner to mount a full-blown information campaign.
Usually when a Shameless episode is wobbling from a story perspective, it's at least rescued by some hilarious zingers. Not the case with "Can I Have A Mother" which was co-written by Macy, and almost entirely free of the acidic wit Shameless is known for. It's an especially glaring difference considering how many fantastic one-liners were in "Father's Day." Without its typical laughs, and so much time spent on Peggy and Steve, there wasn't much to like about the episode. Of course, knowing Shameless, we could easily be back to A-range by next week.
- In other Gallagher news: Frank got expelled from Sheila’s place, Ian still isn’t speaking to Lip, Lip continues his downward spiral, and Debbie spilled the beans about Jimmy.
- In Gallagher-adjacent news: Ethel and Malik dug up Kev’s weed stash and sold it for enough money to split town together.
- Sheila suddenly had balls of steel when Nana Gallagher drew on her. I’m hoping that, and her sudden willingness to stand up to Frank, represents a sudden reversal of her regression. I’m ready for a happier Sheila, even though I don’t understand how she continues to be a character without an attachment to Frank.
- “One of my unspoken rules is that you don’t fuck someone else while we’re on a date. I thought that was just assumed.” No, you’re in the right on that one Adam. It’s poor form.
- Peggy on Frank’s updates on the lives of her grandchildren: “Frank, shut up, this doesn’t interest me.”