Shameless does two things especially well: observational nuggets from the Gallaghers’ cartoonish world of poverty and goofy, weird, perverted little capers. When the show is firing on all cylinders, it’s working both as a skanky slice-of-life, and there’s some little plot arc that seems to be building to something. But here, at the beginning of the third season, there’s not much of anything to grab onto.
There were flashes of classic Gallagher hijinks sprinkled through “The American Dream,” and yet, there’s still not a feeling that any of it is adding up to anything in a hurry. And even as this is usually the case with Shameless, there’s a very different dynamic to watching this show than there was in the first, or even the second season. The Gallaghers and their ways are no longer novel to the audience. The nature documentary layer of Shameless has been stripped away now that the viewer has become familiar with the Gallaghers’ living and mating habits.
I don’t think it’s enough at this point to have Lip gather up the cash for the property tax bill by tricking a bunch of privileged kids into thinking they’re headed to a secret Wilco show. It’s not enough to have Fiona promote her club night using an e-mail list from a phone Veronica lifts off a fellow promoter. It’s not enough to have Frank do gross Frank things like giving a crying baby Valium or calling child services on his own family for no apparent reason. At this point, those kinds of standard Gallagher beats don’t stand in the place of story anymore. I don’t need to know what number the equation is going to spit out, but I need to know that the variables are being moved around in a deliberate fashion, and Shameless is missing that sense of urgency.
“The American Dream” is one of those Shameless episodes that makes me wish the show was about Fiona. Just Fiona. Because the stories this show tells about Fiona are the ones that make me want to watch this show regularly. As much fun as a Gallagher scheme can be, I’d feel comfortable dropping in occasionally to see one of those, but that’s not what makes me watch this show from week to week. It’s a scene like the one in which Fiona is riding high off the success of her maiden voyage as a club promoter, only to watch her pile of money dwindle as Meg, the crooked politician, the liquor distributor, and the staff all took their respective cuts.
I also want as much Debbie as I can get in a Shameless episode, and “The American Dream” was a terrific one for Debbie (and Emma Kenney in the performance) as we see her finally lose her patience with Frank. Debbie’s story could be saddest Shameless has delivered yet. Debbie is the kid who will always see the best in Frank, and to see him finally deliver the heartbreak she couldn’t mend was tough to watch. I almost want them to steal another old lady so Debbie will have someone to talk to.
But with the exception of Debbie, my attention begins to wane when the focus moves away from Fiona. Jimmy’s precarious situation with Nando and Estefania doesn’t interest me a whole lot because Shameless never really sold the Fiona and Jimmy relationship as much as it dumped it into the environment and waited for everyone to get used to it. Will Steve’s continued marriage to Estefania run his relationship with Fiona? I’m not sure it matters much if I’m indifferent to their relationship (and if Fiona is, which seems more the case with each episode).
Ian continues to have ill-advised sex with the worst people he can seek out. Carl has braces now. Lip hates college and wants to watch it die. Kev and Veronica pop in and serve their purpose when the story calls for it. And not that I miss her, but without Karen around to provide the connective tissue between the Gallaghers and the Jacksons, Sheila, Jody, and Baby Hymie are sort of floating off in space. Adding Frank to the Jackson house doesn’t really help that situation either, because it’s just creating a larger cluster of characters I’m not terribly invested in right now.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite get Shameless when it began. I had to learn how to watch it, what to expect, what the whole point of it was. When “But At Last Came A Knock” came along, everything fell into place for me. I understood what the rhythm of a Shameless season is like, which is why I was so lenient with “El Gran Canon.” I realize this show can look like it’s not up to much for a really long time, and then suddenly reveal that everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. But there are just as many examples of characters and plots that never managed to materialize into anything—Jasmine comes to mind—so I’m never totally confident that I’m going to find the ride worthwhile when all is said and done.
Still, it’s far too soon to tell, which is what makes the early going of this season so frustrating. I enjoyed this episode more than the premiere thanks to the Fiona and Debbie stuff. I wish Shameless didn’t always leave me feeling so ambivalent, but now it’s back to being what it started out as: a show I want to like much more than I do.
- It’s a curious and interesting choice to make Wilco the band the kids were so eager to see that Lip could run his parking scam.
- Watching Frank is never a pleasant exercise, but I’ve never liked him less than when he destroyed Debbie’s project and called it a piece of shit. This show can be tough if you don’t find Frank invariably funny.
- Mickey is back to continue demanding sex from Ian without emotional reciprocation. So… hooray, or something.