Except in extreme cases, I tend not to be able to pick out the subtle differences between the way one writer writes an episode of a television series versus the way another one does it. I certainly keep track of who is writing episodes that particularly impress me (for example, if I see Meredith Steihm’s name on an episode of Homeland, I know it’s time to silence my phone), but if I didn’t see a writing credit before I watched something, eight out of 10 times I probably wouldn’t be able to discern a difference.
Of course, this is as it should be. It’s really impressive when a group of people can collaborate to create something that feels cohesive, even though there were a lot of fingers in the pot. But even in the best of outcomes, there are some writers that grasp a show or some of its characters better than others. In the case of Shameless, that writer is Mike O’Malley. O’Malley’s name is one of two—the other being Alex Borstein—that surprisingly popped up in the writing credits during season one, and “The Helpful Gallaghers” demonstrates how firmly O’Malley grasps the Shameless voice at its best.
This is an episode where all the plots more or less worked, showed humor and heart, and had a generous amount of tension that didn’t feel forced or contrived. But more than that, “The Helpful Gallaghers” was funny. Like, really, really funny, as if it’s O’Malley’s only shot at writing an episode this season and he decided to drop as many zingers as he could fit into one. And honestly, I was a bit surprised. I’m not used to enjoying Shameless quite this much when Chloe Webb isn’t around.
To choose the best example of how well this episode worked for me, let’s start with the fact that I didn’t hate watching Frank this week. Was it because he was being different? Less awful? More human? No, not really. (I mean, yeah, he was stabbing a baby last week, but go with me here.) Frank was hilarious this week, even when he was spouting racist invective, even when he was convincing Jody to forego his sexual sobriety to literally save his own rear, even as he doubled-down on his cancerous Carl ruse. Frank had more amazing lines this week than I can count on both hands. (Not to mention, William H. Macy delivered a pretty great performance, with his reaction to Carl’s “I love you” a particular highlight.)
It’s one of the few times Frank’s involvement in a story felt totally organic and improved it rather than becoming a scuzzy distraction. More than that, although I groaned slightly when I realize the show was delving back into Sheila’s anal fixation and the satisfaction thereof, I found myself gradually sold as it morphed into a pretty compelling and interesting depiction of a character’s sexuality and what it says about that character, something Shameless tends to do well. Sheila’s need to exert control over her men by doing something sexual despite—nay, because of—the fact they don’t want her to made good psychological sense back when her agoraphobia left her powerless, and it makes just as much sense now that Hymie has upended her life. The peek into Jody’s struggle with sexual addiction was equally fascinating, and like the rest of “The Helpful Gallaghers,” it was peppered with hysterical dialogue. (“You guys make coming to work such a delight,” “I WANT EVENTS,” Frank’s line about God giving the rectum a gag reflex…I could continue.)
While it’s less surprising as an enjoyable Frank-Sheila-Jody story, Fiona had a great story this week too. After blackmailing the detestable grocery store manager into giving her day shifts, Fiona finds out why Bobby’s behavior is so brazen. This is his modus operandi: he hires hard-luck women and pressures them into pleasuring him, knowing they won’t be able to find other work easily. Truthfully, this strains credulity a bit. I can’t quite buy that this many women would put up with being sexually harassed in such an egregious, disgusting and forthright manner, particularly in an ultra-litigious, post-Hot Coffee world where everybody knows you can sue if your boss is a horrible, lecherous pervert. What I did enjoy was Fiona trying to go all Norma Rae and lead her co-workers in an uprising, only to find out that many of the women have chosen to stay in their situation because they’ve decided the benefits outweigh the occasional spooge-stained blouse. In this case, the helpful Gallagher was surprised to find that her help was unwanted.
It reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the first season of Girls, in the episode where Hannah is horrified by the peculiar sexual politics in her office and tries to rail against them—based on nothing more than her liberal-arts curriculum-based feminism—only to find out the situation is less black-and-white than she imagined it. (But if I was to vote in a television version of “Who Wore It Best,” I’d give the edge to Girls, as their take involved a boss whose behavior was more subtly inappropriate as opposed to here, where we’re essentially talking about a serial rapist who apparently isn’t called out because he lets his victims take home wilted flowers.)
Of course, Shameless has never striven for subtlety, and “The Helpful Gallaghers” delivered every bizarre thing that makes the Gallagher universe what it is in spades. Carl’s trip to cancer camp was a fun and weirdly touching self-contained adventure, while Lip and Mandy got a more emotional story as they drove to Milwaukee in the ice-cream truck to retrieve Molly, Mandy’s younger half-sister whose mother overdosed on meth. Obviously taking Molly to Papa Milkovich wasn’t an option, given his proclivities, so after failing to find a proper home for her, Lip and Mandy take her to Gallagher Manor, which is the least improper home for her, for what that’s worth. But it shouldn’t be long before the tension between Mandy and Fiona comes to a head, as Fiona is concerned to see Lip agreeing to play house with her. Fiona, like most everyone in Lip’s life with a little more life experience than him, still thinks he has a shot at making it out of the neighborhood, and yet even after dodging the Karen bullet, Lip still seems set on making whatever choice will limit his future options.
If there was one thing that left me a little cold this week, it was the way the episode handled the reveal of Lloyd and Ian’s dalliance. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but given how long that situation has been simmering, I expected something a little more exciting. The way it went down felt a little wrong and a bit too compressed. I get that Lloyd was drunk, but for Lloyd and Ian to suddenly be so forthcoming about their situationship rang slightly false. And though the muted fallout felt emotionally credible, and the final shot of Fiona with her head on Jimmy’s shoulder was a nice note to end on, I’d be lying if I said I don't want that entanglement to bear more fruit. What can I say? I WANT EVENTS.
- My apologies for not mentioning that we’d be off a week for the Super Bowl!
- To get my final complaint out of the way up front, I really wasn’t crazy about Molly’s “girl penis” and the shot of her peeing standing up. Frankly, it’s not a story I trust this show with specifically because of a shot like that, which goes for a really cheap laugh and represents how craven this show can be even as its trying things no other show would.
- One of many killer Frank lines this week: “If ignorance is bliss, then Down’s syndrome must be euphoria.” I can’t stay mad at Frank when he’s saying things like that.
- One more: “City pools are filled with city kids. And by that I mean black kids. Who swim. Little stereotype breakers.” (Embarrassing fact about your weekly recapper: I must share in the responsibility for the stereotype; I’m a black adult who can’t swim. But I start lessons this month!)
- Carl’s camp buddy asks him if he’s seen Lake Michigan. “What’s that?” Carl says.
- As I took notes while watching, after the Blowjob Town Hall voted not to rock the boat with Bobby, I wrote “Democracy sucks,” then thought about it and laughed for, like, seven minutes.
- When I wrote up “May I Trim Your Hedges?”, the bizarre irony of inviting Papa Milkovich to join a pedophile-hunting mob didn’t actually cross my mind until I read the discussion of it in the comments. But given how that history hasn’t slipped Lip’s mind, it seems especially odd now. Lip, that dude raped your girlfriend who also just so happens to be his daughter. Act like it, maybe?
- Not much of Kev and V this week, but they have fully made up and are trying to get pregnant. Man alive, are they ever trying.