Photo: Paul Sarkis/Showtime

Note: This week’s episode of Shameless is now streaming and OnDemand from Showtime ahead of its linear airing in the show’s regular timeslot on Sunday evening.

Shameless’ “Previously On” sequences have always been charming. The ritual of reminding the audience what happened in the previous episode can often feel arbitrary, and so the direct address of the audience judging them for not tuning in the previous week allows them to make an impression and reinforce the ragtag aesthetics of the show itself.

But even with Lip expressing his frustration with our negligence, the “Previously On” for “Frank’s Northern Southern Express” is far from charming. Rather than refreshing my understanding of the season’s ongoing storylines, it serves only to highlight how frustrating the last few episodes have been. The storylines over the past few weeks have barely made sense when played out over entire episodes, and cutting them down to a couple of scenes does nothing to clarify the show’s goals. After building to what felt like a complex exploration of class with Ian and Fiona’s conflict over the church, the season disintegrated in front of me, and this “Previously On” only highlighted how scattered the show’s storytelling is right now.

“Frank’s Northern Southern Express” does nothing to keep the season off its downward slide, even if it’s an improvement on last week’s low point. It once again finds its most dynamic material in Fiona and Lip’s ongoing stories, but fails to build anything significant outside of those two characters. The two elder Gallagher stories are pretty similar thematically, focused on how each character needs to learn to focus on themselves rather than tying their lives to the people around them. The difference comes from the fact that Fiona’s problem is her family, for which she remains responsible in the case of the minors, given that she is their guardian. For Lip, it’s his investment in Sierra, and his discovery that Charlie got another woman pregnant before he and Sierra got back together.

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The Lip storyline is the episode’s strongest because it pushes the character in a productive direction. Lip doesn’t immediately tell Sierra in some ill-advised attempt to win her back, and gives Charlie multiple opportunities to tell her himself before he starts to boil over. And all the while he interviews potential new sponsors, gradually realizing that the first tough love sponsor—played by Orange Is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria—was right to refuse to listen to his blabbering about his girl problems. Lip has been working through his sobriety by focusing his attention on trying to save Youens, rescue Brad, and protect Sierra, but at no point has he really stopped to think about what he needs to do himself. He’s not failing at sobriety so much as he’s missing the piece of the puzzle that will create long term change, and seeing him come to terms with his need to focus on self-improvement is a welcome development.

Photo: Chuck Hodes/Showtime

Fiona’s story, meanwhile, is a little all over the place. The story is not surprising: there was no way Fiona wouldn’t end up in a romantic situation with the Irish woodworker Ford after the way he was brought in last week, and ever since the show introduced the apartment building the allure of Fiona having her own apartment has been hanging over the storyline. But I really wish that we could have brought Fiona to the latter point without having to create a convergence of Gallagher craziness: there’s a lot happening in this episode, but it seems like the only real purpose to a story like Carl’s crazy hostage-turned-girlfriend is to contribute to Fiona’s need to escape. While I appreciate that Fiona checks in on Carl and Liam—the two “kids”—to make sure they’re okay, I wish it felt like the show wasn’t overcomplicating Fiona’s life simply to push her to a point that I think she could have reached without such a clear trigger, and with more self-reflection and honest assessment of her life. Fiona wanting her own space shouldn’t require more craziness than usual, but the crazy felt dialed up a bit, especially in the case of the Carl storyline that just makes zero sense to me. Why does Fiona’s desire for independence need to be reactive instead of proactive?

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Fiona’s architecture date with Ford is similarly uneven. I appreciated the journey through the South Side’s architectural past, and there’s some nice location work, but the whole “complicated” story is messy. The scene where the family starts listing off Fiona’s past as evidence of her being complicated is funny, but I dislike the suggestion that Fiona lacks any and all self-awareness. Given what Ford witnessed in the previous episode in the battle with Ian, how does Fiona think she’s just another 28-year-old? I don’t mind Fiona lacking a full grasp on her messy existence, but her indignation felt overstated. The reveal that Ford is a prolific sperm donor for Chicago’s lesbian community is a fine one for the budding relationship, but I wanted Fiona to have a bit more agency in this turning point of her story.

As for the rest of the episode, the show is just in a rough place. Sometimes this is because a story has no particular point and not enough strong moments to make it work: Carl’s crazy girlfriend is neither funny nor interesting, and after a great start to the season Frank has fallen into a dud of a Canadian Coyote storyline that I kept waiting to feature any joke or dramatic moment to justify such lazy Middle Eastern archetypes. Debbie’s storyline at least has insight into the limited food options available from food banks, but the show still hasn’t done enough to make standalone Debbie storylines sustainable for me. It’s possible the show has a logical end point in mind for all three of these storylines, but there’s very little of value in this particular episode, which drags the whole thing down.

Photo: Paul Sarkis/Showtime

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The biggest issue with “Frank’s Northern Southern Express,” though, is whatever the hell is going on in Ian’s story. The idea of Ian facing off with a gay conversion preacher who is preying on the shelter kids Ian and Trevor are looking after is not particularly inspired, but it’s logical enough…if it wasn’t coming after an episode that raised serious questions about Ian’s mental health that this episode completely ignores. It is insane to me that the show would raise those questions and then just push them off to the side, not even bearing a mention in the aforementioned “Previously On” sequence. How is there not a scene where Trevor confronts Ian about his willingness to get in a fistfight with the father during the church confrontation? (A conversation I believe even Mickey, king of fistfights, would have felt was necessary.) How is what happened in the previous episode reduced to Ian throwing the situation with the Church into the list of Fiona’s “complicated” narrative? It is dysfunctional for the show to raise such significant and meaningful questions about Ian and then fundamentally ignore them, derailing the shelter storyline by pretending like it’s not colored by these developments.

This is clearly a transition episode for the show, and by all accounts we’ll be seeing more of Ford, Kassadi, the Shelter Kids, and Frank’s import-export business. There is still a chance for the show to turn what happened in this week’s episode into something meaningful in the New Year. But outside of Fiona and Lip’s stories, nothing in this episode feels like it would warrant inclusion in a “Previously On” sequence, and that makes for a rough transition.

Stray observations

  • I will not be discussing Kev and Vee’s storylines in the main review until they get a storyline worthy of it. Steve Howey continues to do fine work with Assertive Kev, but the level of isolation here does this storyline no favors, and the comedy levels were pretty nonexistent. I want so much better for them.
  • As a Canadian, I wish any of the Canada jokes would have been remotely clever? Bieber jokes? Frank singing “My Heart Will Go On?” Much as a I kept waiting for something to happen to Frank on his journey, I kept waiting for a Canada joke that felt inspired.
  • I also couldn’t help but recall my impatience for Weeds’ Coyote storyline, which also took a few episodes to go anywhere.
  • This is Emmy Rossum’s second directing gig on Shameless, and there were a couple of flourishes: the coffee machine spout right after Carl’s car handjob was the most obvious, but I personally liked seeing how Rossum shot Fiona’s shower scene. It’s rare that a lead actress gets to explore her own body through the camera like that, and I thought Fiona’s story was at its best when it was exploring her moment of calm and independence without being caught up in dialogue or narrative. Some nice subtle reworking of the gaze there.
  • I appreciate that when they wanted to indicate that Ian’s confrontation with the preacher had spread online, they went with 1000 views instead of something absurd. Curious to see what his “viral” video unearths, if anything.
  • I’m glad Fiona saved the dog, don’t get me wrong, but I really wonder who’s taking care of it when she’s busy running around. The Gallaghers are not responsible pet owners, by nature.
  • “To False Fear”—I mean, I get what Frank is getting at here, but I’d argue that people from the countries attached to the Travel Ban have plenty to fear in the contemporary United States (or, to a lesser extent, Canada), so I found it all a bit uneasy.
  • As this is “Episode 808" of a show set in Chicago, I figured 808s & Heartbreak was the only fitting soundtrack for writing this review.

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