The cycle of a soap opera—and Shameless is, at its core, a soap opera—requires tests. Characters
who have a tendency to make bad decisions (so crucial for a soap opera to
function) will have moments of progress, but then something or someone will
emerge to challenge that progress. The more the cycle repeats, however, the
more we learn to distrust progress, knowing that inevitably something will come
along to upset the balance and erase the growth that had pushed the characters
I raise this point because watching Shameless right now is something of an uncanny experience. I find
myself continually waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, watching
every scene to see if this will be
the thing that tears the family apart, reverts Francis to Frank, undoes Lip’s
sobriety, and/or upends Fiona’s upward mobility. “Fuck Paying It Forward” is,
as Frank notes, a test of the family’s growth, but it ends with the family
passing the test without any clear signs that things are about to go off the
rails. And while I appreciate this, my lack of trust means that I still find it
difficult to become comfortable in an environment where the Gallagher family
both has it together and remains together, without the fissures that defined
the past few seasons.
The primary test here is Sean’s return, which gives Emmy
Rossum her most dramatic work of the season to date. His return is pure soap
opera: he was written out quickly (Dermot Mulroney had his short-lived CBS show
to keep him busy), and with significant unfinished business for Fiona, meaning
that it was inevitable that he would return. I don’t know if I actually wanted
to see Sean again, or that his return accomplishes a whole lot: he shows up
clean and married, Fiona grapples with the feelings she suppressed when their
wedding fell apart, and Fiona eventually unloads her frustrations on the wrong
woman, sure, but what’s the takeaway? The episode ends with Fiona retelling the
story of her accidentally convincing another woman her husband was using drugs
again, and the family sits together and laughs. Did this help Fiona make a
decision as to her own romantic future? Did this definitively close the door on
Sean? There’s something cathartic about Fiona’s emotional rollercoaster, but
the way the episode just subsumes this reaction into the current bliss of the
Gallagher clan is, again, a bit unsettling.
There was more clarity in Lip’s storyline, which felt like a
connect-the-dots exercise based on what was introduced in his story previously.
Taking the sexual angle on his sobriety—rather than focusing on the lack of
relationships—fits Lip’s past activity, and I liked the absurdist stripper wet
dream as a way of representing his overactive libido. The intersection with the
previously introduced Eddie doesn’t do much to flesh out the character—we knew
she was violent, and an attractive young woman introduced in proximity of Lip,
so their angry sex feels more like inevitability than a significant
development. But after some heavy stuff with Youens, Lip’s story deserved a bit
of levity, and the dramatic side was still well represented by his journey in
and out of a bar for a Tinder date, a journey into the all-too-known.
Elsewhere, though, it’s shocking to see the show remove the stakes from characters’ storylines that so often used to be on a knife’s edge. Frank—sorry, Francis, I still resonate with the hard K—ingratiating himself with the parents at Liam’s school with his old-fashioned masculinity is a typical storyline for the character, but the Saint Francis of it all means that there’s no clear stakes to the storyline. I keep waiting for there to be some hint of temptation to turn the experience into a con, or for it to jeopardize Liam’s place at the school, and we do see some seeds of that here with the introduction of another young black student (thus meaning Liam is no longer the token diversity student, and could easily lose his scholarship). But the show underplays this dynamic, at least for now, focusing on Frank as an object of lust for one of the moms, a story supported by Macy’s graceful aging but continuing to revel in Frank’s progress without much of a hint at the inevitable fall from grace.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a show
pushing back against expectation. I expected Kev and Vee’s trip to Kentucky to
devolve into more of a comic scenario, but appreciated that the show went subtler,
undermining the family’s original kindness with news of the fact they
purposefully abandoned “Bart” but resisting madcap hijinks as their trip came
to a close. I think it is in Shameless’
best interest that it avoids going “Full Shameless”
with every story, and have always found the show’s outsized comic impulses to
be its worst instinct. But there’s something weird about the show settling into
a story like Debbie’s by erasing the stakes that once defined the show: she
loses her house but comfortably resettles into her old bedroom, her problems
now focused on how she’s missing Franny’s first steps while building her
future. The show glosses over the fact the grandmother providing child care
once tried to kidnap Franny to tell a story that lets Debbie into the safety
net currently beneath the Gallaghers without any clear consequence.
“Fuck Paying It Forward” is a clear transition episode: Sean’s arrival doesn’t feel like a long term arc, Lip’s storyline is defined by the absence of strings, and outside of Lip’s sexual frustration and Kevin’s questions about his background, none of the stories reach a clear point of “resolution” in the episode either. It’s just a stop on a journey toward what I continue to feel must be some kind of fall for the Gallagher family, but this continues to be a season defined by a lack of global stakes in the storytelling. It is a season where the Gallaghers are all under one roof, and where they keep no secrets, constantly communicating with one another about what is going on with their lives. It’s a recipe for progress, which means that I keep waiting for someone to forget the baking powder and put Shameless back on its usual track.
- What Is Ian Even
Doing?: Look, I’ve got nothing on this whole Ian story. Is the argument
here that his reckless detour into helping at-risk youth with zero training or
information about their lives is a productive byproduct of his blatant attempts
to win back Trevor who has repeatedly insisted he is not interested? That
somehow he’s going to discover something about himself—here helping an incest
survivor from going down a path similar to Monica—while refusing to let a
relationship die? I can see the logic of the story, but I wish the show could
tell it while also letting Ian grapple with his other struggles (his bipolar
disorder, his other past relationships) instead of just resolving them like
they resolved Debbie’s child care problems.
- Kev and Vee’s trip to “Kentucky” was in truth a journey into
the one spot of greenspace on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank—the body of water
we see them driving by in the first shot is the same lake Luke pushed Jess into
on Gilmore Girls, among other
appearances in any show shot on the lot. If you ever want to annoy a tour guide
at Warner Bros., start listing shows so she can’t get a word in edgewise when
you get to that part of the lot. It’s not obnoxious at all. I swear.
- Lip’s sponsor named his new baby Miles—well, I presume it
was Miles, I don’t have closed captions on screeners. If it was actually
spelled Myles in the closed captions, then I am choosing to accept this as some
type of message.
- So oddly enough, the biggest “other shoe” is Fiona’s new
tenant Bahir, who moves in huge amounts of technical equipment that immediately
overloads the breaker and shows his plans to take advantage of Fiona’s
“utilities included” lease. This could be
something that creates financial strain and generates real conflict in the
landlord storyline. Or, given current trends, Fiona could just update the
breaker, and the tech side of things can serve some entirely different
function. I don’t trust my instincts with the show anymore.
- Tonight’s episode was directed by Regina King, who has been
increasingly busy as a TV director in addition to her Emmy-winning turn on American Crime with William H. Macy’s
better half Felicity Huffman. I particularly liked her approach to shooting
Lip’s journey into and out of the bar, especially as a contrast to the dream
sequence that opened the episode.
- “I don’t do snail mail”—Bahir is kind of the worst, beyond
the fact he apparently planned to run a computer farm out of that apartment but
never thought to check the building’s electrical capacity? Dude.
- Nope, still not comfortable with shows relitigating the
election through jokes or hats or anything else, but thanks for checking, Shameless.
- Carl’s quest for revenge on the junkie thief in the
neighborhood is a logical Carl story, but the way it resolves—he catches him to
end the episode—is bizarre. Is this going to get brought up again? Will he join
the Neighborhood Watch? Will he have to supply
his own knobs?
- Liam’s first steps: on the train platform, when Frank didn’t
even know he could crawl and where he almost walked onto the train tracks.
Debbie’s first steps: Monica’s first booking.