Photo: Showtime

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 forward.

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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.

Photo: Showtime

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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.

Photo: Showtime

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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.

Stray observations

  • 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.

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