Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

If only wonky scheduling was the sole problem with Shameless' final season

Illustration for article titled If only wonky scheduling was the sole problem with Shameless' final season
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

As with every episode of Shameless, “Slaughter” opens with a meta “Previously On” segment introduced by one of our characters, in this case Ian just trying to enjoy some peace and quiet in the bath. As always, he is put out by our need for a refresher, judging us for failing to properly recall what happened in the preceding episode.

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However, in the show’s final season, I would argue that his judgment is misplaced. It’s been three weeks since Shameless aired its first episode of 2021, and six weeks since the episode before that, a schedule that would wreak havoc on the storytelling momentum of any show. But Shameless isn’t just any show: it is a show struggling to find anything to say in its final season, with these lengthy breaks exacerbating those struggles. “Slaughter” is maybe not objectively worse than the other episodes so far this season, but waiting three weeks for a new episode only for the show to stubbornly refuse to course correct from a bunch of dead-end storylines that you had barely thought about in the intervening weeks makes it feel worse. It also makes me wonder how anyone who isn’t being paid to write about the show is weathering this release schedule instead of just holding out until they can catch up with some semblance of regular timing.

Ostensibly, “Slaughter” is an episode about how the Gallaghers are wrong to try to play by someone else’s rules. At Ian’s insistence, he and Mickey started their weed courier business without guns to avoid risking their parole, with only a painted-over AirSoft pistol and camo body armor to protect them from potential threats. But when Mickey’s cousin helps take them hostage and can’t walk away empty handed even if it’s family, they’re out a week’s profit and Ian immediately realizes that he was wrong all along! And so, Ian and Mickey steal an ambulance, get hard thinking about the giant guns they’re going to buy to protect themselves, and then dump the corpse that they find in the back of the ambulance. It’s a tale as old as time for the Gallaghers: you can’t win by playing by society’s rules when society isn’t actually designed to protect you, so you have to take things into your own hands.

And yet, despite being consistent with the family ethos, it plays wrong. Why does a loss of $1000—not nothing, certainly, but not the disaster it could have been—lead Ian to go from “We shouldn’t carry guns” to “Let’s commit another felony, turn on the sirens of our stolen ambulance, dump a dead body in broad daylight, and make plans to buy illegal weapons?” There are about 10 different steps that Ian skipped between “We need to fly the straight and narrow so we don’t go back to prison” and “We’re criminals now and I’m horny about it,” and while I understand how the latter story is sexy and cool, it’s also placing his and Mickey’s lives and futures at risk without a whole lot of justification behind it. If I had any reason to believe the show was committed to logical character actions, I’d wonder if Ian’s meds are out of balance, but we’re long past the point where that’s actually part of understanding Ian’s character. This is just the show reverting a character to what it sees as their basic instincts, less because of something the character is experiencing and more because it’s funny if they’re blue-balled by a body bag.

In the show’s defense, Lip’s version of the same story has had more runway, even if that runway has consisted of me yelling at my TV screen for the entire season—actually, I started in last season’s finale, so it’s been almost a year now—about how absolutely idiotic Lip was to be renovating a house that he was renting. Some of you in the comments tried valiantly to defend the idea that someone would sink $6000 into the house they were renting during a pandemic as an effort to better their living conditions, but there’s a difference between Lip scamming Tami with rejected paint colors and buying new windows. And so you might think I’d be happy to see the show giving Lip his comeuppance and having the man who rented him the house on a handshake naturally decide to leverage his hard work into immediate profit, but this would require the show to actually understand why Lip made this mistake. And as far as I can tell, “Slaughter” makes the argument that Lip was simply too trusting of someone he thought was a friend, with no interest in considering how his historical struggles to achieve upward mobility might have shaped his terrible decision-making. Instead, the show just pivots to an incredibly dumb story about a murder house that’s mostly plagiarized from The Simpsons’ “Reality Bites,” before then pivoting back again when Lip and Tami’s last gasp at home ownership dies when Born Free’s new owners—somehow the “Previously On” does not remind us why Brad had to sell—cut back Lip’s hours, and fire him for complaining about it.

Illustration for article titled If only wonky scheduling was the sole problem with Shameless' final season
Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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The whiplash of the story is an unforced error—if you just skip the comic interlude where Kevin goes on and on about the murder house after Lip tried to hide it from Tami, the story more reasonably connects with Lip’s larger character trajectory, and the detour cheapens the eventual outcome. But that outcome is also another case of the show rushing to something without showing its work, as Lip and Brad ponder their path forward and he pulls out a six-pack and starts talking about their sobriety. The idea that Lip would plan to steal from the shop is a connection to Ian’s theft of the ambulance, reverting back to the “Gallagher Way” when times get tough and the system is destroying you. But I am puzzled by how casually the show links this to Lip’s sobriety, something that the show has more or less completely ignored since having Lip relapse in last season’s finale. Here, the show is combining something that we’re meant to root for—Lip getting back at the douchebag, gentrifying millennials who destroyed his job—with something that I’m horrified by, but the show shifts gears so often that it’s impossible to get a grasp on what to do with that contradiction. There’s a meaningful story about Lip buried in this episode, but I have no faith in the show’s ability to unearth it in the coming months.

Obviously, my lack of faith in Shameless isn’t new at this point, but we’re reaching the point where the show is out of time to resolve it. Even when the writers do eventually get around to realizing when they have a story problem, their resolutions are nonsensical. I’ve been saying since the beginning of the season that Sandy just being a part of the show now makes no sense, and you could read Debbie suddenly waking up to the fact she knows nothing about this person who has apparently been her girlfriend for half a year as a response to that: the writers realized they had failed to actually give Sandy any life outside of being a Convenient Lesbian Milkovich Cousin, and so now they’re going back to fill in the gap. But even if we acknowledge Debbie is a narcissist and as bad a girlfriend as she is a parent, how did she go six months without asking these basic questions and getting suspicious? And how did the fact Sandy was married with a husband not come up when she first showed up as the Convenient Lesbian Milkovich Cousin in the first place, given Mickey apparently knew her decently well? The way everyone in the show just accepted she was there like she was Roy in “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show” never made sense, but having Debbie suddenly wake up to it now isn’t good storytelling: it just underlines the bad storytelling in the season thus far, and gives us another hour of Debbie ignoring her child to focus on her own problems.

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“Slaughter” ends with a bang, as Liam—given Chekhov’s gun by Carl mid-way through the episode—fires a gun in the air in response to continued harassment by the Milkoviches and the bullet finds its way back down into the top of Terry Milkovich’s skull. It plays out as a form of karmic justice for the fact Terry is a literal nazi, but in line with the theme of the episode it could also be a reminder that “going full Gallagher” carries consequences. If we wanted, we could easily tie it back into the fact that the defining moment of Liam’s childhood was when he overdosed due to Fiona’s negligence, but that seems unlikely given that detail was skipped in last week’s “Hall of Shame” episode where Liam learned the lesson of being a Gallagher. Shameless has no interest in consequences, or in character arcs, or in anything that could take what’s happening this season and make it resonate beyond the 55 minutes we spend watching the episode. All it seems interested in is quick thrills, loose logic, and filling time before they stop trailing bread crumbs about Frank’s failing mind—he forgets he tried to kill a woman this week—and get to actually telling a story that matters, albeit one that will be about five seasons late.

When the season is over, we might learn that the same COVID production issues driving the show’s bizarre scheduling were also behind some of this shoddy storytelling. Maybe they had originally planned on having Lip and Tami’s house search take them to Sheila’s old house for one last bit of nostalgia for the early seasons, but the inability to fly to Chicago made that impossible. Maybe they wanted to do more legwork to get to Liam committing accidental attempted manslaughter (Terry is still breathing), but they had to abandon his planned story due to the inability to do large crowd scenes at school. And maybe all of this would have been entirely different if not for the pandemic, and there’s an alternate timeline where Shameless would be using its final seasons as an excuse to course correct instead of just fiddling away having the characters revert to their old ways with little rhyme or reason.

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But given the available evidence of the last few seasons of the show, I think it’s safe to say there’s no timeline where Shameless was ending on a high note, even if circumstances may be why this note feels so particularly low.

Stray observations

  • I can’t commit an entire paragraph to the show’s decision to have Carl invent community policing without getting too worked up, so just know that my deep sigh at thinking about it threw my back out. I will say that compared to the other characters, Carl’s storyline is the only one moving at a logical pace, which isn’t nothing.
  • I struggle to understand how the Milkoviches are shrewd enough to plan to pour blood down the laundry chute to guide Liam to the discovery of the severed deer head, as opposed to just plopping it on the front doorstep. They are far too dumb for that kind of setup.
  • Related, I know that Shameless does have a script supervisor because they insisted on an establishing scene with the laundry chute early in the episode so the blood makes more sense later, although why that individual was unwilling to also bring up anything that happened in past seasons is an open question.
  • That having been said, if we’re following logics: who is taking care of Fred during this episode?
  • Veronica’s journey through the demographic shifts of gentrification doesn’t end up having a lot to say, but I will note that it was a real stretch of the show’s ability to find neighborhoods in Los Angeles that look remotely like Chicago. There was also a scene with Carl and Leesie that was hilariously smoggy, which was some bad luck.
  • On a similar note, some of the angles on the exterior scenes at the Milkovich house were really stretching what the visual effects are able to get away with. I’m curious how much extra time those are adding to their workload, and whether they’re learning as they go in terms of what’s feasible on their budget/timeline and having to make adjustments in production.
  • Given that the show has been building in canonical but ultimately inconsequential frame narratives into the “Hall of Shame” episodes, I’m really curious what Fiona’s looks like in three weeks’ time. It comes after the next new episode, airing February 14, which is the only new episode in the month of February, in case you were wondering if the scheduling issue would be resolved anytime soon.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.