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

Shameless: “A Beautiful Mess”

Illustration for article titled Shameless: “A Beautiful Mess”

The other night, I happened to flip past Comedy Central and stumbled onto “Le Petit Tourette,” a South Park episode from the show’s 11th season, wherein Eric Cartman pretended to have Tourette’s Syndrome so he could say whatever vile thing came to mind with impunity. It was interesting to watch so soon after watching “I’ll Light A Candle For You Every Day,” as it occurred to me that Frank Gallagher is the closest thing on the dial to a flesh-and-blood Cartman. Like Cartman, Frank’s self-absorption is so extreme that there’s nothing that takes precedence over his immediate needs—even a woman’s life, as we saw last week when Frank diverted Dottie’s new heart.

But the writers of Shameless seem to understand, as does South Park’s team, that there are conditions to the audience’s acceptance of a character like Frank or Cartman. The character can’t succeed at his ultimate goal, unless his success is either mitigated by some consequence of the victory or earned by having come at the expense of a worse person. Those conditions are extremely subjective though, which is why an episode like “I’ll Light A Candle” is so polarizing (or to continue beating the South Park drum, why even some die-hards hated “Scott Tenorman Must Die.”) I thought that as repugnant as Frank’s behavior was, it worked for me because Frank suffered for his dirtbag hubris, and Dottie, having decided she didn’t want to keep waiting for a heart, got to go out on her own terms. That Frank created the circumstances doesn’t change the fact that Dottie ultimately got to make the choice that was best for her, and it came at the expense of Frank, who as a consequence of trying to passively cause Dottie’s death, had to instead actively cause it. And judging from his traumatized reaction when he showed up at the Alibi Room with his new flat-screen, that was a task for a dirtbag far more heinous than Frank.

These are points I probably should have elucidated in my write-up of last week’s episode, but they reoccurred to me while watching “A Beautiful Mess,” because so much of the episode didn’t quite work for me. It was a totally decent episode of Shameless—somewhere in the middle of the pack, I’d say. But so many elements of it were off by just a few degrees that it didn’t add up to a great episode. The balance of these episodes has to be precisely calibrated such that their outlandishness is tempered with credible, human moments. “A Beautiful Mess,” which was written by Alex Borstein, was in the right neighborhood, so to speak, but after seeing the writers pull off “Frank fucks a lady to death,” this one didn’t feel quite as impressive.

It helps that the most disappointing element of the episode happened right at the beginning. Lucy Jo Heisner, the scorned wife of the high school crush Fiona slept with last week, shows up to the Gallagher abode and slugs Fiona with a baby strapped to her chest. Turns out, Craig was crushed by the guilt and told Lucy Jo, who is so much of a crazy-wife caricature that she thought it prudent to devote the remainder of the episode to destroying Fiona’s life. It’s in these smaller moments that Shameless can fall apart. Like Monica’s butch, black, lesbian lover in last season, there’s a tendency to turn the volume up to 11 that can throw things off if it’s not executed just perfectly. Maybe it was because Lucy Jo just didn’t seem like Craig’s wife, or because her lengthy, effortful campaign against Fiona rang false. “A Beautiful Mess” was sprinkled with these kinds of “not quite” moments: the return of Jasmine, who is still an incredibly slippery and thinly drawn character; Ethel’s flirtation with fellow teen parent Malik; Jody’s insistence on disrobing in front of everyone; Frank’s efforts to scare Sheila back inside. Too much of the episode felt overly broad.

But there was still a lot to like, including the continued ascendance of Debbie, who is having a terrific season and is making a serious play to replace Fiona as the Gallagher I’m most invested in. Debbie develops what Veronica diagnoses as stress rash, so Fiona insists that Debbie get her friends together for a sleepover. Only then does Fiona realize that Debbie has no friends to speak of. It was for Fiona the moment that all parents, rich or poor, have when they finally realize the consequence of working so much that they lack the time and energy to focus on their children and personal lives. Debbie is essentially a smaller version of Fiona, all put-upon and duty-bound, with a tendency to cast a critical eye towards anything that seems too self-fulfilling. It was great to watch Debbie begin to steal little moments of carefree joy much in the way Fiona learned to do thanks to Steve, who is naturally who Fiona thinks to call whenever everything is going to pot.

It was also a big week for Lip, who went about trying to expose some terrible, game-changing flaw in Jody that would send Karen running into his arms. The best scene of the plot belonged to Lip and Ian, when Ian forcefully questioned why Lip was so obsessed with breaking up Karen’s relationship. It’s obvious to Ian that Lip hasn’t thought through his feelings for Karen, and in spite of his warpath against Jody, isn’t necessarily prepared to give her the type of relationship and commitment she can get from Jody. It’s apparently obvious to Karen too, who rages at Lip for trying to thwart what must feel to her like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be with a guy who doesn’t see her as just some whore, in spite of her having the word whore tattooed on her arm. Of course, if Karen expects Lip to clear the way for her new relationship to blossom, spilling the guts about his gestating child probably wasn’t the way to do it. Twist!


Stray observations:

  • In the tag, newly confident Sheila is nearly flattened by a chunk of an airplane’s landing gear. I sincerely hope this won’t genuinely represent a full regression for Sheila. That would be problematic.
  • Brit Morgan, who plays Debbie Pelt on True Blood, appears as Lucy Jo Heisner. So apparently Morgan is going to be the character actress known for playing mentally imbalanced skanks.
  • Carl is now a house sitter’s assistant… or something?
  • Emmy Rossum is really great. Fiona's bathroom breakdown could have been a disaster, performance-wise, and she completely nailed it.
  • “I was chased from my own house, and now I’m hiding in yours. Holy shit, I’m you.”
  • “Tanisha, this isn’t Jerry Springer, calm down.”
  • “Gimme his fucking wallet and phone, you fucking retard.” “Y’know, that dyke chick on Glee says it’s not cool to use that word.”
  • “You really shouldn’t sleep in your makeup, by the way. Just look at Courtney Love.”