If you’ve been reading these reviews for a while, you know that I have many thoughts about the tension between Shameless’ inherent dramatic structure and John Wells’ belief that he is in fact making an hour-long sitcom, and so I will spare you the full essay on this topic. But in case you’re new, the show has long embodied a tension between the show it is and the show Wells wants it to be, and it’s been one of the sticking points as it limps into its final season.
However, I sometimes fear that this will be read as my dismissing the sitcom as a mode of storytelling, which isn’t my intention. As much as I don’t think Shameless should be treated as a sitcom, there is a sitcom version of Shameless that can work, and there’s some of that being explored in “Two At A Biker Bar, One In The Lake.” But the problem is that Shameless typically has minimal interest in the observational mode of the sitcom, choosing instead to leverage the genre as a justification for wacky hijinks and plot twists that serve mostly to undermine the dramatic undercurrent of the stories in question. It’s fitting that this close to its end, Shameless delivers such a clear microcosm of its generic confusion, continuing to muddy its path forward to “the end.”
Ian and Mickey’s storyline in this episode is a perfect example of observational sitcom storytelling. The major plot event that was introduced in the previous episode—Lip wanting to sell the house—has global ramifications for the show, but it also has distinct resonances with each character. Ian logically agrees to Lip’s plan—he and Mickey were planning to move out and get their own place anyway, and so why wouldn’t he want to fix up the house in order to get the money they need to do so? But Debbie’s scorched earth reaction to Lip’s idea leads her to attack Ian for just agreeing with Lip by default, which Mickey jumps in on because he’s a shit disturber, leading Ian to change his decision on selling the house solely to combat this claim that Lip is his only friend and everything in his life is built around earning his approval. It also makes him decide he and Mickey need some actual friends, leading them to upscale gyms, home goods stores, and eventually a backyard dinner party turned “Rain On Me” orgy.
I have a bunch of quibbles about this story, and ultimately feel the show undermines these characters and their histories by giving them sitcom storylines that fail to mine the inherent pathos of their relationship, but this was easily the most successful storyline of the marriage era for Ian and Mickey because it was occasionally as funny as the show wants to think it is. It takes the initial observation about their lack of friends—are we going to circle back on who those people were at their wedding then, or nah?—and then spins off into other observations about how these two characters would confront the comic situations they end up in. It’s Ian who’s instigating the friend search, but it’s Mickey who finds the handjobs in the steam room, and whose blunt lube advice wins them the attention of the couple shopping for linens. By the time they reach the dinner party, they’ve realized they have nothing in common with these people and are basically failing at finding “gay friends,” but exploring that topic felt like a natural extension of the characters at this stage in their relationship, and the fact the character growth fizzles out in group sex and a Lady Gaga/Ariana Grande earworm doesn’t feel like undercutting drama so much as underlining the comedy of the situation. Mickey practicing smiling was probably the most I’ve laughed all season, and so I want to be clear that I’m not against Shameless being funny if it’s going to work as well as this story did.
But let’s contrast that with what’s happening in Lip’s storyline, where sitcom storytelling was deployed for an entirely different purpose. Lip’s story is far and away the most dramatic right now: he’s trying to move stolen bikes, he has no job, and while Tami’s not wrong that “moving in with her family and building some savings to start again” is not a worst case scenario, he’s certainly treating it like one given his pride in his self-sufficiency. Throw in the fact that he’s hiding his loss of sobriety from Tami—although we haven’t seen him continue to drink—and you have a powder keg of a situation. And yet for some reason, the episode decides that the way to escalate this situation is to have Kevin and Tommy—Kermit is spared the ignominy of being involved—get into some sitcom hijinks with the stolen bikes. There is nothing observational about these storylines: it’s basically just “Kevin is enough of an idiot that we can have him ride a stolen bike and get pulled over by a cop,” and then a bunch of further idiocy that complicates the story without feeling the least bit motivated by any kind of character action. Why wouldn’t Kevin call Lip and tell him what he was doing? Wouldn’t driving a motorcycle into a badly computer-generated Lake Michigan draw more attention than other potential options? The whole situation was too dumb to be funny, and undermines the seriousness of the Lip storyline that is otherwise played very straight. While Ian and Mickey’s sitcom story serves sitcom goals, here the wackiness of Kevin’s situation with the bikes is sitcom contrivance designed to fuel a story about a recently relapsed alcoholic whose life is falling apart, and the whiplash there is too much for the episode to handle.
There’s similar whiplash in Carl’s story, which seemed like it was heading toward an actual consideration of sexual assault last week before devolving into mascot nonsense as we should have always known it would, but the bigger issue in terms of the show’s balance of sitcom and drama is the character of Sandy Milkovich. Her introduction to the show was classic sitcom storytelling: an unheard of lesbian Milkovich cousin, emerging out of the woodwork as a love interest for Debbie with no personality beyond “Lesbian Milkovich Cousin.” And so it was a bit strange when she was still around at the start of this season, as though she was now just part of the family, despite having absolutely no personality to speak of. The season responded to this issue by having Debbie realize she knew nothing about this person, and then the show added a new layer: she was married! And then the show absorbed that into her story by making her a child bride who was taken advantage of, but that unravels here when it’s revealed that she was actually a teen mom who abandoned her child, a seemingly well-adjusted kid named Prince who gets dropped off at the Gallagher doorstep during a child care crisis with no desire to have anything to do with his mother.
You might argue there’s nothing “sitcom” about any of this, and I’d agree, but the problem is that the show just keeps inventing new details about her life as it’s convenient, which reinforces how much of a shell she is for their whims. Nothing about Sandy Milkovich makes a lick of sense: it’s one thing for Mickey not to know she was married, and for that not to have come up earlier, but the idea he had no idea she had a son is another thing entirely. She exists solely to manifest insecurities for Debbie, and this latest contrivance is the peak of that as she tries to force Sandy into taking joint custody out of a combination of jealousy that she got to have a life after having a baby as a teenager and out of grief for her own mother’s abandonment at a young age. I’m all for Debbie starting to face the music as to her choices and what drives them, but the way the show uses sitcom-level twists in Sandy’s story to fuel it only calls attention to how much of a mess that character has been, and how Shameless struggles to manifest organic dramatic moments in its current form. Even if it ends up being productive that Debbie is taking a traumatic trip down memory lane, the hoops the show chose to jump through to get her there is a symptom of larger problems.
“Two At A Biker Bar, One In The Lake” eventually does push the global story further toward its conclusion, as a frustrated Lip decides to skip the democratic process and start demolition just as the cops show up with questions about the burglary. But because both Lip and Debbie’s stories are full of dumb hijinks and contrived storytelling, it’s hard to feel like the episode generates much momentum in the process. As the show approaches its conclusion, there’s a built-in level of reflection and finality that will make these episodes feel weightier than those in previous seasons, but the show’s bad habits are still lingering, making this a case where the strongest storyline is also the one that has no particular interest in getting caught up in the dramatic side of the show.
- “We don’t all hate each other. We just all hate Debbie”—I gave this a standing ovation.
- So, two weeks ago the show aired a clip show where the family was happy together recording videos for a reality dating show Fiona is allegedly taking part in, and I’m just going to go ahead and say those wraparound scenes are non-canonical, because the family dynamics make zero sense in context, the idea that Fiona would be on a reality dating show is insulting, and it’s then super weird that Debbie at no point connects the dots on how her abandonment issues could describe Fiona just as much as they do Monica. I was frankly shocked she said Monica instead of Fiona given the language, to be honest.
- Speaking of non-canonical: so that mid-credits scene of Carl reporting his rape just didn’t happen? As I note above, we shouldn’t be shocked about any of how this situation played out, but what was that even supposed to indicate exactly? And also, her explanation made zero sense: why wouldn’t she SAY she had a latex allergy and was on the pill? Nothing about the character seems remotely logical, right down to her carrying two clearly empty coffee cups. What a waste of time.
- Mickey and Ian getting “Rain on Me” stuck in their heads and having a dental care dance break was a little too cute, if I’m being honest, but I’ll allow the indulgence.
- Nothing about the conversation at that dinner party made sense: how was that dude creating “Greatest Pop Star of All Time” brackets in his head with no seeding logic? Aguilera is in the finals with Britney as the dark horse? It never rose to the level of satire, and so it just sat there as some really badly approximated ideas of the intersection of queerness and pop stans.
- I actually sort of liked the Frank story’s balance of tones: it’s mostly tragic and bleak, but he also steals a woman’s wallet, and the little moment where the cop presumes he isn’t actually a criminal was a nice little grace note on the whole thing. It’s certainly preferable to the “What wacky sitcom hijinks” mode of storytelling Frank has been trapped in for five seasons.
- I know Shameless producer Warner Bros. owns The Middle, which is why Veronica’s stepbrother/stepchild is watching it as an example of white culture, but at least that show has something to say about class, so I wish they had licensed something more problematically white.
- The choice to depict someone named Prince who named their child Royal as a normal guy who just wants what’s best for his son? I have questions.
- It seems plausible that the floor joists are running in the same direction as that wall, making it non-load bearing, but as someone who watches a lot of HGTV I would’ve at least preferred to have Lip get some dialogue in reference to that before he started destroying it.
- Okay, but seriously, who were all of those people at Ian and Mickey’s wedding?
- Programming note: After a wonky schedule, the show has finally given itself enough production runway that we’re back to weekly episodes through the series finale, which will air on April 11.