Photo: Showtime

As I’ve discussed before, Showtime’s choice to sell streaming rights to Shameless to Netflix has had a clear impact on the show’s audience. With each new season, there will be a group of viewers who binged through the entire series without breaks, experiencing it fundamentally differently than those of us who have been with the Gallaghers since 2011. I’ve even seen YouTube ads where the cast is addressing those viewers, shaming them for missing out on the current season, and encouraging them to subscribe to Showtime’s streaming service so they can keep up with season eight

But as that season continues, it almost feels like the writers are catering to this audience, crafting a season that might only be palatable if it were binged. If you were to burn through the last few episodes in the span of an afternoon, it becomes easier to ignore the stories that aren’t working, the characters who are left isolated in those weak stories, etc. It’s not that the show automatically becomes better when it’s binged: if the writers don’t stick the landing by the end of the season, even binge viewers will notice. But these periods of transition, laying breadcrumbs for the end of the season, are easier to forgive in a binge than when you’re in the moment, forced to sit through an episode where only one storyline is working, waiting for the show to get to the point (or, as I note in the headline above, cut to the emotional resonance the show is capable of).

Beyond the fact that Lip’s storyline has been consistently better all season, it stands out in “The Fugees” because it’s the only one where anything significant happens. Lip is learning more about the perils of co-dependence, but he’s still caught up in other peoples’ lives: he can’t escape the fact that Youens is going to prison, and he keeps running into Sierra and Charlie at Patsy’s. Lip shows progress with Youens: he listens when the lawyer tells him there’s nothing he can do, and instead contributes to his commissary account, a healthy way to show his support. But there’s really no healthy way to support Sierra, given their history, which is why Lip works hard to stay out of her situation: he manages to hold onto the information about Charlie’s baby mama, and eventually Charlie breaks down and does the right thing (once he’s forced to leave dinner abruptly to attend the baby’s birth) without Lip having used it to get back with Sierra.

Photo: Showtime

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It’s a victory for Lip’s new life plan, albeit a short-lived one. There’s a lot happening in this story: Lip’s hookup with Eddie evolves with the introduction of her niece, just in time for an emotional Sierra to show up to the shop just as Lip and Eddie are hooking up, generating a love triangle that feels unnecessary but does manifest as a meaningful test of Lip within this moment. Lip’s story starts moving quickly: Sierra comes to him for support after Charlie breaks the news, Charlie comes to Lip hoping he’ll help them reconcile, and Lip commits to helping him only to have Sierra initiate sex before he can put in a good word. It’s too much story for a single episode, but it’s there so that Lip’s solitude at the end of the episode is more meaningful. Amidst all this chaos, he disconnects himself from the drama, and returns to the shop to work on the motorcycle. The drama will surely continue next week, but his ability to remove himself from it is crucial to his future, and a meaningful progress note for the character.

It is the only such moment in “The Fugees.” While Lip’s isolation feels meaningful, the isolation of every other character has the season in a bad way. Frank’s Canada story has been a complete and utter bust: even if the Canada jokes hadn’t been tired, and even if the refugee characters weren’t worthless, the story struggled to tap into the pathos Frank found earlier in the season, and isolated the character too much from the world of the show. This is a consistent problem across the season, as too many characters have been given storylines that pull them away from the family with no particular value on the other end. It’s not a problem to isolate a character like Carl if the story they’ve developed for him is interesting (his post-prison story was a good example of this), but the crazy girlfriend Kassadi has been a one-note disaster, and doubling down on that story with a misunderstood proposal makes zero impact. That said, Carl’s story gets points for briefly converging with Kev and Vee, a small moment where the writers hopefully reminded themselves that those characters are better served with connected to the Gallaghers, and not stranded on their own with Svetlana’s pointless Russian revenge scheme. Throw in Debbie stumbling into a drug-sniffing dog and using it to fund her welding tuition, and you have a collection of storylines I don’t care about that are doubly frustrating based on how they spread the show thin and keep the characters separated.

Photo: Showtime

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Fiona and Ian’s stories are, admittedly, more complex: there is more happening in Fiona’s relationship with Ford, which intersects with the various elements of her apartment building, and Ian’s history with Trevor and his newfound status as a new age preacher figure at least gives that story a bit of depth compared to his younger siblings. But both stories are struggling because I’m waiting for their purpose to become clear, and the show keeps pushing that back: Ian’s preacher story plays out as I would expect, but it treats Ian’s rekindled relationship with Trevor as a note of progress while ignoring his underlying mental health issues that the show introduced but has subsequently ignored. And while Fiona’s central theme is more clear—and reinforced here as she continues to sleep at the apartment building—her relationship with Ford feels like a narrative dead end, and what we get here adds up to very little. He’s friends with his exes! A worker fell off Fiona’s roof! I’m sure it’s all going somewhere, but the show needs to get there sooner than later.

The best moments in “The Fugees” are when the family gets together: the breakfast conversation before the day begins, Fiona and Lip running life choices by each other at the diner, Vee laying down the law on Carl at the Alibi. But at this point, these moments are few and far between in Shameless’ eighth season, which is making me impatient for when the show and its characters are going to come back together to say something meaningful, instead of drifting along in stories that even a binge viewer might find too meandering.

Stray observations

  • This episode had a disturbing lack of The Fugees.
  • Kev and Vee’s storyline makes the mistake this week of thinking I care about Svetlana enough for her run-in with one of her former prostitutes to mean anything, but I also felt like the show was turning Kev’s “domination” into just him being an asshole, without any comic benefits, which is something the show will need to deal with before the season is over.
  • I thought the roof repairs storyline was weird even before Stacey Oristano (Mindy! Truly!) showed up, so I have many questions about how Fiona’s apology and offer of support will come back to bite her. I refused to believe they would cast her for just this tiny scene, and she confirmed via Twitter she’s around for the rest of the season, so we’ll see how that plays into things.
  • Beyond the absurd idea that the Mounties were on patrol in their dress uniforms brandishing handguns like they were gangsters, my biggest issue with the dumb Canada stuff was when Frank celebrated being in America in the parking lot of Costco, which has stores across Canada. C’mon, now.
  • Maybe there are people who think Shameless is a hilarious comedy and loved Frank punching a little girl, but it felt so far removed from the more meaningful stories Frank had earlier in the season that it just made me sad.
  • How does Debbie have time to get out her welding gear and open a car trunk with a huge amount of drugs in it, all with no one noticing?
  • So, when does Ian do his actual job, exactly, when he’s spending so much time working with the shelter kids?
  • I realize why the scene with Sierra and Charlie exists, but it was super weird to see a scene on this show featuring no series regulars, and no members of the Gallagher family. It feels like something that has happened very few times over the course of the show’s run.

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