In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last week celebrating Shameless’ 100th episode, executive producer John Wells—who developed the show for American television—was optimistic about the show’s future beyond Emmy Rossum’s departure at the end of the ninth season.
Wait, let me rephrase that: he was extremely optimistic.
“There’s no end of stories about maturing in your own family and the pull that families have on us. Placing that within the structure of people who are struggling economically and who have to depend upon each other to survive provides endless story material…I could write this for another 10 years. The satirical underpinnings of this notion that there really is class in America is something that we could write about forever. Every day you pick up the paper and there are 10 other stories you could tell.”
I thought a lot about Wells’ words during “Black-Haired Ginger,” the fifth episode of seven in this first part of the show’s ninth season. My immediate thought was that this perspective on what kind of show Shameless is explains a lot about the scattered, ineffectual show that it’s become over the past season, jumping from topic to topic in an effort to be timely but losing track of the character dynamics that once served as the show’s foundation. This episode is the first time all season that Ian being arrested, serving months in jail, and potentially facing 10-15 years if found guilty has felt like a significant story development that affects his entire family, as if before this week half of the family was completely nonplussed about his state of being. What kind of television show has a bipolar character get caught up in a religious crusade while off his medication only to then have his family basically shrug and say “he’s an adult, he’ll make his own decisions?” for four episodes as his plea looms? The answer is the kind of show that prioritizes a dead-end political satire and a #MeToo storyline that—while more effective—really only directly involves the two characters that have been basically entirely disconnected from the Gallagher family by the show’s recent storytelling patterns.
I just don’t understand the decision-making here. Now that Ian’s plea decision is imminent, we get to see him interacting with his family in more detail, and suddenly the show’s stories matter again: Lip and Ian’s conversation after Ian comes back home after considering bolting is among the best scenes of the season, but how is it that it didn’t happen back when Ian was in prison to begin with, a time during which Lip apparently never at any point in time visited or had a heart-to-heart with his brother? While it’s nice to finally see the family uniting behind Ian and confronting his situation, the fact the show does nothing to justify how inattentive they’ve been for four episodes makes it difficult for the show to tap into the emotional potential of the story. When the entire family is behind Ian as he enters his insanity plea, the show acts like this is a pivotal moment for the family unit, but the show has abandoned that family unit in ways that require significantly more labor on their part to earn moments like that one. The siloing of the characters has been a problem for years now, but the way it created almost no consequence to Ian being arrested, sent to jail, and potentially subject to a decade of incarceration was a stress test the show failed on every level.
It also create some significant whiplash: a week after finding Fiona profoundly unreasonable in her sudden political self-interest, I spent the entirety of “Black-Haired Ginger” wondering why she was the only person taking this situation seriously. The consensus among her siblings seems to be that Fiona has an unproductive demeanor when it comes to dealing with situations like this, and she certainly does push herself into Ian’s legal affairs in unhelpful ways. But for some reason, everyone seems to think that Fiona’s problem isn’t just her aggressive treatment of the head of Ian’s religious movement, but rather the idea that she is trying to marshal the resources to help Ian at all. Ian is an adult, you see, and thus no longer Fiona’s responsibility, and if he wants to run away and become a fugitive that’s his decision, and Fiona should definitely abandon her search for him and go see architectural blueprints with her boyfriend instead. Even Lip, who spends the entire episode desperate to find something to distract himself from the emptiness of his life so he doesn’t drink, still doesn’t think he should fill that space with searching for his brother, and Debbie is more interested in trying to prove her lesbian bona fides than doing anything to help Fiona’s cause. Even if we ignore the fact that Ian is bipolar and has a history of refusing to take his medication, the way the episode gaslights Fiona into believing that she was being unreasonable for trying to protect Ian is utterly bizarre. It was one thing when the question was whether she should invest $50,000 in bailing him out, but it’s quite another when his entire future is on the line, and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the show’s inability to tell the difference.
That said, one could argue it’s unfair to judge Shameless’ long-term viability on a story that will be changing dramatically very soon: although the writers didn’t know Rossum was leaving when they wrote these episodes—Wells said in the same THR interview that they are rewriting episodes 13 and 14 to account for her exit—the fact is that the show will likely get to “move on” from Fiona, in the process positioning itself for that 19-season run Wells envisions. But the show has never managed to develop story engines for the younger characters that I could ever imagine anchoring the show moving forward. They just keep giving Carl love interests of various levels of intensity, and while the new one isn’t as odious as Kassidi—who I will remind you was murdered at the start of the season, a fact the show has never revisited—there’s not a lot of story there outside of more rote shamelessness. The younger children have mostly just been treated as empty vessels for the writers to transpose the “issues” Wells thinks the show is well-positioned to address, but often at the expense of any type of seriality or consistent character arcs. The fact that Carl and Debbie barely seem more viable as major characters now than they did when they first took on an expanded role seems impossible, but the show just hasn’t put in the work.
That hasn’t stopped them from trying with Liam, though, and the results are frankly so alarming that I have to disrupt the narrative flow of this review to address them. For the most part, my issues with the lack of clarity in terms of how old Liam is have been a minor annoyance at best: in true soap opera fashion, the choice to recast the role gave them some freedom to play with the character’s age, and I respect their choice. But the way they’ve played fast and loose with his age made the story in which Liam’s pregnant middle school (?) bully pulls him into a supply closet, engages him sexually, and then claims that he’s the father of her child honestly stunned me. Given that the teachers were just suggesting having him skip a grade (or more) by moving to sixth grade in the fall, this means that Liam is at most nine years old, and yet even that seems a year too high given the level of work he was doing in public school, and yet here he is caught up in a random pregnancy scare that gets erased by a midnight delivery of the girl to family planning services.
Yet despite these more substantial stories, my question is simple: Who is Liam Gallagher? I would argue the show doesn’t know, and it’s a problem. They’ve resisted returning to potential developmental difficulties from the cocaine overdose, and none of Liam’s awareness of his race being used by Frank or his private school has ever echoed in his interactions with his siblings. He’s there to electrocute his father’s genitals, and is carrying around a pocketknife for no reason, but who is he supposed to be? What are we supposed to want for him? The show’s disinterest in these questions means that Liam is entirely disconnected from the central questions of family that once drove the show forward, and which feel at this point like a distant memory.
And how are we supposed to be excited about the idea of ten more seasons of Shameless if that’s the case? I agree with Wells that there’s room for a show focused on issues of class and the topics of today, but the whole point of Shameless was that it invested us in one family’s navigation of that reality. But the show has increasingly lost sight of that family unit, and the only place the topical stories really work is in the land of Kevin and Veronica. You could absolutely reframe Shameless as a show about the Alibi, its patrons, and the neighborhood around them to generate ten more seasons of stories. However, the idea that this would be anything more than a shell of the show Shameless once was is fundamentally naïve, and does not bode well for the show’s future even if they get out of the rut they’re currently stuck in.
- Remember when Lip was willing to pay $10,000 to keep Xan, and then just gave away that same $10,000 so that she’d have a chance to survive with her mother? Well, Shameless doesn’t, since it was cut out of the “Previously on” recap entirely. The attempt to reframe Lip’s Xan situation as an attempt to distract himself from his alcoholism is clumsy anyway, but using it to gloss over the financial dynamics of the previous episode is absurd. How is this a show about class if the loss of $10,000 doesn’t merit even a mention?
- Are we supposed to be worried about Lip doing illegal street racing? I mean, I don’t like the idea of him being arrested or injured, but I’m trying to figure out if we’re supposed to think it’s suicidal or something, but I feel like all this episode really did was give Jeremy Allen White’s arms their moment in the spotlight.
- So they remember Frank had a liver transplant, but Liam’s overdose is off the table? I do appreciate the continuity, though, even if it felt like Frank’s story was just a way into Katey Sagal’s appearance as his latest mark. I like Sagal a lot, and I hope she and Macy can make the most of a Frank story that’s definitely not going to go anywhere because they never do.
- It’s weird to bring back Jessica Szhor as Fiona’s lesbian neighbor for Debbie’s story but in no way show her interacting with Fiona. Are they just not friends anymore? Why haven’t we seen them around the building? I know there are contractual or scheduling reasons that might justify this, but when Debbie showed up at their door it raised all sorts of questions about where they and the other residents in the building have been in previous episodes.
- I know Ford eventually apologizes, but the level of butthurt he has over an exhibition of rare blueprints that Fiona clearly doesn’t care about and which Fiona missed because he was worried her brother was trying to skip bail is nuts, and I continue to be so perplexed why they invested in this partnership for the season if Ford was going to remain this vacuous.
- That said: Fiona putting on such a generic U2 song was an attack.
- “I want to hug all women. All of them”—I know that the show loves “satire” as a dominant mode, but I wish the women’s equality march speeches hadn’t leaned so much into punchline. I don’t think Kev’s discomfort required them to be quite so punctuated, and his realization that it wasn’t his place to speak could have resonated just as well.
- I love how Ian was just allowed to give a big speech while delivering his plea, as opposed to—you know—working out the terms of an insanity plea with his attorney and the prosecutors. He doesn’t even ask if he can give a speech! He just starts giving a speech! Insanity, indeed.
- If you would like to attempt to square the reasoned and self-aware conversation Ian has with Mickey’s father about prison with the way that character has historically responded to his son’s sexuality, please be my guest. I get why you might like the joke about his insistence that Milkoviches don’t bottom, but why would a noted homophobe so casually use that language, and why would he give Ian the time of day to begin with? The writers’ “Who does Ian know who went to prison?” brainstorm wasn’t a bad one, but that conversation needed to be far less casual for it to make a stitch of sense.