As is often the case when a season of Shameless begins, several new readers commented on last week’s review with some variation of “Why do you have a stick up your ass?” The fact is that Shameless coverage is in relative short supply online: while episodic reviews of other shows proliferate across the internet, the same cannot be said for Shameless, despite its Netflix deal creating continued interest. And some of those interested parties come to my reviews and are frustrated to find that the person reviewing the show “doesn’t like it” (not in its current form!) or “is determined to hate it” (not true, but okay!) and comment to make clear that I’m wrong to criticize the show through the lenses I do.
I respect that these people lack a space to discuss the series that isn’t framed through a critical lens, and so I figured I would use this as an opportunity to explore the most controversial part of my critical approach. Despite the fact that Showtime petitioned the Television Academy to submit the show as a comedy exclusively to take advantage of William H. Macy’s reputation in a weak Lead Comedy Actor category, I would argue that based on the show itself Shameless is a dramatic television series. While there are characters and storylines that are built around comic situations, in the end its central conflict and its best storylines are organized around the very real stakes of a family living in poverty on the south side of Chicago. I’m not arguing that the show is trying and failing to be dramatic when it delves into comedy: rather, I’m saying that any comedy the show presents is in service of a dramatic core, which the show returns to when it reaches at the beginning and end of episodes and seasons, as we saw in last week’s premiere.
Put in simpler terms, I want the show’s comedy to mean something, to accumulate into some kind of statement on something significant to the characters or the themes that are at the heart of the show. When the writers used the Alibi as a way to investigate the gentrification of the south side, that was productive: sure, the actual comedy can be hit and miss and the show has struggled with how separated Kevin and Veronica have become from the rest of the characters, but there was something to say. By comparison, though, “Sleep Well My Sweet Prince For Tomorrow You Shall Be King” features an Alibi story with an auto-asphyxiated delivery man, an alley giveaway of his truck’s packages, and then a return pickup scheme with no punchline except Kevin in a delivery uniform. While there’s a brief moment where the show points out that they’re only screwing over a major corporation and a dead—well, unconscious, he wakes up in the credits—man who jerked off in the Alibi’s bathroom, there’s no substance to that commentary, and I couldn’t tell you a single joke that really lands in the subsequent scenes. It’s a dumb story that does nothing but fill time, with no lasting impact on the show’s characters or the issues dealt with over the course of the series.
Now, more than any other genre, comedy is subjective, so maybe you’re reading this and thought Kevin and Veronica’s story was a laugh riot. I clearly disagree, but I also object because we saw how productive Veronica can be as a character on this show when she’s given more substance to work with. In her brief visit to the Gallagher house to deliver the bassinet she stole from the truck, she’s there to give Lip a wakeup call about the challenges of being a parent, and on her way out she chats with Liam about his search for his identity. When I watch scenes like this, I just frankly resent the way Shameless has insisted on using Kev and Veronica as a standalone part of this show, stuck in storylines that go nowhere and are swiftly forgotten by all involved. This episode would have been demonstrably better if they had just kept the Alibi offscreen entirely, and Veronica had simply shown up with a bassinet that they stole off a delivery truck. While I was frankly impressed that they bothered with the continuity with Kevin’s shoes from the premiere, all that did was reinforce that this is the hollowness of the Alibi sitcom: an endless string of whiteboard brainstorms about how to fill time with two characters the show has no long-term plan for.
So yes, part of my issue with Shameless is how it chooses to balance comedy and drama, and this means that I prefer storylines and episodes that lean into the latter. This means that the most impactful part of this episode is Jeremy Allen White’s solo act with “Freddy,” who he’s taking care of while Tami is still in the ICU. It’s weird that the show skips over Lip learning more about her condition and Freddy being released from the hospital in his care (as opposed to, say, with support from Tami’s family?), but the story means something: the bits of observational humor from poop and improvised diapers aren’t high art, but they feel consequential, emerging from a very real sense of fear and uncertainty. The fact White spends the episode mostly half or completely naked has elements of comedy (and audience pandering), but it’s mostly about communicating that he’s as vulnerable as his newborn son. There’s nothing here that we couldn’t have written ourselves after Tami experienced complications—the trope of the unprepared young father forced to care for his infant on his own is tried and true. But it’s also about his character, and promises some type of growth to emerge out of his actions. In other words, it matters, in a way that other storylines in the episode don’t.
Now, the episode’s other major story thread should technically work the same way. While Carl’s return to Captain Bob’s was mostly setup for his new side business, the show is interested in something more consequential in the battle between Debbie and the Gallagher men for control of the household. The basic thesis of the story is that Debbie’s control of the purse strings is bothering her family even when they don’t know the extent of her shopping hypocrisy, and they’re fed up with it. And by the end of the episode, after Debbie has an altercation with a store clerk who requests a blowjob before he’ll accept one of Debbie’s fraudulent returns and somehow turns it into a lesson about how her desire for power comes from a place of self-loathing which means she should give into Mikey’s blackmail, she relents and “restores” Frank’s position as head of household while giving each member of the family a $100 weekly allowance. It is, at the very least, a step forward in the plot of the season and theoretically a growth moment for Debbie.
However, it also makes very little sense, and features some truly unpleasant storytelling on Frank’s side of things. At the end of yet another pointless set of scams that offer nothing we haven’t seen dozens of times before (Oh, it’s a priest this time? Yuk Yuk Yuk!), the story is really about how Debbie is challenging Frank’s masculinity, and how he needs to reassert his place as the family patriarch. Obviously, any long time viewer of the show knows the idea that Frank ever took on this responsibility is a joke, but the episode bizarrely doesn’t really address this. It lets Mikey’s words carry weight, and it has Debbie willingly give power over to Frank while none of her siblings even object to it. Beyond the fact that the comedy of these stories never really landed, the end result feels like it goes against what we’ve learned about this family over time, with no internal justification for what’s changed that would lead Lip to think that Frank running the household was at all acceptable (there’s a fatigue argument, but even that is specious). If the show was finding absolutely hysterical material when telling stories that weren’t adding up, that’s one thing, but for the show to be mostly killing time in well-trod territory and still deliver something that doesn’t add up? It’s a betrayal of what the show could be.
This idea of judging the show based on its potential as opposed to its reality has been a point of contention in past reviews, but I’m confused by this notion. We know that Shameless has the capacity for deeply trenchant dramatic television, as well as comedy that feels fresh and pointed and tied to contemporary issues. Therefore, to see it wasting that capacity on stories that feel beneath it, and struggling to articulate any real sense of purpose in the wake of significant change (Fiona’s exit, in this case), is fundamentally frustrating, and that is what these reviews articulate. And in the bulk of its storylines, this episode of Shameless offers nothing that registers as the writers realizing that they need to do something to truly ignite our interest in this family after the show’s most dynamic and complex character disappeared overnight.
Well, except for Mickey and Ian’s prison sitcom. Yes, this is the long-awaited return of “Gallavich,” as what felt like a rushed cameo from Noel Fisher to send off Cameron Monaghan when he exited the series last season has turned into a significant thread in this season when both Monaghan and Fisher agreed to return to the cast. While I can’t say for certain what convinced the two actors to return, it’s clear that the producers saw their relationship as a way to fill the hole left by Emmy Rossum’s exit, and as a way to win back a group of fans who had largely turned on the show after they completely lost the plot on Ian’s arc after Mickey’s exit. But despite the dramatic heft behind these characters, the episode skips the immediate aftermath of their reunion and jumps right ahead to the point they’re an old married couple, bickering about bowel movements and mayonnaise lube and a wide collection of grievances. And given what I’ve said above, you might think that I disapprove of this decision, given that it directly contradicts my belief that Shameless is at its best exploring the dramatic stakes of its situations (which are ignored here, to the point where Ian and Mickey seem to be facing minimal consequence for stabbing someone at his request).
However, here’s the difference: these scenes were funny. It’s been too long these two were able to throw barbs at one another, and “coleslaw-smelling dick” particularly made me chuckle as delivered by Fisher. With the greek chorus of their fellow inmates complaining about their bickering, the comedy of the scenes is telling us something about their situation, and creating moments of levity around a new stage in a relationship that has an actual sense of continuity (if only because “Gallavich” fans would hold them accountable otherwise). It doesn’t feel like the show is playing the same beats we’ve seen before, and while this is in some ways just because of the shift in scenery and the fact we haven’t seen these characters together in so long, I’d also argue that it’s just objectively sharper than the comedy in the rest of the episode.
In other words, it’s an example of the potential of Shameless when it engages with comedy successfully, which I’m happy to embrace when it arrives. Does that happen all that often in recent seasons? No. Did it happen in a decent chunk of this episode? It did not. But this is an improvement on the premiere because there was the feeling that some—if not all—of these storylines are going somewhere, and have something to say about themes or characters that lie at the heart of the series. That’s a step forward, if not necessarily enough of one to reduce my skepticism of the show’s post-Fiona era.
- There was some really interesting energy from Ethan Cutkosky in his big rant to the young recruit buying his military gear off Craiglist, which then immediately disappeared once he went back to Captain Bob’s. We’re just not going to talk about that whole incident they talked about last week, huh? Sigh.
- Liam’s search for his identity runs through another range of cosplays, before landing on a DNA test and a visit with Frank to his African American relatives, who suddenly live down the street? Given where the show’s at right now, I have no idea if that was a one-off joke or seeding an actual story for Liam, but let’s hope for the latter (and as always, you saw the preview but I didn’t).
- On that note, at one point Carl tells Liam that he should aim to be Lester Holt, and I would like to see the transcript of the writer’s room conversation where they decided Carl would know who Lester Holt is.
- As much as I find Frank odious and wish he was gone, I do appreciate scenes where he briefly slips into parent mode, whether during Fiona’s exit or here as he stumbles upon a panicked Lip and gives him some parenting advice that’s a bit alarming (I mean, dropping a baby is never good) but nonetheless feels like it’s meant to make his son feel better.
- If Franny’s talking, how has she never babbled to one of the other family members about “Mommy’s closet?”
- “You old farts need to get fresh”—I also want to see the transcript on how it was decided this is something a human person would say.
- There’s a lot of exposition missing in the prison scenes in terms of how long their respective sentences are or whether we’re actually meant to see the stabbing as a threat against them, but I can’t blame them for wanting to preserve the simple pleasures of the characters’ return without bogging it down in all of that. (But seriously, seven seasons of writing about Orange Is The New Black means I do need some sense of what the timeline is here.)
- “Hey, let’s bring back Carl’s sexual harassing boss, that was a fun character” is a good reminder that the writers of this show and I just aren’t on the same page.
- Mikey was holding a sharp object, and never thought about threatening to shred the clothes instead of grabbing receipts? (I realize the defense here is that Mikey is an idiot, and he is, but it still bugs me.)
- Lip naming his son after Youens is a bit bleak, given how that story played out, huh? It’s also kind of weird that Lip would choose his middle name if he was aiming for a tribute, but I guess they finally realized there is only one true Clyde.