If you’re reading this review, there’s a good chance that you’re the type of person who consistently reads about the television show Shameless on the internet. As a result, I feel like it would be disingenuous if I pretended as though the Showtime series’ ninth season doesn’t have a recent piece of news hanging over it. Some would argue that it constitutes a spoiler, and if you didn’t hear any recent news about the show’s cast and really want to avoid any foreknowledge of where this season is heading, I hope this introduction has offered you enough time to realize that you shouldn’t be reading this.

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However, it is impossible for me to write reviews of this season of Shameless without acknowledging that everything is changed by the news that Emmy Rossum is departing the season early next year at the conclusion of the second half of the ninth season (which will be broken up into two parts, each running seven episodes).

We don’t know if Showtime or the show’s producer Warner Bros. would have released news of Rossum’s departure if she hadn’t done so herself—based on the fact that no immediate statements were released by those parties, it would appear that Rossum surprised everyone when she implicitly announced her decision to leave the show at the end of this season on her social media accounts. It was her choice, then, that we read everything we see on the show this season through the lens of its most important character exiting stage left. There’s still a lot of season to go before that happens, but our knowledge means that every part of Fiona’s storyline will be under more scrutiny than ever before. Beyond anything else, this season needs to provide a good reason for Fiona Gallagher to leave her family behind, while proving that the show—as valuable to Showtime now as it’s ever been thanks to the Netflix deal and its stand-alone streaming service—can go on without her.

No one episode is going to be responsible for that work, but “Are You There Shim? It’s Me, Ian” creates an immediate test of Fiona’s loyalty to her family. When the episode begins, Fiona is busy trying to organize Ian’s bail, looking into getting a loan using her apartment building as collateral. In the past, an issue with the building might have undone this scheme—when they brought up the mechanical room, for example, my brain flashed back to that weird red herring with the guy who moved in all the computer equipment last season that the show never did anything with. But there’s no problem with the appraisal: Fiona can easily get the $50,000, just as she can easily stock up in bulk at Costco. The question is whether or not Fiona should be bailing out her brother in the first place.

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It’s impossible not to read this decision through the lens of Fiona’s departure from this series. It’s Ford who first raises the idea of Fiona not bailing out Ian, after rightfully questioning the logic of bailing out someone who committed a violent and dangerous act and has shown signs of instability while in prison (like telling Fiona there’s no rush on bail since he has to see through the strike he organized among the gay and trans inmates who were being abused by the prison’s ruling class). Can she trust Ian to show up for his trial? Can she trust that he won’t continue to commit crimes as part of his religious crusade, one tinged with a Jesus complex that has only been further reinforced during his time in prison, and exacerbated by the fact he doesn’t seem to be taking his meds? Fiona’s answer is yes, because this is just what her life has been: being a Gallagher means bailing your family out of trouble, at least as Fiona understands it. But has Ian gone too far? Even Lip and Debbie question whether it’s the right course of action, leaving Fiona doubtful up until she makes her decision to bail him out but returns to the prison to find Ian is unwilling to promise that he won’t find himself back on the same violent path as he follows “Shim”—we can’t know if God is a he or a she—into the battle ahead.

I remain frustrated by the way the show has handled Ian: I’m glad the rest of the family is now acknowledging how dangerous Ian’s behavior became last season, but they should have done more to address the situation while he was on the edge of self-destruction, and the idea that only Fiona seems overly concerned about the fact he’s in jail strikes me as a bit strange. While the show has become increasingly siloed in its storytelling over the course of its run, with fewer moments of convergence with the entire family, Ian being in jail feels like something that would bring everyone together, but it doesn’t. Some of this has to do with the fact the premiere seems entirely unmoored from time. I have no idea how long Ian is supposed to have been in jail, or how long Xan has been living with Lip, or how long Kassidi was stalking Carl at military school—every story is dealing with the aftermath of last season, but only in the abstract, without any sense of how long these things have been going on, or what took place in the immediate moments after Ian’s arrest, or Svetlana’s off-screen departure from Kev and Vee’s life, for example. It feels like we missed crucial parts of this story, skipping to moments that are thematically coherent but rendered dramatically inert by their atemporality.

In Fiona’s case, this is further complicated by the fact she spends the episode oscillating between the complex question of whether she should be responsible for Ian after he has gotten himself into this much trouble and the trite paranoia when she discovers Ford has a second phone. I don’t understand why this story exists: even if I cast aside my disinterest in Ford—who is sticking around since Richard Flood is now in the main credits—as a love interest, it diminishes Fiona’s story to have her brother be in jail and have her focus so much of her time on a jealous girlfriend story. I was similarly disinterested in Frank’s overnight STD intervention with the PTA, but at least that story wasn’t distracting Frank from something else important—it was just another kind of worthless Frank story, occasionally worth a laugh but doing little to push the character in any meaningful direction. And so when we know that Fiona is heading in a meaningful direction, and the episode is dealing with a significant thematic part of that direction, to have her also be dropping phones in toilets just seems like a waste of time and Emmy Rossum’s talents.

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This is not a new problem for Shameless, but it’s going to be tough to be as patient with the show—and let’s be honest, I haven’t had much patience the past couple of seasons—knowing what we know. I don’t necessarily love Lip’s story right now, but there’s no pressure on it, and so it’s fine that his own responsibility story with the guardian-less Xan mostly just becomes about how awful it is to hook up sober when you’re at a wedding. The show never bothered to explain who is taking care of Franny with Debbie working as she is, but I think using her as a way into gender in the workplace is a perfectly cromulent instinct. I’m not sure Carl’s military school story has a whole lot to offer the show, but if the young cadet did actually murder Kassidi off-screen, I’m not going to complain about the end of that awful storyline. And as much as Kev and Vee’s storylines continue to be an entirely separate show in ways that do them no favors, I’m appreciative that they acknowledged how Svetlana’s absence would complicate their magical off-screen child care instead of just ignoring the kids altogether. Nothing in this premiere is especially great, but for all of these characters there’s probably still two full seasons to get them to someplace more interesting. The same is not true for Fiona, and it’s impossible to ignore that.

For the record, I’m almost relieved that Fiona is leaving the show. As much as I question what will be left behind when Emmy Rossum and the character she’s brought to life for nine seasons is gone, the idea of the show finally exploring what happens when one of the Gallaghers achieves social mobility and leaves the South Side behind is thrilling in a way the show hasn’t been in years. It means that this season, unlike the last, will add up to something significant, even if that something could also sink the show around it. But it also means it must live up to the expectations that we as viewers have built up for what it will take for Fiona to leave her family behind, and simultaneously work to keep us invested for the post-Fiona Shameless that Showtime will no doubt be looking to order early next year.

That’s a lot of pressure for a season of television, and based on the premiere I’m not sure the current trajectory of Shameless is going to be able to withstand it. I’d love to be proven wrong.

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Stray observations

  • I have so many questions about the decision to open the episode with two CGI rats having sex and then the male rat getting run over by a police car. What is that supposed to mean? Who thought those CGI rats were acceptable? Just such a choice.
  • I completely lost track of whatever logics led to the closeted bisexual husband outing himself, but I thought William H. Macy had some fun with that story, all told. I just don’t care about a stitch of it, and am waiting for the Liam privileged school story to come back to being about Liam.
  • I was super confused by Debbie suddenly realizing once she gets equal pay that her boss has been calling her Jugs this whole time. Did she just not notice before? I am perplexed.
  • I’m curious how everyone is responding to Ian’s prison storyline. On the one hand, the palpable absence of any actual danger seems to be a huge stretch given the nature of his crimes, and the off-screen establishment of what amounts to a union of sex workers is absurd. On the other hand, though, does the altruism of his actions generate sympathy that makes us side with Fiona on bailing him out, as opposed to everyone else? Personally, I have no trust for Ian and no respect for the turn to violence within his cause, but I’m curious how everyone else feels.
  • So it’s one thing to not change the credits to reflect the characters aging, but I feel like they’ll need to change the credits when Fiona leaves, right?
  • In case you’re wondering why Showtime is splitting the season over two blocks: it means that if you’re a Netflix Shameless viewer who subscribes to Showtime in order to watch new episodes as they air, they can get a couple of extra months out of you by stretching out the period over which the season airs.
  • Welcome to another season of Shameless reviews here at The A.V. Club. If you’re a returning reader, thanks for coming back. If you’re new, welcome, and I hope you’ll find these reviews and the comments a productive space to work through your feelings on the season. And for all of you: I hereby solemnly swear that not every review will be a treatise on the impact Emmy Rossum’s departure will have on the show. Just every second review. Pinky swear.

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