Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A pandemic-fueled premiere suggests Shameless is still content to limp to the finish line in its final season

William H. Macy
William H. Macy
Photo: Showtime
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The opening scene of the Shameless pilot, which debuted almost a decade ago in 2011, introduces us to the Gallagher family gathered around a bonfire—okay, it’s a car on fire, but that technically counts—in their South Side neighborhood. But if you haven’t revisited the pilot in a while, you may have forgotten that it is Frank who introduces us to the Gallaghers through voiceover. Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam—and even Kev and Veronica—are all framed through the eyes of Frances Gallagher, our window into this lower class world.

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But the rest of the pilot pushes back against this framing: as soon as the cops break up the party and the title card comes up, we shift to a shot of Fiona wiping off the bathroom mirror, and starting her day waking up her siblings and ensuring they all get to school. And by the time the episode ends, the whole family is gathered together in the kitchen for breakfast, but Frank is no longer narrating the action; instead, he’s unconscious on the kitchen floor while JimmySteve joins the Gallaghers at the table.

In “This Is Chicago!,” Shameless’ eleventh and final season premiere, John Wells returns Frank to the role of narrator, both in an opening scene that’s revealed to be a tall tale about Gallaghers in Chicago’s history and in the final scene, which mirrors the end of the pilot as the Gallagher children—and their various husbands/partners/girlfriends/children—gather at Lip’s house for dinner. There, much as in the pilot, Frank takes stock of each of his children—except the one who left the show and which the show refuses to acknowledge—for the benefit of the audience, talking about “family helping family” being the Gallagher way. We then see Frank on a bench waiting for the train, breaking the fourth wall and talking about how “his Chicago” is disappearing fast but he’s going to enjoy every last minute of it; the train then flies by, leaving behind an empty bench with “Fuck 2020” on it.

Perhaps Wells believes that this universal sentiment is enough to get me to ignore the rest of what’s going on here, but if so he clearly hasn’t been reading these reviews for the past five seasons. It’s no secret that I’ve been heavily critical of Shameless for many reasons over the past few years, but my biggest issue has always been the idea that Frank is anything but a sideshow. To return him to a place of omniscient observation here is perhaps an understandable instinct to symmetry as a decade-long journey comes to an end, but it ignores the fact that Frank is no longer a part of the Gallagher family. This idea that Frank is paying any attention to his children’s lives is a hard pill to swallow in an episode where he interacts with none of them, cordoned off in a COVID-focused storyline with Kev and Veronica like the directionless side character he’s been for pretty much the entire five years I’ve been writing about the show. And the idea that he’s allowed to talk about “family helping family” and the “Gallagher way” is frankly insulting to viewers who’ve watched him continue to disregard that family even in Fiona’s absence. The point of Frank’s voiceover is to reflect on how much has changed in a decade, but the fact he’s doing the voiceover at all reminds us how much Wells and his writing staff have failed to recognize the impact those changes should have had on the narrative core of the series.

I understand that Shameless continues to find Frank useful, but the results are never actually interesting, nor do they ever add up to anything. The choice to set Shameless’ final season in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic means that we land on Frank throwing out talk of “the Vid,” calling it a hoax, and thanking China for manufacturing the virus and thinning out the number of coffee shops, and the show loves this kind of shit: every season, Frank becomes an inscrutable mouthpiece of the latest hodgepodge of current events, and we’re just supposed to lap it up because he’s controversial and unfiltered. But while Frank is the easiest way to reflect current events, he’s also the least effective: there’s a reason why, despite the fact that Frank introduces the “Here’s what you missed on Shameless” sequence that opens the season, he never actually appears in it. Nothing Frank did last season, or the season before that, or the season before that has mattered after the credits rolled, and when you contrast that with a story like Ian and Mickey’s relationship it just makes you wonder why we’re wasting time on another topical, empty Frank diversion when we could be reflecting on the journeys his children have had over eleven seasons.

As with last season, that reflection comes exclusively from Lip and Ian’s respective stories, which are at this point really the only parts of the show that feel connected to where the story began. This is in some ways inevitable: with the show abandoning long-term storytelling for Frank and Kev/Vee, and the fact that Carl, Debbie, and Liam didn’t really have stories in the beginning, that really just leaves the eldest brothers to carry the burden of meaningful character development across all eleven seasons. The best scene in “This Is Chicago!” is Lip and Ian in the former’s garage, as Ian turns to him for advice after discovering that Mickey—who is intimidating a laundromat owner to falsify pay stubs for his parole officer because he doesn’t want to work—has spent all of their wedding money and replaced it with IOUs. It starts as a conversation about relationships, but Lip turns it into a conversation about class, and about how their relationship to both of those things is forever shaped by their upbringing. They had no money growing up, so while Tami—who grew up closer to middle class—is struggling to adapt to their impoverished life and spending freely, Lip is scrambling behind her back to strip away the aspirational bourgeois lifestyle without her noticing. And they had no role models for positive relationships—well, except Kev and Vee, but they’re only allowed to be in like one non-group party Gallagher scene per season now so they can’t talk to them—which makes it difficult for Lip to actually talk to Tami about her spending, much as Ian struggles to nail down the terms of his marriage with Mickey.

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And look, I could spend a few hundred words on my continued frustration with these stories. Why does Lip have none of the intelligence or ambition that defined his character in the first half of the series? How did Ian and Mickey not have this conversation, say, five months earlier? What is Lip hoping to get out of renovating a house that he’s renting, given that all of the value he’s adding will pass to the owner? Will we be getting a scene in a future episode where we get any deeper understanding of Mickey’s layabout lifestyle, and how we square it with any of his past behavior in his relationship with Ian, or is the show still resistant to telling any part of the show from his perspective? And given that the show had Lip fall off the wagon at the end of last season, are they just choosing to ignore that or are we gonna circle back? However, the truth is that they’re the only two storylines I care about, and so I’m willing to forgive these issues—albeit without forgetting them—because there’s a sense of purpose to the show when these characters are onscreen. I understand what their stories are trying to say, and can successfully connect those observations back to the themes that have been important to the show from the beginning, which is the core of what you want a final season to accomplish even if I wish they were digging deeper and amplifying the self-reflection of their journeys to date.

Whereas it’s hard to imagine the show finding a way to create resonant, concluding storylines for any other characters. Kev and Vee, like Frank, have just been dragged into so many different storylines that none of them have registered, and nothing about their legalized marijuana/COVID restrictions story at the locked-down Alibi suggests this is going to change anytime soon. The show threatened to give Liam something meaningful about race last season, but it was dropped like a hot potato almost immediately, and he has absolutely nothing to do here other than deliver mail to Debbie and do some spackling with Franny in the final scene. Nothing about the way Wells has shepherded the show these past few seasons suggests he has any interest in pivoting toward more reflective storytelling for these characters, and thus despite it being the final season it’s unlikely these stories will break from their ephemeral patterns.

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But I hope, for the sake of the show’s legacy, Wells and the writing staff find it in themselves to give Debbie and Carl something other than Mad Libs storytelling. If you go based on the facts, Debbie’s story should carry a lot of weight, but it’s never actually felt that way onscreen. Something about the way her narrative has played out has made it feel arbitrary, as though her various decisions failed to register as character motivations as opposed to plot machinations. It’s as though you can see the writers pushing her into new stories instead of the character taking specific action, constantly getting caught up in “situations” that are prepackaged and don’t feel like they stem from her own agency. Debbie’s exploration of her sexuality could have been the show’s take on the increasing fluidity of the concept within her generation, but in practice it just seemed as though the show didn’t know what to do with her, and throwing a random Milkovich cousin at her has not helped the situation. Making Debbie a convicted sex offender certainly lets the show work in familiar territory, but it’s not anchored to anything, which has been the problem with Debbie’s arc from the moment it became a more significant part of the show.

The same goes for Carl, who hasn’t had a meaningful moment of self-reflection as a character since Nick killed the boy who stole his bike at the end of season six. The subsequent seasons have brought military school, numerous romantic entanglements, and one murdered girlfriend (murdered, people) whose body was apparently never discovered, but none of it has added up to anything. The only part of Carl’s story from last season that matters is the time he informed to the cops about the corrupt sanitation department, which earns him a place on the Chicago police force despite his age and his abysmal classroom performance. Frank’s voiceover quips that he wouldn’t have expected Carl to be a cop, but the problem is that we have no idea what to expect from Carl, because the show doesn’t give him scenes where he talks about why he does anything. While Debbie’s storyline feels arbitrary, it’s at least somewhat dimensional: Carl, meanwhile, has been boiled down to “loves violence and wielding power,” and they’re just shuffling him from situation to situation where that can be deployed. And while the contrast between the description of the job from Carl’s instructor and the prominent appearance of a Black Lives Matter mural in the opening scene could be productive fodder, nothing about the show’s approach to issues of race in the past makes me confident that it will play out to its potential.

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Throughout “This Is Chicago!” I wondered how different this premiere would have been if not for COVID-19. The choice to integrate the pandemic into the show is logical, and provided some productive worldbuilding that highlights key themes the show has used in the past: the emphasis on gentrification is the one global storyline that the show has committed to often enough for it to still resonate, and the small details about how the pandemic had impacted the characters, their jobs, and the people in their community grounded the episode in a way that I was briefly excited by. But then I realized that beyond the fact that we might have seen more intimacy between characters or more location shooting in Chicago if not for the pandemic, I doubt much would have changed: the premiere doesn’t have anything to really say about COVID-19, much as it hasn’t had much to say about anything for the past few years. The idea that Shameless is “about” anything just hasn’t held up to any scrutiny of late, and I have to admit that I have no trust this is going to change. Even when the trailer for the season seemed to push the gentrification angle, I didn’t change my expectations, because I’ve been burned too many times before.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not rooting for Shameless to turn it around. As these reviews have become one of the last remaining considerations of the show online in recent years, my critical approach to the show has been exposed to viewers searching for a more optimistic angle, and I completely understand why those readers would find me rather disagreeable. But I would love nothing more than for Shameless to prove me wrong. I would not still be writing about the show if I didn’t care about (some of) these characters, and if some part of me wasn’t holding onto the idea that maybe, just maybe, the end of the show’s run will push Wells to return to what the show did well in its early seasons. If Wells remembers the early seasons of the show well enough to hearken back to the opening scene with this premiere, he should understand that his insistence on treating this like a sitcom that could run forever has created something that is a shell of its former self. There is still eleven more episodes for him to see this, and in scenes like Lip and Ian in the garage I see the glimmers of hope I need to carry me through the next eleven episodes.

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“This Is Chicago!” needed more glimmers of hope, but now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel: either we’re building to an ending that could reclaim (some of) the show’s past glory, or we’re at least reaching the merciless end of a patented Showtime slog as a show that should have ended years earlier limps to the finish.

Stray observations

  • *Takes a Deep Breath* Okay, so the six-month time jump is the latest in a long line of timey-wimey narrative from Shameless, and I now have absolutely zero idea what time of year it’s supposed to be since they’re going to be filming so much less in Chicago due to the pandemic. And I’ve long accepted the show is out of time, but integrating the pandemic complicates things: Frank at one points suggests someone died “last Spring” from COVID-19, language that implies it is now the following year, but we know it’s only been six months since Ian and Mickey’s wedding which predated COVID, so that isn’t possible. And since Franny is in school, this isn’t the summer, and yet if we presume the pandemic started at the same time in this universe it should be Summer. Thus the only conclusion is that I need to take some more deep breaths and accept that in a year where time has lost all meaning, searching for solid ground in Shameless of all places is the ultimate sign I’ve lost my marbles.
  • So, this is the first show I’ve watched so far that has integrated the pandemic into its storytelling, and honestly I just have no idea how I’m supposed to interpret the mask politics on display. When Debbie’s mask slips below her nose when she’s delivering Franny to school, is this the show finally acknowledging that she’s a bad person or just a slip during filming that they couldn’t reshoot due to needing to maximize shooting during a pandemic? When the hipsters buying weed from Kevin and Veronica keep pulling down their masks to talk, is this meant to fill me with a deep, hot rage, or is it just because they are worried about the audio being unclear? Was Tami’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it remark about how she doesn’t want to get COVID again meant to raise questions about how seriously she took the pandemic originally, or is it just a throwaway that won’t be explored again. My friend Kathryn VanArendonk wrote about the messiness of COVID storylines on broadcast TV so far at Vulture, and I spent a lot of the episode internally screaming at people to pull their masks up. Wells has said that they think it’s “realistic” that in a show called Shameless mask use would be inconsistent, but I don’t know if I trust that to play out effectively.
  • I complained about this last season, but I sure wish that Mickey would bring up his marriage to Svetlana as he confronts his struggle to adapt to married life? Seems like it could be relevant? Just a thought!
  • The episode doesn’t resolve Ian and Mickey’s conversation about monogamy, although the way they framed it was kind of weird: I think it would be logical for them to explore the possibility of sexual partners within their marriage, as opposed to outside of it, but the episode seems to present it as though it’s “monogamy” or “they are allowed to sleep with other people indiscriminately.” And again, if six months has passed, what have they been doing about this since then if Mickey—if we presume his piece of paper did not say monogamy—had not understood this to be part of the deal? More questions than answers, there.
  • I honestly completely forgot that Kevin proposed to Vee at the end of last season, and apparently the show did too, given that it never comes up here and isn’t part of the “Here’s What You Missed.”
  • The idea of Photoshopping the Gallaghers into Chicago history was briefly charming, although some of the compositing work was a little too uncanny valley for me.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but I have never heard someone refer to COVID-19 as “the Vid” as Frank does, but rather always as “the Rona.” Curious how they landed on that shortened form.
  • I’m glad the show let Vee state some basic facts about the situation surrounding legalizing weed, but I refuse to address the Tommy and Kermit nonsense that resolved that story, which was just a waste of time. I’m glad the actors have steady work, but the Alibi has been an absolute black home narratively for years, and nothing changed here.
  • Regarding Liam: according to Wells, they had to scrap major planned Liam and Debbie stories after the pandemic hit, as they couldn’t get large numbers of child extras. So we’ll see if they tried to find a replacement or just left him stranded.
  • Well, everyone, we’re back for one more go ‘round. Based on past seasons, some of you are here because you gave up watching but want to witness my descent into madness, while others are just here for Gallavich and marvel at how I’m still tilting at windmills expecting anything else to make logical sense. And yes, I know there’s some among you who still enjoy the show, and just want a space to discuss your connection to the characters and your hopes for the show’s final season. And I just want to reiterate that while these reviews are probably going to skew toward the critical based on all available evidence, I hope every one of these groups will use the comment section below to engage with the show on their own terms. That’s what the comments are there for, and if we’re coming to the end of a 10-year journey it’s only fitting that we do so with a diverse community of viewers: fans and anti-fans, shippers and non-shippers, and O.G. viewers and people who watched for the first time on Netflix while homebound during the pandemic. Welcome to all, and thanks for coming along on the ride with me. I am, despite evidence to the contrary, very much looking forward to it. Honestly.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.