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Debbie Gallagher is a bad person, and not in ways that make Shameless more interesting

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Given that this show is (arguably) anchored around the truly hateful Frank Gallagher, I am not going to argue that every character on Shameless needs to be “likeable.” Each character—except for maybe Liam, although give him time?—has done something quote-unquote shameless at some point or another, and has given us reason to feel poorly toward them. To err is human, and the show depends on this core humanity to drive emotional investment in its storytelling.

However, this doesn’t mean that every character can withstand our loathing. Fiona made some truly bad decisions over the course of the show but we had an intense understanding of what she was dealing with, and where those mistakes came from. We empathized with her situation, even if we struggled with the choices she made—the same goes for Lip, and to a lesser extent Ian (whose arc fell apart post-Mickey, as we’ve previously discussed). There was always a clear difference between Fiona’s bad decisions and her father’s, even if we understood them as being part of the same environment, and that was crucial to maintaining Shameless’ sense of humanity.

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I say all of this because ostensibly, in terms of narrative focus, Debbie has filled in the Fiona-sized gap in the narrative, and I just need to come out and say it: I loathe Debbie. She is a bad person, and not in a way I find remotely interesting. It’s not just that I know that what that is supposed to make her empathetic—her status as a single mother—only happened because she entrapped her teenage boyfriend into getting her pregnant, although I admit that’s a huge part of it. But even if we discount that, Debbie is deeply entitled despite owing a lot to her older siblings, and this season has been risking their financial security on a selfish fantasy that serves no function other than to inflate her self-importance. Debbie’s cavalier approach to life is neither funny or dynamic: it’s just galling, as she is willfully ignorant to the consequences of using Lip’s social security number, and just plain dumb enough not to move her stash once she knows that Mikey knows where it is. I can’t even enjoy her comeuppance because it technically places the rest of the family in jeopardy more than her, and my rage just shifted to how quickly she abandons the prospect of a union the second she needs money. Debbie is a no-good, ignorant, low-life scab, and there’s nothing good that comes out of that.

But there’s a moment where the show’s approach to Debbie becomes clearer, if no less troubling. While the show has typically framed Carl and Liam as Frank’s protégés, Frank has a real moment of pride when he sees the scam that Debbie is running, and all of a sudden you realize the show is actually not trying to have Debbie be the new Fiona. She’s actually the new Frank, a choice that is mind-boggling to me. Beyond the fact that Frank himself is a toxic presence in this show, his storylines a repetitive string of tomfoolery with no cumulative value, the idea that the show can sustain two characters whose Gallagher-family skills are being put to use solely for their personal gain at the expense of their family members is deeply naïve. Whereas Fiona’s biggest mistakes were always framed as a fall from grace, with Debbie I don’t believe that narrative holds. The character has been too terrible for too long for me to see this as anything more than her showing her true self, and their choice to double down on this behavior creates a fundamental barrier to my enjoyment of the series. It’s not just that the show needs to hold Debbie accountable: they need to have her show a semblance of self-awareness and find a way to invest me in her future.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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The future may not be as important to Shameless as it once was, given that the likelihood of more than one additional season seems slim, but it needs to be important to the characters for the show to work. Again, this is why Ian and Mickey’s story stands out so far this season, as it has clear stakes: the show played the comic side last week, but this time it’s all business, as Ian is up for parole and has to have “the talk” with Mickey. There’s still plenty of comedy here, and it’s nothing that Orange Is The New Black (among other prison shows) hasn’t dealt with, but the show has a clear grasp on who Ian and Mickey are, and what their respective futures hold. When Ian hears that Tami is still in the hospital, and Lip’s raising the baby on his own, he realizes that his family needs him, and that any plans to shiv someone to stay in prison with Mickey aren’t as easy as he thought they were. And Mickey, simultaneously, realizes that Ian would resent him forever if he let him go through with it. It’s not a particularly complex conflict (and I have no idea why Mickey didn’t tell him this before Ian was about to shiv someone, but let’s not dwell on that), but it’s two characters being self-reflective about their feelings and their futures, and so it resonates in a way that Debbie just looking out for herself doesn’t.

Now, we could argue that Debbie is young—still a teenager, according to Vee—and therefore her immaturity is more understandable. But in truth, the core problem is that the show’s writers never figured out how to write Carl and Debbie like adults, and the transition to giving them their own stories has always rung false. Just look at Carl’s story in this episode: what is even going through that kid’s mind? Why is he so fixated on Anne all of a sudden? Why were his feelings about Kelly leaving not something that came up in previous episodes? Where is Carl’s self-reflection or thoughts about the future? There’s no emotional logic governing any of his actions, and so there’s no real stakes. There’s a bit more logic in the show’s meta “Whoops, we just realized Vee has no friends after Fiona left and frankly they barely ever hung out recently anyway” storyline, but there again the stakes feel low, and the reality dating show storyline was just plain dumb. Somehow, ten seasons in, the show has never managed to be able to take the things that makes the stronger storylines work and translate that to a set of characters too often left astray in the narrative.

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Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)

And on this front, Liam represents the last hope, and I will admit that his search for a black role model is the most purposeful of the stories for the younger Gallagher siblings. Does it makes sense that there’s been an African American family holding a grudge against the Gallaghers for decades that we’ve simply never run into? Of course it doesn’t. And is there much bite in their conversation that gives “Which America?” its title when you consider how many years the show has gone without really thinking about Liam’s blackness, and largely framing gentrification through the lens of class rather than race? No. But I still give the show credit for having that conversation, as his relationship with Mavar is more substance than anything happening with most of his siblings right now.

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Ian’s return to the outside world will likely reorganize the story dynamics a bit, and it’s a shuffling that Shameless desperately needs: rather than building a foundation for future stories, these opening episodes have mostly shown a collection of unproductive instincts on how to carry this show an extra season or two.

Stray observations

  • Lip’s storyline in this episode is mostly more of the same, but I find myself bristling at a lot of smaller elements as it extends on. How in the world is Tami’s family not doing more to take care of this baby (or Tami, for that matter), either out of compassion or out of a belief that Lip isn’t competent enough to do it? What are Tami’s medical bills going to look like? And who on the show made the choice to have Lip decide that his child’s name is Fred Gallagher when he and Tami are not married? Because it’s not a good look.
  • Similarly, I am looking for answers on who decided that Mavar would invite Liam back to his house to play “Nintendo Wii.” Yes, there are still people who use the Nintendo Wii. No, this man does not seem like he would be one of them, as the fact he could afford last-minute tickets to a Sox/Cubs game implies that he could easily afford a Nintendo Switch.
  • I admittedly don’t know enough about banking to know precisely what the show is claiming Debbie did to create those debit cards, but how she did it without any of her family members present is a question I know will never be answered.
  • The idea that Debbie’s entire workplace unionized that quickly, and that her male co-workers took her seriously after she went through a big storyline about the sexism in the welding profession? I just don’t understand why these shortcuts were necessary for stories this uninteresting.
  • Frank’s big speech about turning away no one at his party and denouncing the current administration would have worked a lot better if anyone would have pointed out that he spent last season stoking those fears for personal gain. It’s completely in character for him to be opportunistic in this way, but the show would get more out of it if they actually pointed out the hypocrisy and held him accountable within the text.
  • Credit where it’s due: the Facetime aesthetics on the cell phones were well done.
  • Okay, back to complaining: who is taking care of Kev and Vee’s children? Kevin was at the bar all night? Vee went to a baseball game? This is, presumably, a weekend? Every Gallagher is accounted for? Not even a throwaway line about her mother? Is nothing sacred?!
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About the author

Myles McNutt

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.