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Frank gets political, sending Shameless stumbling through an ideological minefield

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Frank Gallagher is, at his core, ideologically opportunistic. He will be whatever he needs to be in order to get ahead, shifting his beliefs in whichever direction is necessary to scam a place to stay or scratch together a few bucks. We’re meant to find this kind of behavior abhorrent, I think, but at the same time Shameless uses this as central to Frank’s “comedy”: what depraved thing will Frank do or believe next in order to keep from having to settle for a pity beer from Vee?

But there’s something about the way the show enters into Frank’s latest opportunistic endeavor in “Mo White!” that rubbed me the wrong way. Frank’s entrance into politics is more or less in line with the character’s past hypocrisies: just last season he was using “diversity spots” to get Liam into a fancy private school, but now he’s personally impacted by the diversification of corrupt local politics, and so he’s at the Alibi railing about how real Americans used to represent the South Side. It’s another in a long line of situations where Frank latches onto an idea—in this case claims of reverse racism—not because he really believes it to be true, but rather because embracing that idea creates a crusade that others can get behind, in this case in the form of an alternative campaign featuring a legacy white candidate who Frank intends to use to siphon money as a corrupt campaign manager.


The problem is not that Frank, who I’ve long considered a terrible person, is stoking the flames of anti-diversity campaigns in ways that mistakenly frame white men as a disadvantaged demographic. The problem is that the way the show portrays the political circumstances that bring Frank into this picture are thin to the point of being offensive. When Frank walks into the debate between Ruiz and Wyman, we get a glimpse at their respective campaigns, and the writers suggest that their bitter battle over the future of the South Side is squarely divided along racial lines. Ruiz, as a gay Hispanic man, wants to turn a former brewery into a LGBT Latino Community Center. Wyman, an African American woman, wants to turn the same brewery into an African American Art Gallery. It’s an absurdly one-dimensional rendering of congressional politics, one that further reduces the two candidates to their race not just through Frank’s eyes, but through the eyes of any viewer that accepts the reductive framing provided by the writers. How are neither of these two candidates thinking intersectionally in an effort to embrace the diversity of their community? How did Shameless think this strawman depiction of contemporary political discourse was acceptable?

The answer, I’m sure, is “we’re a comedy, we’re not trying to be realistic.” And while I find that excuse dumb, I am normally willing to accept it. But in this case, the way the show depicts the political circumstances actually risks making it seem like Frank has a fair point. You have two political candidates who are only looking out for themselves, and whose goals for the community are about prioritizing their own race and culture over that of anyone else, despite the fact that those are not the kinds of issues that would define a congressional race. By depicting Wyman as corrupt with the stealing of signs, and by depicting Ruiz as having no campaign beyond his identity, the show creates a situation where there is a clear association between the diversification of the political system and the corruption of the same system. And while that perception is what Frank uses to fuel his latest get-rich-quick scheme, the show’s depiction of the congressional race risks giving some of the show’s viewers the perception that Frank’s view is a fair one. And while there can be corrupt politicians of any race, the idea of race so clearly defining congressional political campaigns is a fiction that does Shameless no favors.

You’re probably thinking I just spent too much time interrogating the show’s depiction of congressional politics, and you’re probably right, but it was the thing that stood out most in an episode that struggled to cohere into much of anything. There’s a bit of a throughline as it relates to responsibility, a common Gallagher family concern. Fiona ultimately chose not to bail out Ian, but his “followers” raised his bail money through crowdfunding, and have been using his image and message in order to rally supporters, making him responsible for a string of van torchings across the country. Lip, entering the next stage of his recovery, balances his responsibility for Xan with a request from a young father who wants him to be his sponsor. Debbie, having Googled the wage gap between men and women, decides it is her responsibility to do something about it in her time off, single-handedly trying to organize female construction workers with a megaphone, a toddler, and no discernible plan for further action. And Carl, begrudgingly doing volunteer work at a cut-rate pet euthanasia clinic, refuses to submit a military veteran’s dog to the makeshift gas chamber, and instead lets him die peacefully and gives him a proper military funeral.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

But I can’t say I connected with any of these stories. Jeremy Allen White gives everything Lip does an extra bit of pathos, but Xan’s motivation in stealing the money and abandoning Kev and Vee’s twins was not particularly clearly drawn, as even her explanation (she was stealing for her mother) didn’t explain why she would attempt to steal it when the woman was so close nearby and she would clearly get caught. I’m glad the show started to do more with Ian’s reluctance to embrace his role as “Gay Jesus,” with prison in some ways offering him an escape from that pressure, but I can’t really connect to the story until they give some sense of where it’s headed, which isn’t provided with Ian’s return home. Debbie’s complete lack of a coherent plan—did her Google search turn up no local activist or labor organizations?—makes her story incredibly thin, and stumbling into a woman posing as a man who seems to want to date Debbie is a development that’s a little too left field to land comfortably. And while I’m glad Carl cares about senior dogs, I found his “I thought you just had to want to kill towelheads to get into West Point” ignorance to be a bit of a barrier to caring much about the rest of his storyline, even if you don’t factor in that one of his cadets allegedly murdered his girlfriend in the previous episode and it merits zero mention here.


I know Shameless wants to pretend it’s the kind of show where you’re not supposed to question its logic. If I’m asking why it is that no one at Carl’s military school—a guidance counselor, for example—would have informed him of the requirements for getting a congressional letter of reference for West Point, the show is pish-poshing me aside; if I’m wondering how Kev and Veronica had no idea that preschools were expensive, and had actually never even thought about preschool until they saw kids from one in the previous episode, and eventually are able to afford $600 a month for daycare despite no evidence of newfound financial stability, the show is just laughing and telling me to move on. The comic situations the show creates are often given thin justifications, and that’s just supposed to be par for the course, but Frank’s story demonstrates the consequences when the writers get sloppy constructing the setup to those situations. And when those comic situations don’t really pay off in any significant way, or if the dramatic situations aren’t explored as in depth as they could have been, you end up with another meandering episode that fails to tap into what the show can do best.

Stray observations

  • I spent a lot of time discussing Fiona last week, so I decided to focus on her story with Liam in the Strays. And beyond the fact that it’s weird Fiona suddenly (and accidentally) decided to start being Liam’s guardian again after abdicating that role to Frank for no clear reason last season, I thought Liam playing her assistant was fun, and the story that frustrated me the least as the episode progressed. I still feel like the show can’t just be letting her succeed that easily, but if Emmy Rossum really is leaving, I suppose it’s necessary for her to move her way up the food chain quickly.
  • Related: What is Ford’s deal? Right now his characterization is a wet blanket who doubts Fiona or questions her judgment, causing her to work to prove him wrong. What are his goals? His motivations? Who is he as a character beyond a woodworker who frankly seems to be a disaster to work with in a business capacity, regardless of whether the developer was a douchebag or not?
  • I know I was all too happy that Kassidi wouldn’t be a recurring presence in the season, but I was shocked that there was no reference to her alleged death here. I suppose it’s possible she reemerges, but if they seriously killed her off as a punchline like that and never bring her up again, that’s messed up.
  • “Thank you so much...who are you again?”—as Kev and Vee become more isolated, I appreciate any scene where Kev or Vee are in the Gallagher house, and this made me laugh.
  • So Xan has been living with Lip the entire time that Ian has been in prison, which is roughly nine months given that the episode confirms it is late May/early June and last season took place when Carl was heading back to military school for the Fall. And at no point during that time did Lip visit his brother in prison and discuss the 10-year-old he’s now taking care of? Did anyone but Fiona ever visit him? (I apologize if you thought I was over the show’s timeline bullshit, but you must be new).
  • Between Dan Lauria (as Mo White) and Paul Dooley (as the Death Dogtor), a good episode for guest actors I enjoy seeing pop up on shows I watch. Dooley in particular makes me miss ABC Family’s Huge, which was co-created by his wife Winnie Holzman and daughter Savannah Dooley. Seek it out if you haven’t seen it.

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About the author

Myles McNutt

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