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More squandered potential fuels our distrust in Shameless’ storytelling

Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)
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I’ve often spoken casually throughout my reviews of this show about the fact that Showtime has a reputation for extending series beyond their natural endpoints. It’s a problem that I’ve discussed when writing about both Shameless and Weeds before it, and you could easily apply it to other Showtime shows (Dexter! Homeland! Californication!) that kept airing past the point where they felt creatively and culturally relevant. Now, obviously, these shows still have viewers and fans, and so it’s not that Showtime’s decisions are indefensible. But the fact that Showtime has never had a show end with any kind of creative momentum is a byproduct of decision-making that prioritizes longevity over anything else.

However, not every show achieves longevity the same way. Weeds, for example, kept blowing up its own premise and reinventing itself, ditching much of its supporting cast. Weeds may have run longer than it should have, but it did so by abandoning the stability of the show’s early seasons and searching for momentum elsewhere. The result was some strong seasons—I’ll die on a hill for season six—and some awful ones, but there was at least the chance that something new and dynamic could be discovered.

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This has not been the approach taken by the writers of Shameless. Now, I don’t blame them for this: it would mean abandoning every story engine the show has developed over its ten seasons, and as an hour-long show there’s more at risk if you abandon the structure of your series in such a dramatic way. But the longer the show runs, the more it becomes a liability to demonstrate zero willingness to change the structure or focus of the show. Fiona’s gift of $50,000 should have given the Gallaghers some stability and a platform for growth, but the show immediately has Debbie and Frank piss it all away, because how could it be Shameless if Debbie isn’t suing the family of her dead ex-boyfriend who she tricked into getting her pregnant for his death benefits after his drunken tank ride to the bottom of the Suez Canal?

There’s a running joke throughout “A Little Gallagher Goes A Long Way” about a crack addict who keeps trying to steal from Kev’s buy-and-sell business he’s running out of the Alibi. It’s a weak joke, without a meaningful punchline beyond “look, it’s a crack addict,” but the way he just admits that he’s stealing to buy crack is sort of like Shameless right now. It isn’t trying to hide the fact that any forward progress will have to be undone for its story to continue. From the moment the season began, it was clear Debbie was squandering Fiona’s money, and just in case you thought Lip was in a place to get his life together Debbie’s insistence on getting them debit cards has destroyed his ability to make a living wage while burdened with student debt. When Vee’s new friend Mimi offers her a chance to work as a pharmaceutical sales rep—what is this, Work It!?—we’ve been conditioned to read this as a futile exercise with no long-term impact. The show’s patterns have made it so it feels impossible to take the show at face value, rather than cynically presume that everything we’re seeing is just the latest in a long line of soft resets that will be erased this time next year. (Okay, honestly, that crackhead joke wasn’t even really useful as a metaphor, I was wrong to try to salvage something from it).

Recently in the comments, someone accused me of doing a disservice to the efforts the show was taking in Liam’s storyline exploring his African American heritage, citing—among other moments—the powerful shot of Liam in front of the Barack Obama mural. And while I could say that my lack of focus on Liam’s storyline was due to my past few reviews having clear theses that didn’t really connect with that narrative, the truth is that I fundamentally distrust any effort the show makes to deal with issues outside of its core storytelling. That’s deeply cynical of me, I’ll admit that, and in light of that comment I did make note that the show was introducing a collection of characters of color in last week’s episode that the pictures from tonight’s episode indicated were sticking around: Liam’s mentor Mavar is joined by Lip’s sober parent support group leader Sarah, Carl’s co-worker and love interest Anne, and Vee’s instant friend Mimi. That is significant for a show that has never really been that invested in the intersectionality of class and race in Chicago, despite Liam’s presence within the story, and I do think it warrants discussion.

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But everything that happens with these characters in “A Little Gallagher Goes A Long Way” fuels the distrust I’ve felt for multiple seasons, as I am unconvinced the show plans to invest in any of these characters or storylines in a significant way. Liam’s storyline has had potential, but the way it plays out here feels like a sudden dismissal of that potential. Suddenly small details about Mavar—like the fact he still plays Nintendo Wii—explode into a collection of uncool character traits that make Liam question his motives, and whether he really represents the South Side identity Liam values. After Liam runs a scam on the grieving relatives at his Great Great Aunt’s memorial, Mavar rightfully flips out on him for having no moral center, but Liam is content knowing who he is, which is…a Gallagher from the South Side, who happens to be black, which is exactly where this story started in the first place? It felt like the show giving up at trying to say something about blackness and social class to instead dismiss this particular person as a stifling influence on the essential trait of the show, despite a good-faith effort to educate from an admittedly boring dude. It’s a deeply muddled moment that I’m still puzzling over, and which sadly reaffirms my distrust of the show’s efforts to address such issues.

The same goes for Carl’s relationship with Anne, which lacks development: the character is too underwritten to have inspired Carl’s romantic interest in her, and way underwritten to inspire Carl suddenly acting like an anti-immigration activist the second ICE shows up at her family’s door. While Carl’s stint as a drug dealer reinforced he is a gentler soul than not, I struggled with how quickly he accused ICE of racial profiling—there’s a link to be made between the distrust of authority in poor white communities and poor Latino communities, but the show never makes that link, instead artificially elevating Carl’s level of concern in order to rush forward with the love triangle that the show leaves us with as Kelly arrives wondering why there are so many Mexicans in the Gallagher kitchen. Again, I appreciate that the show is thinking about ways to explore contemporary social issues, but there’s just never the feeling that Anne is a part of the show’s long-term trajectory, or that Carl really cares about immigration issues, which fundamentally limits what the storyline is able to accomplish emotionally.

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Part of the reason these soft resets are utilized by a show like Shameless is that “conclusions” create a false sense of stakes, and a brief moment of instant resonance if used properly. We see this with Mikey’s departure, which finds a really honest moment where he realizes that the only way for him to receive proper medical care is to return to prison. Watching Frank and Mikey cosplay as businessmen at a professional development conference suddenly takes on a degree of sadness, and when they share one last drink together at a swank Michigan Avenue bar it’s an undeniably affecting moment. Of course, it would have been even more affecting if Mikey hadn’t been a one-dimensional character who fueled Frank’s misogyny most of the time, but Luis Guzman finds his humanity when it matters most, and just in time for Frank to head into the second act of the season on the search for a new, pointless storyline to pursue, which may or may not have anything to do with the social issues raised by Mikey’s departure.

It’s a fair question to ask what—if anything—Shameless could do to earn my trust that it will follow through on the potential of its storylines after multiple seasons of struggling to do so. I won’t deny that my cynicism keeps me from seeing the bright side on some of the show’s storylines, but I do believe that at the end of the day I will embrace situations where the show does right by the stories it’s telling and the characters involved. Those moments are just few and far between, and there’s a point where you wonder if the show’s writers understand how self-destructive its soft resets can be for building meaningful narratives. The title of this episode may be “A Little Gallagher Goes A Long Way,” but the truth is that the show’s unwillingness to develop real long-term storylines which impact meaningful change is at the core of its struggles to justify its longevity.

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Stray observations

  • It makes sense that Ian and Mickey might not appear in this episode, but it’s weird that no one even brings up Ian’s potential parole (which should be imminent) in any of the other stories, right?
  • As for Sarah and Mimi, the two other characters of color, I like both of them, although I don’t know if we’re supposed to read Sarah as a romantic rival to Tami (I hope not). I’d also note that while Sarah seems to be a blindcast role (in that the character’s race has never been raised), Mimi is clearly defined as Asian, which I appreciate.
  • Tami’s whole deal right now is bizarre to me. The show is likely exploring a complex postpartum psychological situation, if I had to guess, but why in the world isn’t her family dropping her off at the house, or for that matter taking her in after being in the hospital for weeks? Why is she just walking up to the Gallaghers’ house—which she knows is going to be pure chaos—with her luggage? It’s again a situation where the show’s inability to expand its focus outside the Gallaghers leaves them criminally underdeveloped, even with the actress becoming a series regular. Why not give us a scene of Tami and her family leaving the hospital, to show us her state of mind? The story would be so much better for it.
  • I don’t know if the show wants us to be sympathetic to Debbie after Derek left Franny out of his death benefits, but given that I wrote an essay about how Debbie is a terrible person last week, I can’t help but agree with his widow on this one.
  • I’m not a parent, but I still can’t help but note that there’s some major “TV Baby” energy in the size of Fred at what should—by the wonky as hell timeline of this show—be at most a three-week old baby looking like he’s months old.
  • The show does a fair amount of Chicago location shooting, including in Frank and Mikey’s final goodbye, so it was weird to see the show deploy a “virtual backlot” backdrop of Chicago when they visited the fountain earlier in the episode. Maybe they just couldn’t make the logistics work and had to use the L.A. location to save on time or money?
  • I don’t have much to say about Debbie’s baby daddy collecting friend from high school except that seeing Xan made me realize I never finished the final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Should I do that at some point?
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About the author

Myles McNutt

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