“The world’s gonna fuck you—all you can do is take it up the ass and soldier on.”

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How do you end a show like Shameless?

This isn’t a particularly pressing question as far as Showtime is concerned: the series’ ratings have been strong, and Showtime is so confident they’ve switched around the scheduling to launch two seasons in a single calendar year. The seventh season has not been announced as the final season, and I would expect that there will be at least one more season—which would equal Weeds’ run—and potentially more depending on how long producers are interested in soldiering on.

However, it’s been a pressing question for me writing about the show. Shameless is still capable of delivering resonant moments of drama, and the occasional absurdist flourish that works effectively, but the show has suffered from an understandable sense of diminishing returns. The world has been fucking the Gallaghers for six seasons now, and there comes a point where seeing them soldier on in more or less the same way as before runs out of steam. Even as the younger kids have grown up, they have largely fallen into the same storytelling patterns as their older siblings, meaning that Shameless is ostensibly the same show it was when it started, for better and for worse.

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There is always going to be a part of me that wants Shameless to blow up its premise a little more, and I still smart thinking about the way the show balked on the sale of the family home last season. Accordingly, I share the family’s disappointment that Frank survived his trip into Lake Michigan in the middle of winter—I remain unconvinced that Frank is a necessary part of Shameless’ internal chemistry, and the fact that every other character just keeps on living without thinking about him proves that the rhythms of the show no longer require him as a thorn in their side.

That being said, though, the seventh season starts in a way that reinforces how the rhythms of the show can work well when the show is exploring the act of “soldiering on” instead of fucking its characters over. The sixth season started with an intense narrative burden: there was Debbie’s pregnancy, the hasty departure of Mickey amidst Noel Fisher’s decision to leave the series, Carl’s sudden transformation into a wannabe gangster, etc. There was also a lot of carryover storytelling from the previous season, with Fiona’s relationship with Sean and Lip’s relationship with Helene, each with considerable baggage. It felt like the show was putting its character through the ringer, but by the end of that season it seemed like the characters had come out the other side: Debbie had her baby and moved onto a different set of struggles, Carl grew out of his phase and into a relationship, Lip’s relationship imploded and brought his alcoholism to a breaking point, and Fiona’s relationship with Sean ended in a wedding fiasco.

While this wasn’t always a service to the sixth season, it serves the seventh season well, as I found myself appreciative for being out from under the cloud of those storylines. While I struggled with the transformation of Debbie in the midst of her pregnancy, I had a season to come to terms with the show’s approach to her character, and it worked better here. The introduction to the story is some rough exposition—as Emma Kenney is forced, in a line of dialogue, to establish Debbie as emotionally distraught enough to want to leave Franny at a fire station, which just does not work—but seeing her become her father’s daughter by stealing and frauding her way to a privileged life of luxury is thematically valuable. Whereas last season we saw Carl balk at going “Full Frank” and revert to a more peaceful lifestyle, Debbie has no qualms about stealing baby carriages to get a good night’s sleep, and that contrast is useful in thinking about her approach to “soldering on.” It isn’t sustainable, but nothing is in the world of the Gallaghers, and it’s a more productive delusion than what played out with the character last season.

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The show is in a fairly productive place overall right now. Carl’s new relationship gives lots of story possibilities, as a quick circumcision rids Carl of both his rainy day fund and a barrier for oral sex. Kev and Vee’s “throuple” with Svetlana is also off to an efficient start, as they divide up their daily tasks, share child care, and eventually use Svetlana’s skills with finances to help get their lives on track. And once you look past the machinations that improbably got Ian into his job as an EMT and into a relationship with Caleb, the show is able to move into some structurally sound storytelling built around Ian’s co-worker’s advise and, eventually, Caleb’s woman on the side as a way to push that story forward (read: away). While there were messes to clean up at the end of last season, there were also a variety of narratives positioned to function as productive story engines, and that bears fruit in the premiere.

But realistically, my interest in Shameless rests on the fate of two of its characters: while the younger kids can generate teenage chaos, and Kev and Vee function as an island of comic disruption, Fiona and Lip are the heart of this show, and ultimately its barometer. And although I’m still not in love with Debbie’s storyline and have no investment in Ian’s whatsoever, I’m pleased to see that Fiona and Lip are both on compelling paths forward. Whereas the sixth season had the two characters mired in storylines that felt both too familiar and too transitory, we find them here as independent adults, albeit struggling to live life without their main points of dependence.

For Lip, that means a life without alcohol, or at least without heavy use of alcohol. The premiere, written by series creator John Wells, skips over Lip’s month in rehab, but he emerges resentful of the clichés but seemingly having learned that he had a problem. He returns with what seems like a new form of self-control: when he opens the fridge and finds beer, he has cola instead, and says there’s no need to hide the beer that’s in the house. While I was originally afraid he might try to hide his time in rehab from his family, he’s an open book, speaking frankly with Fiona about his time in recovery and his need to get his life back in order. But when he arrives at the Alibi Room, we learn that Lip doesn’t think he’s an alcoholic—rather, he thinks he just let himself get out of control, and has instead devised a system based on his collection of AA chips. Lip isn’t giving up alcohol cold turkey: he’s simply not drinking before 7pm, or on an empty stomach, or more than 2 oz. in an hour.

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It’s a tough storyline to watch, oddly because of how stable Lip is—his system works, insofar as it allows him to enjoy a night of drinking and still have his wits about him by the end, waking up comfortably hungover the next morning with plenty of time to get ready and head into work with Fiona. But Lip’s life is stable while he basically resigns himself to the life he would have had if he had never gotten scholarships, and never given himself an opportunity to escape from the South Side. Lip was expelled and fired, and although he talks of getting back into an internship or transferring his credits, I share Fiona’s concern at how readily Lip falls comfortably into the job at Patsy’s and a life of dropping into the Alibi Room. The comfort with which Lip settles back into his old life reminds us how easy it could be for him to get stuck in it, and that’s effectively my worst case scenario for the character. Lip is the one Gallagher with a clear shot of class mobility, and so it’s alarming to see him effectively training for a more stable version of his father’s existence. Jeremy Allen White was given a whole mess of melodrama to work with last year, but I’ve always preferred to see Lip’s struggle more internalized, and he does a nice job working through the character’s carefully constructed defense mechanisms in his re-entry into the real world.

As for Fiona, meanwhile, thank the gods—she’s sworn off relationships. The show doesn’t even pretend to hide the meta-commentary on display here: Lip, playing the role of audience surrogate, calls her out for constantly being in and out of relationships, a critique that has been made here and elsewhere as it relates to the show’s patterns. And the one benefit to diminished returns due to repetitive storylines is that when the show eventually breaks out of them, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Seeing Fiona just living her life—getting the kids out of bed and to school, keeping things moving as the temporary manager of the diner—is intensely refreshing, and the assuredness with which Fiona takes control of situations is a joy to watch. The one benefit of Frank surviving is that we get to see Fiona literally dragging him down the stairs and out the front door, throwing out the trash and embracing her new “Warrior” tattoo.

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I don’t know how long the show will allow Fiona to remain without a love interest, but “Hiraeth” functions as a sort of promissory note, as far as I’m concerned. The show is unabashed about most of its patterns, especially as it concerns Frank, who will likely continue to be a cancer on the show until the very end. But with Fiona, the show has turned one of its storytelling problems into part of the text, using Fiona’s change of perspective as a way to inject change into a show that is largely treading the same water as it did six seasons ago. The show doesn’t need to dramatically reinvent itself to succeed dramatically—it just needs to take one or two characters and change up their patterns enough to feel like the story and the series are moving toward something meaningful.

“Hiraeth” is a Welsh term, effectively meaning a “great longing for home.” It describes Lip’s comfort in his old life, or Fiona’s struggle to maintain a new one, but it perhaps best exemplifies Frank’s existence. Frank is awoken from his coma amidst an underwater dream where he sees his family, each now living a life of their own, and he is legitimately devastated that none of them even bothered to look for him, even before he learns that they were the ones who threw him in the river in the first place. He eventually struggles his way into the house and nails himself in his old bedroom, because there’s a simple truth for Frank: he has nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do.

And while that’s why I’d like to see what Shameless looks like without having to spend time on his aimless journey, there is thematic value to Frank that works when it’s well-articulated. Indeed, Shameless as a whole is at a point where it’s not that its formula is unsustainable for this many seasons, but rather that the degree of difficulty becomes much higher, and missteps become more common. The seventh season begins in a strong place not because it’s breaking new ground, but because it leans into a stable foundation that can be productively tested in the weeks that follow. It’s not the show’s flashiest premiere, but it’s a solid building block, and that’s exactly what Shameless needs if it’s not willing to blow things up and start fresh.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back for another season of Shameless coverage here at The A.V. Club—I appreciate you taking the time to join me on this journey, and as always I note that I’ll be in the comments a bit each week if there’s anything people would like to discuss further. I’m also curious if any of you caught up on the show via Netflix, where the first four seasons are now streaming.
  • Speaking of discussing further, I wrote a bit about the show’s struggles to navigate the end of Ian and Mickey’s relationship in a “For Our Consideration” piece on fan engagement earlier this Spring, in case you missed it. It’s clear at this point the show is content to erase Mickey—he doesn’t even come up as his son becomes a bigger part of the story in the throuple—but I have to imagine that those invested in Gallavich are still going to have some issues with the way Ian’s story has played out.
  • I had the chance to speak with executive producer Nancy M. Pimental over the summer, and we talked a bit about the show’s future and how they’re thinking about the series’ potential conclusion. I haven’t had a chance to transcribe that interview yet, but I’m definitely viewing the season through the prism of a writer’s room that has begun thinking about where they want these characters to end up, and I’ll share it when I get it put together.
  • I imagine most viewers saw Fiona dismiss that dude who wanted to take Fiona to see Radiohead—which, who invites a first date to a Radiohead show? But, I digress—and thought it was a bit player with no potential future on the show, but I got super distracted by the fact it was John Hennigan (nee Morrison), former WWE wrestler and current Lucha Underground star. I doubt he’ll recur, but I still got a kick out of the idea of Fiona dating a professional wrestler.
  • The opening scene was really striking and evocative, but it played a little weird after a very extensive “Previously On” sequence and the show’s lengthy credits. It’s functioning as a recap of sorts of where the characters left off, but it feels repetitive after a recap already happened, and I wish the show had switched it up and done a cold open.
  • I buy Svetlana as a shrewd businesswoman. It’s reasonable that she could be a math genius. However, the idea that she’s have such an intense knowledge of financial planning writ well is, well, a little more suspect given where/how we first met her. I’m not against retconning as her role becomes larger, but this felt a bit too fast.
  • I keep wondering when they’re going to turn Liam into more of a character, but for now they’re getting good mileage out of his lack of communication, as in his choice to ignore Frank and keep watching Rick and Morty.
  • “You’re off the professors, I’m off the men”—see, Fiona, I hear you here, but we can’t compare these situations. If you get another boyfriend, I’ll be disappointed, but I think it could work. If Lip sleeps with another professor, I’m gonna throw some things at the TV.

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