Emmy Rossum, Ethan Cutkosky

In “Carl’s First Sentencing,” familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds cautious optimism tinged with deja vu. It’s the first episode of the season that feels like “classic Shameless,” but in this case, that means many of its stories faintly echo plots the show has already burned through. Given that season five has been characterized by false starts and meandering detours, “Carl’s First Sentencing” feels like a refreshing return to form in some spots, and like a retread in others. But even the too-familiar beats are comforting after a run of episodes that have felt not quite right despite some great material sprinkled throughout them.

The milestone commemorated in the title takes up the majority of the episode’s time, with Carl and Chuckie facing time for Carl’s heroin scheme, and Sammi at odds with the rest of the Gallaghers over it. Each season of Shameless features an episode or two chronicling Carl’s progression from mischievous delinquent to outright sociopath, so Carl’s first major appearance before a judge is an event years in the making. The episode doesn’t wring the full potential out of the escalating Sammi-Fiona feud, but does get some comedic mileage out of Sammi instructing Chuckie how to survive in juvenile detention while a horrified public defender looks on in disbelief. Like most of the comic material in Shameless, the Chuckie scenes are a bit uncomfortable, especially now that there’s been confirmation of Chuckie’s developmental issues. Since introducing Sammi and Chuckie last scene, Shameless has played coy about what Chuckie’s intellectual situation is, much like The Office did with Kevin Malone. Now that it’s been confirmed that Chuckie has an IQ of 71, it’s really kind of sad to see the kid railroaded this way. But the neo-Nazis will look after him, thanks to a quickie swastika tattoo courtesy of Sammi, so that’s…comforting?

Ian finally agrees to go on his meds full-time after he lapses into a psychotic episode and becomes convinced the military police have come to take him into custody. He grabs a baseball bat and darts between the front and back doors of Gallagher Manor, prepared to go down fighting, but instead he takes a startled swing and comes perilously close to caving Debbie’s skull in. Ian’s pursuit of treatment is a bittersweet development. Mickey is there with Ian, continuing his presence and support after bobbling in the last episode, and Ian’s commitment to medication puts him on track to long-term mental stability. But when it comes to medicating a condition like bipolar disorder, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet. There is a long period of fumbling trial-and-error to determine the chemical cocktail that will properly treat the condition, a process that can take months, if not years. And even when Ian finally lucks up on the right combination of drugs, he’ll be stuck taking it for decades, news neither he nor Mickey appeared to take well. Ian and Mickey’s love story is as unique as it is completely ordinary. Like any relationship, there will be trials, then greater trials, then slightly different trials. Long-term, committed relationships are endurance tests. That’s an acutely painful lesson for a couple like Ian and Mickey, for whom even the typically worry-free courtship phase was an emotional gauntlet.

Lip gets quite a bit of screen time in “Carl’s First Sentencing,” but it’s easily the sloppiest part of the episode, as Lip’s arc has been all over the place for the whole season. He’s still trying to figure out a way to zero out his tuition balance, including an attempt to recruit a hacker to tunnel into the financial aid system and tweak Lip’s account. Instead, the financial aid officer tracks Lip down and informs him that he’s been granted a reprieve by a generous almost-alumnus who started a nude housecleaning service and is using his millions to pay it forward. It’s an abrupt, muted resolution to a story that seemed like it was building to something much heavier, between Lip’s massive credit-card debt and his hasty decision to get back into the drug game. In addition to the rushed pace, the episode seems to orphan Lip’s tuition concerns in the interest of chasing his next storyline, which focuses on an affair with Helene, his Critical Theory professor. The twist is that Helene is married to a man who is fully aware of her extramarital dalliances. It’s a slightly different take on a Lip story, but not different enough to justify yet another plot in which Lip’s life is complicated by the fact that women are powerless against his rakish good looks and slacker charm.

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The more successful half-twist comes in Frank’s storyline. He begins a twisted friendship with Bianca, a doctor who shuts down while attempting to clean Frank’s gunshot wound, then reveals she’s been diagnosed with stage three pancreatic cancer and has incredibly narrow odds of survival. Bianca has always been a straight arrow, refusing drugs and alcohol to focus on her studies and build an impressive career at only 32. Now, with a short time to live, Bianca wants to experience all the debauchery she’s been denying herself. Of all the Shameless stories in which some poor, desperate soul happens to come along just when Frank is in need of something to do, this is among the best. Frank seems genuinely happy to serve as Bianca’s substance-abuse mentor, and seems to care about her in an uncharacteristic way. It certainly helps that Bianca has money and no future to save it for, and is perfectly happy to cover Frank’s tab in exchange for his tutelage. But in Bianca, Frank has found a truly kindred spirit, someone who has a reason to believe in Frank’s you-only-live-once worldview and wants to walk with him on the wild side. Bianca is the daughter Frank never had, and Bojana Novakovic turns in a lovely performance, making this the least annoying Frank plot in ages.

As was the case last week, Fiona is somewhat marginalized with Jimmy out of the picture and Gus off on tour without her. She’s certainly busy between trying to help Carl dodge juvenile detention with the perfect geeky get-up, leaning on Ian to get medicated, and squabbling with Sammi. But the story that truly belongs to Fiona is the one in which Fiona has to come to Sean’s aid to prevent him from relapsing when his parole officer prevents him from moving to Pittsburgh to follow his ex-wife and son. Dermot Mulroney has performed reliably this season, so much so it’s a shame we’ve seen so little of him. The deeper problem is that yet again, Fiona’s story is defined almost exclusively by the men in her life. For most of the season, Sean’s role has been to pop up periodically to grumble something indicating his jealousy over Fiona’s marriage to Gus. But with two of Fiona’s three suitors out of pocket, suddenly the focus goes to Sean and his needs. Fiona and Sean have an intriguing relationship, but here, the plot feels reminiscent of a Frank story, in which someone else goes into crisis mode so Fiona has something has do. Yet another unfortunate similarity between father and daughter.

Stray observations:

  • Kevin is really enjoying the single life as the “Rape Walker,” given the conflicted dual responsibility of escorting drunken undergrads back to their dorm rooms so they don’t get taken advantage of sexually and taking advantage of them sexually.
  • Frank takes Bianca to his designated yelling-at-God perch in a lovely callback.
  • I can’t condone Bianca punching her high-school nemesis in the face. Having sex in a Popeye’s bathroom is its own punishment.
  • Sammi: “I hope the kids in juvie make Carl toss their salad. Or toss his salad, whichever’s worse.”
  • Why again is Sammi still living with the Gallaghers?

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