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Shameless: “Cascading Failures”

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Shameless is a show that refuses to grow up. And that’s not always a bad thing, as puerile humor and anti-social behavior are often used to great effect in the show. But it does become a problem when Shameless indulges all its worst instincts simultaneously, and “Cascading Failures” is a good example of that. And it’s too bad, because the episode is built on an interesting premise, and has a few stellar scenes sprinkled through it, but generally suffers from a lack of focus and a general tendency toward throwing really weird ideas against the wall to see what sticks.


When I talk about the immaturity of Shameless, I don’t just mean that its sense of humor is such that it would be easy to imagine the show being narrated by Carl. One of the marks of a show maturing is when it stops trying to pretend certain consequences that can’t possibly happen will, in fact, happen. So I have to start from the ending and work my way back here, because the final scene is a perfect example of this. Frank is a tricky character to write because he has no desire to be around any of the other characters, and they have no desire to be around him. The only way to keep Frank involved in the story is to contrive different ways to have the other characters need him for some purpose, and that can be a little trying at times, but enjoying this show means accepting that as it is. Frank isn’t going anywhere, and he’ll never be completely exiled from the family.

I liked the idea of the last scene, of Fiona finding out that Frank made the call to Family Services and of letting the rage wash over her face. I love how Emmy Rossum played the scene. But what does it add up to? What does it really mean going forward? There’s a certain point at which Frank really stepped in it this time stops working as a story because the stakes don’t feel genuine, and we’re long past that point by now, especially in a season that began with Frank out of the picture. The last scene should have packed more of a punch, but it’s an example of Shameless starting to bump up against some of its barriers.


While it’s too bad that the biggest plot development of the episode was a bit of a letdown, I can forgive Shameless for its ongoing Frank problem, one that will always take some ingenuity and perhaps a bit of contrivance to work around. But in an episode where the idea is that Fiona needs Frank’s help for something and has to wrangle him, I need the other stories to really crackle to make up for a Frank and Fiona story that will ultimately be neutralized. But there wasn’t enough in “Cascading Failures” that worked to make up the hole in its center.

The idea of the Gallaghers having a blithe attitude toward having the children seized by the state is a pretty terrific idea. Of course they would be used to this kind of thing now, and they know how to navigate the situation. But this time, things don’t shake out the way they usually do. Debbie gets sent to a slave-driving foster child hoarder, while Ian and Lip wind up in a group home for street toughs and Carl and Liam get taken in by a cartoonish, interracial gay couple.


In addition to the obvious fish-out-of-water appeal of the Gallagher kids in their new environments, the story also works by throwing a wrench into the already delicate Fiona and Jimmy dynamic. After Fiona drew blood in their last argument, Jimmy is back, but the chill hasn’t broken yet. Having the kids taken could have added more stress to Fiona and Jimmy’s situation, since it was yet another example of Fiona whirling from crisis to crisis, never having the time or energy to attend to Jimmy’s needs. But as much as Fiona has tried to resist, she likes having someone to lean on, to help her through her constant emergencies, and their relationship works better when she’s in firefighter mode. Fiona’s series of cascading failures—losing the kids and getting canned from Bobby’s Blowjob Bodega—is the perfect catalyst for Fiona and Jimmy to move back to their starting positions.

The Gallagher diaspora, as interesting an idea as it is, never really adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Fiona’s visit to Debbie’s new home was a terrific scene, and Debbie’s unflappable spirit is really the heart of this filthy show. But Carl and Liam’s “foursome” with Cassius and Lanier was a bit too obvious to be really satisfying, since it didn’t do anything new with the stereotype of the double-income-no-kids gay couple. And Lip and Ian’s trip to the group home didn’t do much other than communicate that there is very abstract menace surrounding them there. I do appreciate that the writers didn’t take the easy way out by having the kids back home in a single episode, but there wasn’t a ton of immediate gratification in this episode.


Unless you like profoundly icky scenes in which characters are involved in sexual scenarios with their parents, in which case, there was plenty of immediate gratification in this episode. What I will commend Shameless for is really committing to telling all out batshit stories and really going for it. While it was pretty obvious early on the direction things were going when Kev and V kept fretting about their narrowing options for parenthood, I would be lying if I was to say I saw the story culminating in a full-blown mother-and-daughter threesome. I appreciate the commitment to the story, if not the story itself.

I wasn’t crazy about the Ian and Mickey story either. It definitely kept me interested and made me feel something, though it could have just been the tonal whiplash. But something about it felt really off-key. Terry Milkovich is more of an idea than a character, so it seems like a stretch to say I didn’t feel like Terry would do that, but I didn’t feel like Terry would do that. Extreme violence? Absolutely. Throwing a hooker into the mix and making Ian watch at gunpoint? That didn’t seem quite right to me. And maybe it’s not something I’d have viewed with as much skepticism if it hadn’t come in the same episode with the Kev-V-and-Mama-makes-three story, but it felt like a solid moment was cheapened.


Stray observations:

  • Thanks much to Molly Eichel for her Second Opinion last week.
  • Joan Cusack killed it this week, and between Sheila’s Monica performance and the role-playing with Frank in parenting class, Sheila gets this week’s MVP.
  • Another quibble about the Ian and Mickey scene: So Mickey is into Ben Wa balls now? I don’t buy it. That’s expert gay, and Mickey is an amateur.
  • Carl on gay porn: “Why do they all have mustaches?” A better question: why, when people watch porn on movies and in television, is it always ‘70s porn?
  • Liam can talk now. And he’s a totally scene stealer.
  • Christian TV's “1,2,3 Turnaround” will never die. I swear, it’s like there’s a competition between this and KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” for Most Durable Pop Music Cue.

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