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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shameless continues to test the viability of a no-stakes final season

Illustration for article titled iShameless /icontinues to test the viability of a no-stakes final seasoni/i
Photo: Showtime
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On a macro level, the absence of stakes is one of the (many) problems plaguing Shameless entering its final season. Whether due to the absolute disinterest in continuity between seasons or the siloing of storylines from one another, the show’s writers have used the idea of the show as a “sitcom” to abandon the type of storyline that felt like it could fully disrupt these characters’ lives. Even in a season with a deadly pandemic, the show remains defined by this sense that no matter what is going on around them, the Gallaghers are always going to be Gallaghers, and that’s the comic/dramatic constant the show wants to focus on.

But if we go story-by-story, I’m willing to admit that there are contexts where the choice isn’t entirely debilitating. Yes, as we’ve talked to death, I believe Shameless is a dramatic television series that is at its best explore the costs and consequences of the Gallagher family’s choices, and this disconnect with John Wells’ insistence it’s a zany comedy is a lot of where my frustration with the show comes from. But I also see how removing some of the stakes from Ian and Mickey’s storylines works well in this episode. Sure, I think the show would be more interesting if they let these two work out their emotional issues in a dramatic context, but letting Mickey get guilted into trying to go legit by an ad for community college and then quickly spiral into a criminal enterprise is fun to watch, something that I wouldn’t have said for anything in the premiere. And the conclusion provides the charming tableau of Ian withholding sex while Mickey showers him with ones and ponders jerking off with his dirty money, their relationship still defined by conflict but not conflict that threatens their marriage in any meaningful way.

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And that, I think, is why I’m willing to accept lower stakes for Ian and Mickey: after their extremely rocky journey to this point, I don’t want every bump in the road that the show is using for comedy—here, Mickey’s unwillingness to get a job—to be presented as though it is going to tear them apart again. I’m hopeful that eventually they’ll let Mickey express his feelings a bit more—maybe give him someone to talk to that isn’t Ian?—but we got more of his point-of-view here, and the episode does a much better job of articulating their conflict than the premiere did. It still doesn’t register as being fully in-character for Mickey, and the idea that it took six months for this conflict to surface remains absolutely absurd, but if we accept that there isn’t enough conflict in an actual honeymoon to drive their storytelling, the version of the story we see here feels like the right tone to be striking with these two characters.

But the rest of “Go Home, Gentrifier!” is a reminder that if there’s no stakes in a particular story, it’s hard to invest much in it. In Lip’s case, it looks like there’s stakes when someone starts busting his house’s windows and trashing his curb appeal, as the show finally seemed to realize that Lip was gentrifying his own neighborhood. But when it’s revealed that the crimes are perpetrated by old women worried about their rents and property taxes going up, and the solution is just to trash the house themselves and go all American Vandal with some spray paint, you realize that everything about this story is transient. The neighbor tries to point out to Lip that fixing up a house you’re renting is dumb, but he insists that he just wants some nice things for a change, and yet the episode doesn’t try to unpack that. And because the story seems to be “resolved” when they just decide to do a reverse HGTV to keep from angering the neighbors, I don’t have faith the show will think about Lip’s former desires for upward mobility, and how they’re shaping his truly dumb “renting and fixing up a money pit” situation. Instead, it just feels like a story for the sake of having a story, which is the very definition of a lack of stakes.

The longer a story goes without stakes, the harder it is to invest in its outcome, and this is why I have absolutely nothing to say about Frank’s marijuana dealing with Kev and Vee, because who the hell cares about any of them right now? It would be one thing if it felt like Kev and Vee were only trying this because they needed to make ends meet, and thus there was an economic necessity angle to play out for stakes. But the show justified their entry into weed by talking about how lucrative it would be for them even with the bar “shut down,” meaning that we’re just supposed to be invested in a storyline entirely cut off from the rest of the show for unknown reasons? The show has absolutely destroyed any interest I could imagine having in Frank, and Kev and Vee have been too isolated for too long, and so the choice to combine them just results in a big ball of nothing. I don’t care what the financial split in their deal is, I don’t care how it eventually all goes wrong, and I wish they could just cut them altogether and expand the other stories in a meaningful way.

Carl and Debbie would be one space for expansion, and Carl’s story definitely feels expanded here, and is arguably the part of the episode where the lack of stakes is most effective since it’s working against expectation: throwing Carl a curveball by having his partner be a crime-avoiding Joshua Malina is a funny idea, and while it devolves into sex escapades without much warning I thought Malina had a nice chemistry with Ethan Cutkosky, who hasn’t had such a competent scene partner in a while. Even if I’m deeply wary of the show tackling police storylines right now, this approach mostly worked as a low-stakes entry into stories that ultimately need to have some kind of stakes eventually. I don’t know if the potential benefit of these police stories to the show’s weightiness is worth the high probability the show drops the ball, but it does at least suggest the show understands they need to create something of substance for the season to sustain itself.

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But I am just going to say it: this will not involve Debbie, because we are officially past the point of no return on my ever caring about Debbie Gallagher. This is a story designed to evoke sympathy for Debbie: she pushes Franny into a princess party because it’s the birthday she never got to have, a reminder of her rough childhood. But honestly, the idea that the trauma Debbie experienced justified any of her teenage/adult choices has never held water: she tricked her boyfriend into getting her pregnant, chose to have the baby despite having no way to support her, and has painted herself a victim ever since in ways that make it hard for me to feel like the fact she didn’t get a princess party as a kid means I’m supposed to be sad she was forced to settle for a Dracula bounce house. Plus, in what universe do we think Fiona wouldn’t have worked her ass off to give 5-year-old Debbie the best birthday party possible, even if she couldn’t afford to deck out the house in princess gear (although where convicted sex offender Debbie is getting that money is another question)? Even before the show had Debbie parade around a dollar store without a mask during a pandemic, I had effectively turned against her, but watching her force her daughter into that mess solely to serve her own pity party just feels like the end of the road.

And here’s the thing: in a version of Shameless where there are dramatic stakes, Debbie’s story might have worked. It could have been about all of the characters reflecting on what birthdays meant to them as children, and how she’s trying to aspire to something beyond “doing the best they could” and got carried away. You could tie it into Lip’s story about gentrifying a house he doesn’t own, how both of them are forcing their way to symbols of status in a self-destructive fashion. Heck, you could even loop in Kev and Vee if you really wanted to, and think about how Frank’s promise of high-end product and illegal drug trades is more than they signed up for, and they’re content with a little rotating kiosk in the bar served by legal dispensaries, having moved past the old days of selling weed out of the ice cream truck. The problem with writing about Shameless every week is that it wouldn’t be hard to reimagine the show in a more interesting format, and even if I “accept” that the show has no interest in this, it’s always there on the surface, unavoidable.

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“Go Home, Gentrifier!” could be a reflective experience that solidified each character’s place within key themes of the show, raising the stakes of their respective choices as the show reaches its conclusion: instead it’s an occasionally amusing but mostly pointless exercise, far from what a final season of even a low-stakes show demands.

Stray observations

  • I thought the scene of the whole family at breakfast got to be a little sitcom-y, but the characters are all together so rarely that I’ll take anything I can get.
  • There’s absolutely no stakes in Liam’s “Lunch Debt” story, which is an example of the show saying “This is a headline, can we make a story about this?” and then making a story about it with little to no impact on anything in particular. Not a terrible story, and the idea of Lunch Debt is indeed awful, but it adds up to nothing for Liam.
  • I know Wells said we’re supposed to see mask use as a character point, so we can read into the dollar store scene that Debbie is an asshole (no mask at all, doesn’t fix Franny’s mask after it falls down off her nose), Sandy is lazy (has face covering, not covering face), and Tami thinks she’s careful but isn’t (wears mask correctly, but then pulls it down to talk on the phone)? That tracks.
  • Notably, the show uses dialogue to justify the lack of masks in some scenes, like the cop storyline, but not necessarily in others. And there’s still clearly a desire to have characters who are speaking without a mask, as when Lip’s neighbor confronts him with her mask down while her non-speaking co-conspirators have their masks on behind her.
  • They’re doing a decent job using visual effects to place the version of the Gallagher house they built on the lot into the city, honestly, but the opening scene of Carl running through “Chicago” was so aggressively Los Angeles, and a lot of other scenes have the directors using depth of field to create extremely blurry backgrounds that are getting distracting. I can’t be mad given the circumstances, but I think the opening scene wasn’t valuable enough to justify the dissonance.
  • What’s Their Age Again?: Franny is turning 5, and Debbie was 15 when she was pregnant, which means she has to be at least 20, so Carl could actually be 19 like he says he is, but this makes Debbie’s claim she was “only barely” older than Julia that much more suspect, and one more mark in the “Debbie is irredeemably terrible” column.
  • I didn’t particularly want to have to revisit the Kermit/Tommy storyline, but the runner about why they were sitting so far apart was a reliable sitcom runner, which is better than the show manages elsewhere with that type of story, so I’ll allow it.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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