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Although we can argue about the effectiveness of many of Fiona’s stories over the course of Shameless’ first nine seasons, there was no question that she served as the emotional core of the show. And I would also argue that the central problem of the season thus far is that there has been no effort to replace her, believing (wrongly) that the cumulative impact of the other Gallaghers’ stories would naturally fill the gaping hole at the story’s center.

“Debbie Might Be A Prostitute” is the first episode that seems to acknowledge this problem outright, and moves to address it in the only logical fashion. Going into this season, I would have identified Lip as Fiona’s replacement, but that has proven impossible. While Lip’s relationship with Tami and their parenting of Fred is not a bad story, it involves a character we barely know, and has little to no history in the grand scheme of the series. The writers have shown very little interest in how Lip’s new role of father is linked to any of his previous storylines, effectively rebooting his characterization to serve a plot function. There’s no substance here: there’s nothing exciting about Tami’s racist Aunt showing up to help resolve their childcare problems, and the script has nothing to say in regards to their discussion of who Fred’s legal guardian would be in the instance something happened to both of them. It’s not a bad way to fill space, but it was never going to address Fiona’s absence.

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No, that burden falls to Ian and Mickey, a process that should have happened at the start of the season but instead brings the season’s second act to a close. I understand the challenges of centering the show around two characters who were in prison, and then a relationship where they were separated by prison, but this episode really outlined the potential of exploring the pair in more detail. Is the setup of Paula’s untimely demise and Ian and Mickey’s each believing the other was responsible worth the silliness of that character overall? No. But these contrivances get us to a point of the two characters nearly entering a marriage of convenience, before realizing that it isn’t really necessary after all, and then confronting the state of their relationship. And that’s the first time a story this season has felt like it carried the full weight of the entire series, and not just a short-term conflict generated to fill space.

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The challenge of “Gallavich” this season is grappling with the fact that they gave these characters a happy ending last season: sure, they would have been in prison for years, but if Monaghan hadn’t decided to come back to the show Ian and Mickey would have ended this series together behind bars. And all season, the show has been trying to introduce conflict that will feel organic when we, the audience, know that there’s no universe in which this relationship is not endgame. In other words, the show has to find forms of conflict that feel real enough to generate meaningful story development, but never feel like it could actually be the end of this relationship, because those stakes will feel fundamentally false. And to me this story is a good example of that: Mickey might punch Ian after their fight at the marriage license counter to show him how he feels, but violence was literally where their relationship began, and seeing these two characters being allowed to work through their feelings was a highlight here. With the Paula situation resolved, it feels like the show is now able to revolve around their ten-season love story, and the season will be better for it.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Does this improvement extend to the rest of the stories in “Debbie Might Be A Prostitute?” Of course not. I don’t understand what we’re supposed to take away from Constance Zimmer’s character, who thinks Debbie is a prostitute, switches to treating her as an escort, and then reaches a point where they intend to start an actual relationship. There’s an explanation given (daddy issues, basically), but it does nothing to make Debbie a compelling part of this ensemble. And the less said about Carl forming a youth militia and the writers getting so low on Kev and Veronica stories that they played the multi-level marketing card, the better.

Frank and Liam’s stories, though, highlight a clear effort behind-the-scenes that is unquestionably admirable and also deeply compromised. It’s clear at this point that there is a strong desire behind the scenes to create a more diverse world within Shameless, which I do think is necessary and important. There are more characters of color on the periphery of the show, and the introduction of a female barfly with actual dialogue creates a more balanced space in the Alibi. It’s refreshing to see Frank’s silly fling with a woman living in her car to turn into a revenge plan against Frank for getting her fiancé sent to prison for cocaine possession a quarter-century ago, and it’s not nothing when Liam’s story with Todd turns into a “take a knee” story. The show Shameless was when it started would not have been talking about the “superpredator” discourses of racism of the 1990s, and it’s good that the Shameless of today is doing so.

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But these stories are too messy to deal with any of this effectively. Yes, the Alibi has a female barfly now, but the only way to achieve this was Kev and Vee raiding an AA meeting and taking its leader off the wagon? Todd takes a knee, but only because Liam tricks him into it, and then it turns into a weirdly targeted satire of advocacy when he lists a series of bonkers causes and the crowd eats it up anyway? We don’t get resolution to Frank’s storyline, so there’s still the potential for it to turn into a meaningful engagement with injustice, but that just seems profoundly unlikely when you consider what’s happening around it. If the show’s take on athlete protest is really that “It doesn’t matter what cause they care about, people will support them anyway,” I have zero trust in how any other story will play out.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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It’s true that, by now, many viewers watching probably aren’t invested in the entirety of Shameless. There’s obviously a subsection of viewers only watching for Gallavich, and I imagine there’s some who might fast-forward through particular characters or storylines: if I’m being entirely honest, if I wasn’t writing about the show I would probably be skipping Alibi scenes, which feel like a lost cause to me. But the truth is that the show is still a whole, and they’re still set on filling over 55 minutes every week, and even with the core of the show in better shape there’s too much wasted space for the show to approach the potential of the stories it’s telling.

Stray observations

  • I didn’t like the Debbie story, but the scene where Ian and Debbie both go to Lip to talk through their problems? More of that, please.
  • The idea that Kev and Vee would so easily fall into a pyramid scheme without even Googling the product really bugs me. I get that Kevin’s not the brightest bulb, but the show plays fast and loose with how savvy Veronica is, and I dislike how easily they fall into this trap not out of desperation (like in Elizabeth Rodriguez’s post-prison Orange Is The New Black storyline) but out of greed and ignorance.
  • Yes, Mickey, there is a verb for someone being thrown out a window, and I’ve loved “defenestration” ever since I learned it in my Western Civ class 15 years ago.
  • It makes zero sense that Todd wouldn’t wait until after the anthem to tie his shoe, and that Liam posting the photo would manage to go viral. What is his social media following? Who are his followers? How would JAY-Z get word of it after like a half hour? Having that story play out over the course of an afternoon is just ridiculous.
  • Mary Kay Place deserves more than a generic Fox News-watching racist Aunt spouting exactly the dialogue you’d expect her to.
  • Did you know that Mickey’s new cousin is a lesbian? I missed it, because having her appear out of thin air and be defined exclusively by her sexuality both times was just too subtle for me.
  • I know it’s too much to ask, but I wish Carl’s desire to join the police force had been in some way connected to the superpredator discussion, and the moment a few episodes ago where Carl was VERY aware of the racism of ICE.
  • Collette Wolfe was only in a handful of episodes of Cougar Town, but I still always associate her with Cougar Town, which as I type it really does still feel like a fake TV show name but trust me it was very real.
  • Okay, look, I don’t want to appear as a narcissist, but the empty coffee cups in Debbie’s conversation with Xan from Kimmy Schmidt was too obvious not to be an assault on me and the #EmptyCupAwards personally.
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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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