The fourth season of a show is almost always a challenge for the writers’ room. Often, the first two seasons have plot elements that the showrunners had in mind since the pilot, while the third season manages the fallout of those first ideas. But by the fourth season, the original wellspring of ideas has run dry, and the show has fans—either in terms of solid viewership or a friendly network.
So it is a feat to pull off a best season in the fourth act, but Shameless has. This season is the strongest yet, playing its hand so well that the cards are already on the table, as the show finally shifted away from some of it’s perpetual issue, which were holdovers from the premise of the show. The Showtime series was based on Paul Abbott’s Shameless that aired in the United Kingdom (Abbott is a co-producer of the American show as well). A few of the plotlines in the first season were lifted straight from the UK version, as were the characters, names, and basic personalities.
It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, to be honest. The UK series’ Gallagher clan lived in public housing and off of social services checks; much of the premise is based on the idea that the family can (somewhat) survive off of Britain’s far broader public assistance plans and nationalized healthcare. Moving the Gallaghers, largely intact, to the South Side of Chicago (Back Of The Yards, to be exact) didn’t translate perfectly, because American politics—and especially Chicago politics—has its own unique and terrible pitfalls. (Sheila’s character, in particular, played in the U.S. by Joan Cusack, makes very little sense when she’s not living off of a massive disability check.)
But now that these American characters have grown into a life of their own without the British show hanging over their heads—and now that Shameless is, for Emmy purposes, a comedy, instead of a drama—the fourth season takes its time in shaking off the aspects of the preceding years that didn’t work for the show, investing in what this American Shameless succeeds at.
Though the show that Shameless is probably most similar to is its British sister, Downton Abbey. The time periods are off—the socioeconomic classes are way off—but the appeal and storytelling methods of both, are surprisingly similar. Like Downton, Shameless is far less about a particular story and instead mostly about a particular family; and, though they don’t live in a mansion, much of the show is told from inside the ramshackle Gallagher house. The Crawleys and the Gallaghers both have struggled with new occupants of the house and lost family members; they’ve also both struggled with losing their homes, due to economic pressures. Both shows are about two very different forms of survival. And maybe Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary has finer clothes, but Emmy Rossum’s Fiona could go toe-to-toe with her on sheer nerve.
Both shows also, more often than not, trip over themselves, even in the midst of their finest moments. Shameless is often termed “shaggy”—which is to say, it just tells too much story. Despite consistently fantastic production, there’s a note here that is not quite the polished, act-based prestige drama we have grown accustomed to. Both series mug a little too much for the camera—Shameless with poverty porn, Downton with aristocrat porn—and both have had trouble shaking bad storytelling habits, whether that’s an eight-year long will-they, won’t-they or a three-year long will-they,won’t-they.
In this fourth season, the biggest change for Shameless was that it jettisoned (Literally; he was thrown off a boat.) one if its series regulars—Jimmy/Steve, Fiona’s on-and-off again boyfriend, played by Justin Chatwin, who came to the Gallaghers as a tourist from the rest of the world—an easy in for new viewers, who were unlikely to immediately understand the Gallagher world. But as the series matured, he became unnecessary—the Gallaghers themselves grew into characters with more perspective, and Jimmy’s contribution was mostly making fun of or complaining about of their grossness.
Much of this season has implicitly been about his absence—though it has taken the form of a slow, careful focus on Rossum, its female lead. Her Fiona has always been a powerhouse on the show—radiating a working-class sensibility of warmth, concern, and self-sabotage that colors most of the show. This season was the first time that Fiona really failed. Multiple episodes in this season open with Fiona just waking up. That’s a pretty literal metaphor to make—you mean she’s waking up in more ways than one?—but it’s to Rossum’s credit, and the directors who have worked with her, that each scene of wakefulness is both hopeful and tinged with horror. Fiona doesn’t know who she is anymore, now that her kids are growing up and she’s no longer “ghetto married.” She wakes up peering through a curtain of hair, and she’s scared, because it’s a new day, and who knows what will happen.
How unexpected, that Fiona Gallagher would suddenly be nostalgic for the days when her parents ran out on them and she had to raise her five brothers and sisters by herself. But in the trenches, at least she knew who she was; now, she doesn’t know, no one does.
It’s ironic that this is the season where Showtime reclassified Shameless as a comedy for Emmy purposes—because as this show is maturing, it’s left behind its gross poverty porn and opted instead for the internal horror these characters are facing as they realize, again and again, just how ill-equipped they are for the real world. Shameless has many moments of triumph—and it also manages to find humor in what anyone else would see as horrible tragedy—but this fourth season, in which the characters begin to interact with the wider world, is its darkest yet. For once, instead of merely surviving, the Gallaghers are trying to grow—and it is not easy.
This is quickly encapsulated in a scene between two of the series regulars: newly minted college freshman, Lip (Jeremy Allen White), and good-natured Kevin (Steve Howey), the neighborhood bartender. Lip comes home to complain about how hard college is, and talks about dropping out. Kevin is firm, as he plonks down a beer: “This isn’t your home. It’s where you grew up. Grow the fuck up.”
Shameless has taken Kevin’s advice. The more this show grows, the more it becomes an absorbing character drama with unforgettable performances. The tone isn’t always quite there—the show has not shaken off all of its foibles, and Sheila’s storyline is one of them. But this season sees the sudden puberty of Debbie (Emma Kenney) and Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), in ways both hilarious and terrifying, which demonstrates how strong these young actors are and how much depth the show has to work with. Little Liam (Brenden Sims) is only 3, but depending how fast the fifth and sixth seasons film, he might be delivering his own stellar performances soon.
Most importantly, what Shameless has accomplished is creating a set of stories that sneaks under the audience’s skin and stays there. As Joshua Alston observes in his weekly reviews, each season follows a similar arc—a slow build, with sometimes abrupt tonal shifts between tragedy and gross comedy—and then a penultimate episode that packs the emotional punch of the entire season preceding it. That slow build gives the characters time to sneak up on you. By this season’s penultimate episode, “Emily,” the emotional resonance of the show reaches fever pitch. And for once, the show is not mocking its own tragedies, or cramming all the stories into each episode, just so everyone can show up.
Like its characters, Shameless has matured. It’s less stuck in its own world, and far more relatable. This is a season with more confidence than before. The Gallaghers may be in dire straits, but they’ll be fine, because Shameless knows what it’s doing.
Starring: William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan, Ethan Cutkosky
Season four’s finale will air Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Full series to date watched for review