One of the most difficult critiques to make of a television show is that it feels too much like a television show.
There’s no way to avoid the inherent bullshit of such a claim. Of course Shameless feels like a television show: it is a television show, and one that in its simultaneous embrace of two separate televisual forms rarely known for their realism (the soap opera and the sitcom) has made no particular grasp at pure verisimilitude.
But the issue that arises in “The F Word”—a definite improvement over last week’s outing—is a reminder that the show’s success rests on how it balances its televisuality with its interest in grounding this story in human experience. It’s a balance that will grow tougher and tougher as the show goes on, which will now include at least a seventh season. The longer Shameless runs, the more it will have to reinvent itself, and the more it will need to rely on the televisual reality of plot twists and character changes. And every time the show makes one of those decisions, it’s hard not to go back and remember a time when the show seemed less labored in its storytelling because everything was happening for the first time.
Case in point: Fiona getting pregnant at the same time as Debbie feels too much like a television show. It is statistically possible for someone on the pill to get pregnant (and per our discussion in the comments last week, they’re going with the “No contraception is 100% effective” logic here), but the chances of it happening at this exact moment when it is most convenient for the parallel with Debbie’s pregnancy relies on a distinctly televisual coincidence. Fiona got pregnant because it forces a wide range of issues: Fiona’s reaction to Debbie’s pregnancy, Fiona’s failure to process her failed marriage with Gus (and Jimmy/Steve’s role in the situation), and even Fiona’s evolving relationship with recently-relapsed Sean. But these practical uses for the storyline are too close to the surface, leaving the plot development to feel like a byproduct of the writer’s room instead of the characters or the situations they find themselves in.
But “The F Word” isn’t about plot development. There are few new twists to be found here, focusing instead of both short-term and long-term fallouts from what has happened in the past. Alternatively titled “Fiona Gallagher: This Is Your Shitty Life,” the episode feels like the first time since Liam’s overdose that Fiona has fully taken stock of her surroundings. Fiona is not confused about her pregnancy: she does not want a baby, she is getting an abortion, and that’s the end of that discussion. But the pregnancy pulls her vulnerabilities to the surface, and that’s something Fiona doesn’t want to deal with. She hates the way it compromises her position regarding Debbie’s pregnancy, and Debbie throws the failed marriage to Gus into the equation for good measure. When she goes to V to confide in her about the pregnancy, she is not ashamed of the fact that three different men could be the baby’s father, but saying it out loud is the first time she’s fully acknowledged the events of last season. And with new perspective she acknowledges she could have done better to connect with Debbie, and she decides to do her best to make things right with Gus.
It’s no shock that this goes horribly awry. At first, Fiona’s journey through her mistakes takes the form of penance, believing that a genuine apology or an act of goodwill could smooth over her fractured relationships with Debbie and Gus. But her apology does nothing for Debbie, who is now doubly angry that Fiona would want to abort her own baby’s playmate, and her experience with Gus is an unmitigated disaster. The show uses the dramatic license that comes with characters abandoned by the narrative and left to fester offscreen, as Gus rips into Fiona in song as a form of public revenge for breaking his heart.
It’s a cruel thing for Gus to do, perhaps, but he’s right to be angry: Fiona did ghost him, and rushed into a marriage that she never really felt committed to. However, at the same time—and this is important—Fiona also has every right to feel angry at being publicly humiliated. Gus is not above the problems that emerged in their relationship, and could have sought to make amends instead of taking this opportunity to roast her in a room full of people. Just because “The F Word” rings true to their situation doesn’t make it completely justified, and Fiona leaving without doing what she came there to do—apologize and give him back his grandmother’s ring—is Fiona waking up to the fact that she is not someone who can smooth things over easily. Her life is, for lack of a better term, fucked up, and it will always be fucked up. And the only way that life gets better is if she defends herself and takes control of the situation.
The aftermath of Frank and Debbie’s intervention is everything that defines Fiona, and features Emmy Rossum at her best. The intervention does precisely the opposite of what Frank and Debbie intended, waking her up to the fact that she is not herself if she’s backing down from her position. She might be having a shitty week, but she isn’t going to let Debbie’s delusions stand, stating in clear terms that she will offer Debbie no support if she goes through with this pregnancy. And while she is emotional as she tells Sean about her pregnancy, she is unequivocal: he doesn’t get to have an opinion about this, just like she doesn’t get to have an opinion about him relapsing. It’s a monologue that captures Fiona’s character beautifully: she is a young woman who has made mistakes and taken on more responsibility than is reasonable, but she survives by—sometimes belatedly, in this and other cases—knowing who she is. She is someone who does not want a baby, someone who will not sit by and watch Debbie throw her life away, and someone who is not going to apologize for any of it.
Fiona’s story echoes in both Kev and Debbie’s: Kev spends the episode coming to terms with what he did to Yanis, eventually landing—I hope, at least—on the fact that maybe that dumpster fire of a human being deserved to be paralyzed, while Debbie has to face her own awakening as Fiona notes having Frank on your side is maybe quite a positive development. Kev’s desire to unburden himself by telling every person he sees that he paralyzed someone is fun, and Frank’s “devil on shoulder” routine at least brings him into the family fold, but neither story amounts to anything on its own. They also don’t move past the fact that elements of these stories—Frank’s lack of a clear storyline and fundamental moral degradation, the lack of humor in Yanis’ bigotry—just are not working right now, and it’s wearing on the show as it moves into the season.
This is an issue in Carl’s story as well. Carl, who gets the Frank treatment by being largely off on his own here (albeit with a fun, talkative Liam at his side), is at least held accountable for his “gangster” bullshit by his would-be girlfriend, but the efforts to turn his gun sales into “ha-ha-funny” satire of gun control just never lands. I get what the show is going for, but there’s a point where credulity is stretched too thin, and the idea that the principal and several teachers would buy guns from a teenager to arm themselves to protect against school shootings becomes too absurd. The show and I are on the same page as far as the nonsense “more guns will help stop shootings” argument is concerned, but I have trouble accepting any of these adults could get past the student selling guns to other students on school grounds situation. There needed to be a voice of reason to make that story work, and that voice of reason was abandoned in favor of the cafeteria punchline that didn’t really even land.
But the most important echoes of Fiona’s central story come with Lip and Ian, who each have their strongest outings of the season by focusing on a sibling dynamic that has been lost a bit as the characters aged into their own stories. With Helene blissfully absent, the story—like Fiona’s—eschews new plot development in favor of simply taking stock of how things have changed between these two characters. Using a job on campus for Ian as a way to bring the two together, the story serves as a subtle exploration of how Lip’s class mobility—enabled by his high aptitude—has complicated his relationship with his brother. Ian shows up expecting them to hang out like the old days, but Lip’s life is different: his days are consumed by lab reports, his friends are people he’s bonded with other Schrodinger’s cat in addition to illicit substances, and as an RA he has responsibilities that put him on the opposite side of authority. And neither Ian nor Lip is really seeing the other enough to fully come to terms with this.
While there are times where characters misunderstanding one another can echo in the bullshit “televisuality” critique outlined above, here it makes perfect sense. Lip sees Ian struggling, and is clearly doing what he can to help him, but he fails to see how his help might be rubbing salt in the wound. He sees his brother, once so motivated and committed to his future, unable to hold onto a job as a busboy and showing disrespect for how Lip—and his professor, who for some reason has power over custodial hires?—has gone out on a limb to help him get back on track. But Lip is coming from the perspective of someone who has had the system work for him, and is incapable of fully understanding how Ian’s bipolar disorder is shaping his path forward. Ian, meanwhile, sees Lip’s new life as something he will never attain, which is only reinforced when Lip refuses to let him live with him. Lip is not wrong to want his independence, but it comes at a terrible time for Ian, who is trying to find someone or something to connect with and struggling to see the point of it all. And Lip, although looking out for his brother’s best interests, has himself not fully come to terms with the way Ian has changed, and it keeps them from fully speaking to one another.
I don’t know if Ian was going to jump off that bridge. It certainly seems to be implied, but it might just be how much the scene felt cribbed from Lost’s “Through The Looking Glass,” right down to the car crash and the daring rescue. It’s the kind of plot development that feels a bit rushed, but was necessary as a way to jumpstart Ian’s story: whether he decides he wants to become a firefighter or it just ends up being a meet cute, Ian’s story now has a direction. And with the Gallaghers receiving an eviction notice, the gentrification storyline is creeping closer to becoming a major plot point, reaffirming “The F Word” as the end of season six’s prologue. There may have been a few plot twists too many, and there might still be some lingering plot threads that are more unpleasant than funny or meaningful, but at the very least we got a glimpse of the kind of resonant storytelling that has sustained Shameless in the past. Now we shall see if it can be sustained in the future.
- “I get that she’s fifteen and she’s by definition a bitch, but”—thanks, Fiona, for capturing my frustration with Debbie’s storyline so eloquently. Yes, you can explain away everything with “teenager gonna teenager,” but the idea that Debbie would embody the contradiction of a woman defending her right to choose while refusing someone else’s right to make a different choice still doesn’t ring true for me. And that’s fine, and it’s silly to dwell on it when the show is so committed to it, but I’m just not able to see it.
- On the subject of “Real Talk with Fiona Gallagher”: “You are the only one who lies about pregnancies around here, Jesus.”
- Because it’s now impossible not to transpose every other piece of popular culture onto Hamilton: “It’s not so nice / It’s not so nice / To have Frank Gallagher on your side.”
- Continuity: After Kev’s fun subliminal efforts to turn the twins into the Williams sisters, V admonishes Kev for reacting to the intervention like he’s watching tennis on TV.
- I struggled with the casual nature of Frank’s retelling of forcing Monica into having kids, because it’s deplorable, but I also felt like it was the show returning to the “origins” of the family dynamic for the first time in a while. It’s a fun joke that Frank briefly forgets he’s Debbie’s father, but the show has at times done the same, so it was interesting to see it return in such a big way here.
- University Verisimilitude Corner: Beyond the weird faculty/custodial employment pipeline, not bad. Having been an RA myself, I can remember a few scenarios where people “living” with friends in residence became an issue with administration, so I bought that part of Lip’s argument (let’s ignore the Helene part, which I’m just going to pretend wasn’t mentioned).
- I hope before the series ends we get to see check-ins with each of Fiona’s exes to see how they’ve been handling their post-Fiona existence.
- As a topic of conversation, I’m wondering how everyone feels about the threat of eviction being brought forward. It makes a lot of sense story-wise, but I wonder whether the show would ever go through with it when we know that they’ve at least got another season ahead of them (if not more). Given how Fiona’s absence from the house was such an issue last season, can the show really function without that central location? I’m not convinced it can, so this registers as an empty threat.