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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shameless has its characters explore modern romance, with mixed results

Illustration for article titled Shameless has its characters explore modern romance, with mixed results
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When I spoke with Shameless executive producer Nancy M. Pimental—who also wrote “Swipe, Fuck, Leave”—this summer, one of the things I was interested in was how they approach telling stories in the seventh season of a show like Shameless. When you have a show that has already told this much story, where do you go next without the show falling into overly familiar patterns? If this show is going to run for at least one more season beyond this one, and potentially even longer, how do you keep telling stories when you don’t have a clear end goal to shoot for?

Pimental spoke about “having new stories in an old environment” in response to this question, which is true, but I would argue “Swipe, Fuck, Leave” showcases a separate approach she didn’t touch on. Kevin, Veronica, and Svetlana’s new arrangement is the kind of storyline that strikes me as Shameless’ strategy for staying fresh, which is taking the show’s central philosophy of shamelessness and testing it out on its characters. Kevin and Veronica are a perfect foil for these stories, well-rounded characters but lacking the same kind of soap opera baggage as the Gallaghers proper—the show can layer a “Husband impregnates his wife’s mother to serve as a surrogate” story or a “Throuple” storyline onto them, and it doesn’t really distract from any other element of those characters. They primarily exist as a vessel through which the show can take a story idea and explore its comic potential.

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This approach means that I’m not particularly deeply invested in Kev and Veronica’s storylines, but there’s a lightness to them that keeps them from being a point of concern. Kev deciding to create a naked maid company—“Nooks and Fannies”—that actually cleans doesn’t strike me as a particularly exciting story development, but there’s a light charm to Kev playing house husband, with Steve Howey getting a number of scenes just to sort of hang out with the kids and have fun. I still don’t necessarily know that the show found a way to get into this “Throuple” situation entirely organically, but with Kev and Veronica I don’t know if that’s overly important. They exist as a way for the show to explore shifting norms in modern relationships, and that’s a part of the show’s ongoing balance of soap opera and sitcom.

However, this same approach can be more challenging when it comes to the Gallaghers proper. “Swipe, Fuck, Leave” also explores another “modern” conception of sexuality through last week’s revelation that Caleb still sleeps with his high school girlfriend. When Ian confronts Caleb about it, the show turns into a treatise on sexual fluidity: Caleb argues that it’s not cheating if he likes to sleep with women on occasion, while Ian is steadfast that if you are gay you are “100% gay.” The storyline becomes a vessel for a range of issues, including the idea of sexuality as a spectrum and how one understands that spectrum relative to fidelity. Caleb and Ian both have strong opinions on the topic, which leads Ian down a path of experimentation to see if he can understand Caleb’s perspective.

Here’s the problem: I don’t understand Ian’s perspective. The show is giving Ian a very strong belief that bisexuality cannot exist, but it’s not really digging into the genesis of this particular belief. Now, there is an argument to be made that Ian’s experiences with Mickey—who, if you remember, impregnated Svetlana and was forced to marry her after his father’s intervention—pushed him away from understanding sexuality as a spectrum, but the show never does the work to connect these two events together. Instead, it uses Ian’s storyline as a window into a larger issue, creating a situation where neither Caleb nor Ian’s positions are particularly clear: Caleb seems unreasonable in his insistence that sleeping with his ex-girlfriend and hiding it from Ian is somehow acceptable behavior, but Ian’s anger is fueled by a rejection of bisexuality that ignores the lived experiences of members of the LGBT community. I know both of these positions exist in the world, so it’s not a matter of whether or not this storyline is “realistic”: it’s whether it’s dramatically interesting to see these positions layered onto characters without understanding its relationship to their past actions (or, in Caleb’s case, defining the character’s past without there being much to add to).

When Kev and Veronica entered into a throuple with Svetlana, there was nothing for it to complicate, but it’s different when Ian casually—and very easily—picks up a young woman on the train and has sex with her. The way the sequence is shot offers an interesting comparison with Carl’s storyline: in both cases, the camera takes on their gaze as they sit on the train, looking around at various women. With Carl, the show uses the male gaze as a threat against his stitches, exploring the horny reality of being a 16-year-old who needs to avoid getting an erection. Carl has to adjust his gaze through some mentally-added CGI testicles in order to survive, whereas Ian has to try to embrace the male gaze in order to test out whether he might be interested in sleeping with women. But while I like the idea of considering the gaze through their respective circumstances, I’m not convinced that it would be so easy for Ian to go through with this. All it took was one conversation with Lip where Ian reveals insecurity over not being “worldly” and Ian picks up a random woman on the train and ends up naked in bed with her?

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Ian’s storyline emerges from a “What if?”: “What if Ian tried to sleep with a woman to understand Caleb’s position?” You can sense the show likes the comic potential, as Ian gargles with beer to try to wash the taste out of his mouth, now 100% certain he has no interest in sleeping with women (and finds it a turnoff that Caleb would be interested). But whereas “What if?” storylines work for Kevin and Veronica, I think Ian’s story is more complex than this, and the tone of his random hookup felt like it trivialized his position on this issue instead of exploring its complexity. Given his past, the idea of Ian so casually exploring issues of sexual fluidity struck me as out of character, and pushed the limits of the ability to graft “modern sexuality” talking points onto characters who have gone through so much over the course of the series.

“Swipe, Fuck, Leave” has more luck in this area when it comes to Fiona and Lip, whose personal struggles are less complex than Ian’s, but also more clearly articulated in their current storylines. Fiona, taking control at Patsy’s by hiring new young waitresses and trying to keep the property owner (Sharon Lawrence) from shutting them down, is introduced to Tinder as a solution for her issues with men. She may have sworn off relationships, but the ability for apps like Tinder to facilitate random hookups gives her the ability to engage her sexuality with no strings attached. We don’t even see the guy she ends up sleeping with, and the episode rightfully presents this as equal parts liberating and self-destructive: liberating because it allows Fiona to assert her sexuality, and self-destructive because it’s part of a larger avoidance of whatever feelings were unearthed by Sean’s departure and her wedding falling apart. Fiona might not want to talk about it, but there is rage that she is working through at work and at home, and Tinder and taking a sledgehammer to Frank’s wall—erected to cut the family off from the upstairs—are outlets for a set of feelings she’ll spend the season working through.

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It’s a better story for me because it’s pulling out character details within the day-to-day life of these characters, without feeling like it’s forcing an issue onto them and gauging their reactions. The same goes for Lip here: although they’re clearly seeding something in his new internship with some type of sports-related tech startup under investigation by the FBI, the episode is more interested in how Lip’s new “system” is tested by just living in this world. He walks into the Alibi to get a beer and a water, but then Frank walks in after him, and Veronica remarks on the resemblance between Lip’s order and the kinds of things Frank would say as he was recovering from his liver transplant (or working through any “recovery” previously). Lip walks out without drinking that beer, and with some words of warning for Liam, and you can see a similar moment of hesitance when he’s offered a beer while hanging out with Fiona’s new waitresses. He plays with the AA chips in his hand, wondering if he’s heading down another dark road with the waitress with a kid and an asshole ex. While Fiona finds freedom on that night out, Lip finds another test of his new system, and the contrast played out effectively.

For the most part, “Swipe, Fuck, Leave” continues the positive start from last week, although not because any single storyline is particularly compelling. Rather, it’s because the show finds moments where the characters are reflecting on each other’s situations, whether it’s Lip and Ian making time to have lunch together, the brothers coming to Carl’s aid after they see the state of his scarred penis, or even Fiona and Veronica’s late night argument and hangover breakdown session. Lip being back from school has returned some of the family dynamic that was so central to the series early on, and while the characters still all have their own worlds, their convergence in these early episodes has provided lots of strong family moments that showcase the show at its best. I may not feel that Frank is necessary to the show, but he’s giving the kids a shared point of conflict, and seeing them band together to get him out of the house is familiar in the best way.

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And so as Shameless moves forward, “familiar” is not necessarily the enemy—while it may be somewhat disheartening to see Lip back home instead of away at college making the most of his potential, it’s also comforting to see the family unit functioning as it once did, and the show can play off the tension between these two feelings. However, that tension is only going to become more significant, and so the struggles the show faces in “Swipe, Fuck, Leave” tied to Ian’s storyline demonstrates that the degree of difficulty in finding new stories to tell in season seven is very real, and something that we’ll keep tracking as the season wears on.

Stray observations

  • We were just discussing last week whether or not Liam was going to evolve into more of a speaking role, and we saw a bit of it here as he went along with Frank’s plan while also noting that Fiona was not going to be particularly happy about it. He’s still mostly functioning wordlessly, and we may go back to the overdose and potential developmental concerns in time, but he was definitely more active here.
  • I said last week that I wasn’t invested in Ian’s storyline, and I think that was probably overstating the case: I don’t care about Caleb, or about the EMT side of things, but the general idea of Ian’s story is something I’m baseline invested in, and I wish I felt the show was tapping into that effectively.
  • Speaking of Ian, Pimental and I spoke a bit about Ian’s storyline last season, and the challenges of “rebooting” after Mickey’s departure (which I didn’t push on, since they’re clearly not discussing the details). I also mentioned our discussions in the comments about his management of his bipolar disorder, if you’re interested in hearing her perspective on their choices there.
  • Stranding Debbie on her own is an interesting choice this early in the season: while Frank uses her money to fund his masonry project, otherwise she is just going through the motions here, getting more brazen with her thefts and eventually balking only when she almost accidentally steals a baby. What this adds to the storyline is, at this point, unclear, and I’m going to need a point here sometime soon.
  • “They always seem to get attached”—it makes sense that Fiona would see her past relationships this way, as it’s sort of true, and I’m curious what the show wants to say about that in this storyline.
  • I was surprised that the coda with Dominique and Carl didn’t end with her being horrified by the scar tissue on his penis, if we’re being honest.
  • It’s sometimes hard to know when a Frank story is starting or when it’s just Frank on an episodic adventure, but it seems we’ll be seeing Arden Myrin’s “Dollface Delores” back next week, so I’ll be interested how Liam’s choice of women plays out for Frank.
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