Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)

It’s hard to imagine a more politically fraught environment than our current unending news cycle in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, and this weekend has been no exception, as across the dial Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh’s respective testimonies dominate the airwaves and social media feeds. We are in a critical juncture in American politics, and it’s creating an intense dialogue that Shameless chose to enter into when it opened its ninth season with a congressional election and an extended riff on the “Me Too” movement, even if it didn’t intend (or hope) to be quite so well-timed with its 100th episode.

The election of Mo White is clearly a comment on the election of America’s 45th President: despite polling in the single digits, he wins over 50% of the vote on Election Day, the pollsters missing that most of his voters were unwilling to admit their own bigotry. The show even forces us to relive election night 2016 all over again, as they cut from Mo White’s acceptance speech to crying Ruiz supporters clearly meant to evoke the Democrats gathered at the Javits Center that fateful night. In the end, this is a world that’s shameless enough to elect a serial pedophile over two seemingly qualified candidates, which I suppose is not that far off from current events.

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But the election storyline has been a narrative dead end for Shameless: yes, there’s a legible bit of political satire in Mo White’s election, but Frank’s corrupt campaign merited few other benefits, and the choice to drag Fiona’s storyline into the conflict this week is a confounding one. It captures everything that is wrong with the character’s storyline right now. First and foremost, it continues to position Ford as someone whose sole purpose beyond appearing half or entirely naked is to question Fiona’s decisions, with no effort to develop the character as a well-rounded love interest as opposed to a live-in naysayer. Why is Ford in a relationship with Fiona if he disagrees with her decisions so often? And why does Fiona keep being surprised when he is critical of her decisions, as though she’s expecting him to suddenly drop his objections? If this relationship is actually something I’m supposed to care about, this current pattern is doing nothing to accomplish this.

However, the other issue is that Ford is entirely right, as Fiona’s behavior in this episode is all over the map. After showing zero interest in the election in the previous episodes, Fiona is suddenly a diehard Ruiz supporter after the show finally gives the politicians platforms beyond their racial identities. It turns out that Wyman is in support of rent control, whereas Ruiz is pro-business, which is in Fiona’s self-interest. On the surface, the idea of involving Fiona in this conflict makes sense, and the issue of whether she’s being a traitor to her class by trying to line her own pockets is a potentially interesting one. Would it be way more interesting if it was literally anyone other than Ford making this case? Sure, but they at least throw in Veronica to augment things, and I think it’s important for Fiona to struggle with the impact of her class mobility on her own beliefs.

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However, no amount of struggle can justify the way Fiona acts when she arrives at Patsy’s. It’s one thing when she climbs over her patrons to put a Ruiz poster back up in the window after Frank removed it, as though it couldn’t have waited until the booth was empty. But when she spots her black wait staff wearing Wyman buttons and forces them to stop wearing them by arguing there is no campaigning in the restaurant she just put a Ruiz poster in? Or when she offers her kitchen staff time off to vote for Ruiz and seems offended that her Latino employees wouldn’t be voting for someone who supports the gentrification that could force them out of their homes? Or when she goes to war with her waitresses by offering free pie to anyone who wears a Ruiz button, turning the diner into a political free-for-all despite having never even mentioned the election previously? I’ve been frustrated with Fiona’s decisions in the past, but I’ve never despised her like I did here given how ignorant she was to her workers’ rights and points of view. While Fiona might have eventually done the “right thing” by voting for Wyman, it doesn’t change how wrong she was throughout, in ways that make me wonder if she thinks about anyone other than herself these days. I’ve long wanted Fiona’s storytelling to match the strength in Emmy Rossum’s performance, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as close to turning on the character as I was throughout this storyline.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

I suppose I should be glad I understand Fiona’s reasoning, even if her aggressiveness is inexplicable. Lip’s commitment to raising Xan remains an enigma for me, a vaguely defined savior complex that the show has failed to connect to any meaningful part of Lip’s past, present, or future. The suggestion here that Lip is willing to give up $10,000 to take on the responsibility of raising this child is mind-boggling: wouldn’t that money be better spent on helping support his existing family? Or supporting his own efforts to keep his life on track, and maybe go back to school? I get that her mother is sketchy, and I get that Lip is a good person, but the only thing more absurd than his attempt to buy his way into being her legal guardian is the idea that he would just drop the $10,000 and run when Xan finds out her mother is back. If the show thinks they’ve sold us on Lip’s connection to this girl being strong enough to just fork up $10,000 to try to give her and her mother a better chance of survival, they are as crazy as Lip, and that’s saying something.

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Although technically a milestone episode, nothing in this 100th installment of Shameless feels particularly momentous, or reflective of the show’s history. Debbie’s new love interest sniffing out that she’s clearly not actually a lesbian was heavily telegraphed, and absurdly paced with the rush to co-habitation. Ian’s struggle with how to approach the charges against him is a reasonable conflict, and he has a good chat with Lip about it, but it’s weird we never see his discussion with the lawyer, and thus lack a clear sense of the stakes involved. And Carl rediscovering his killer instinct by agreeing to shoot the former holder of his West Point recommendation to justify his dream of becoming a poet instead to his hawk of a father might have been fun if I enjoyed bloodlust (I don’t) or didn’t remember when Carl broke down at the sight of violence during his drug trade days and wish the show would acknowledge it. It’s unfortunate that the entire Gallagher family is mired in storylines ranging from maddening to mediocre as the show hits 100 episodes, but that’s the situation the ninth season has created.

It’s also a situation that could have avoided if the show was willing to focus more attention on that family unit. The time spent on the election hasn’t provided enough value to justify the distraction, and the same is true of the mostly successful “Me Too” storyline at the Alibi. Do I believe that Kevin and Veronica would know who Aziz Ansari was? No, not really, but I can see how the consulting business embraces their opportunism, and I chuckled throughout their story. But Shameless can’t work as a show if it doesn’t have the Gallaghers anchoring its storytelling, and no amount of contemporary commentary can make up for the frustration I feel with the characters I’ve been invested in since season one.

This episode succeeds at being culturally relevant to our present conflicts, but it has little to no grasp on the conflicts that used to drive the show forward, and it’s thus another frustrating installment of the show’s ninth season.

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Stray observations

  • Okay, what the actual hell was that riot at the polling place? Beyond the fact that it was clearly voter intimidation and the election officials should have (and would have) called the police, the ensuing brawl was just embarrassing. Antifa? Fiona joining in for reasons I don’t understand? I just didn’t care for any of it.
  • I doubt we’ll see any followup with the Milkovich patriarch, but I appreciate that he’s still kicking around if they ever want to revisit either of the two M.I.A. Milkovich siblings.
  • I was just discussing what age Liam is supposed to be on Twitter last week, so the discussions about him moving up a few grades provides some clarity: he’s getting moved to sixth grade, but the implication seemed to be he was in second grade, so he is 7 or 8? That math doesn’t really add up, but it never does on this show, so I guess we should just accept that. (Spoiler: I’m probably not going to accept that).
  • Also: how would they know how bright Liam was based on the level of testing he was receiving? I understand that they would know he was too far ahead for that level of work, but what makes them confident he could handle sixth grade when that was the level of math they were giving him, for example?
  • The music on Shameless is not always subtle, but the emotional treacle underlying Lip’s discussion with Xan about whether she wants to stay with him was verging on This Is Us territory, and that’s not okay.
  • I have no investment in Carl getting his homicidal groove back, but I appreciated that his rival was quite so aggressively douchey, and enjoy any opportunity to relive a post-golden era Simpsons gem.
  • I hope Popeye’s paid a hefty sum for their prominent placement at dinner given that I very nearly tried to find a way to fit a drive to Popeye’s into my schedule the day I watched this episode.
  • Phrases written in all caps of my notes regarding this episode: “WHAT,” “AGAIN HIS GIRLFRIEND WAS JUST MURDERED,” “WHAT THE ACTUAL F**K,” “FIONA,” “WHY IS ANYONE CARING THIS MUCH ABOUT THIS,” “WHAT?,” “FIONA IS THE LITERAL WORST,” “THIS IS INSANE.”

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