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Shameless reminds us that its "shamelessness" requires balance it doesn't always achieve

Photo: Chuck Hodes (Showtime)
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Why is Shameless called Shameless?

The show’s title is regularly deployed as a defense of the show, arguing that any attempt to critique its storytelling or its characters is silly because it’s right there in the name: they have no shame, so holding them to any kind of ethical or moral standard is silly. So, we shouldn’t have been surprised when Liam used his great aunt’s homecoming last week as an opportunity to fleece his relatives: sure, it completely sold out a compelling storyline about Liam understanding his blackness in favor of a deus ex Gallagher, but what do we expect? The show is called Shameless, and Liam showed no shame!

But in truth, the show’s title has never applied in such a black and white fashion. Frank is the only character whose shamelessness operates with no boundaries: he would never think twice about selling a baby to the highest bidder, for example, because he is able to self-rationalize anything and everything. It’s why he’s the least interesting character in the show, but also a character with tremendous utility when it comes to telling story. There’s no limit to Frank’s actions, and therefore no limits to the stories that can be told, even if there’s a clear limit to how effective those stories can be in an environment of diminishing returns.

Every other Gallagher, though, understands “shamelessness” as a necessary evil, and through the lens of both ethics and morality. Ian doesn’t instinctively jump at the chance to participate in insurance fraud with the new EMT crew his corrupt parole officer (Rachel Dratch) sticks him with: he doesn’t want to be involved in something illegal, both because it threatens his parole and because he isn’t by nature a corrupt person. But when his boss explains that he doesn’t really have a choice, and that they’re really only screwing over big insurance companies, Ian agrees to stay because he is—after all—a Gallagher from the South Side. It’s a mediation of his shame: he doesn’t want to be doing this, but he’s in a position where he has little choice, and he has a path to rationalization. Is it a particularly compelling story? No, not at all, especially when compared to the emotional dynamics of Ian’s time in prison with Mickey. However, it doesn’t sell out the character in order to make an exasperating point about how shameless he is, which is what happened with Liam last week.

The writers’ argument seems to be that it’s funny—or interesting—to see the Gallaghers pulling their hustles, but that entirely depends on who the victims are. If we take Debbie’s storyline here as the example, it becomes a story of Debbie and her pals working to try to deliver a summons to Derek’s widow, who is avoiding them at all costs. But what did Peppa do to deserve this? Given that Debbie actively refused to let Derek be a part of Franny’s life, why is Debbie entitled to show up to try to benefit from his death? I certainly empathize with the idea of Debbie losing custody of her child, when that specter is raised by episode’s end, but I’m not rooting for Debbie to successfully force a grieving widow supporting her own family to give Debbie $33,000 for a baby that only exists because Debbie poked a hole in a condom on purpose to get pregnant. Sure, Debbie is being shameless, but against someone who has the moral high ground, and who is objectively a better person than Debbie is.

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In other words, the shamelessness of the Gallaghers is a question of calibration. Last week’s story for Liam was a fundamental miscalibration on the part on the writers, but this week is a quintessential Gallagher story: given $60 by Debbie to plan Ian’s welcome home party, Liam finds a way to hustle free catering and decorations out of Middle School basketball recruiters trying to convince his friend Todd to play for them. It’s shameless, sure, but there’s no real victims except for the ridiculousness of recruiting culture, and Liam’s “easiest $60 I ever made” line is a nice capper that drives home the core ethos of being a Gallagher without actively shitting on decent people. It’s a balance the show needs to strike with any character other than Frank: it doesn’t matter if Frank sells off one of Ingrid’s babies, because we already know he’s corrupt and amoral, but his kids need to be at least better than he is for the show to reasonably work.

Photo: Beth Dubber (Showtime)
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However, the episode’s weirdest mediation on shame comes from Kevin and Vee, who are mostly off on their own island before showing up at Ian’s party at episode’s end. Vee’s storyline is mostly in line with what we’d expect of the character: tasked with selling drugs to black doctors, Vee invents various dead relatives in the interest of convincing them to prescribe drugs they believe are unnecessary. There’s a really interesting exchange where the doctor talks about the costs of the drug, and the cost of taxes for medicaid, but in the end the show is mostly interested in Vee’s self-interest. And so it’s weird when the last doctor—a black woman—reads through her bullshit but then says she “likes her style,” inviting her to a black doctors cookout. It’s weird because it feels like Vee is about to get her comeuppance: surely, I thought, at the cookout the doctors will recognize her, and her various stories about dead relatives will be compared, and they will out her as a fraudster. But it ends up being positioned as a victory (at least in this episode, it’s possible the cookout will play out next week), and I struggle to reconcile how we’re supposed to feel about Vee’s investment in the pharmaceutical industry that exists in the power structures she historically works against.

That’s nothing compared to Kevin’s story, though. I don’t know if the writers just had some pedophelia ideas on the whiteboard from last season that they didn’t get to with the Mo White storyline, but I struggled mightily with what amounts to Kev being offended that his middle school basketball coach didn’t molest him. It’s a reminder that often Shameless thinks that it has to be a show about the outer limits of shamelessness: is Kevin willing to lie about being raped by his middle school basketball coach to participate in a class action lawsuit? But once you actually start telling that story, it just becomes wildly unpleasant. There’s nothing funny about these men sharing stories about the damage done to them in the wake of their teammate’s suicide, but the premise of the story has to keep cutting to the barflys, and we end on the just gross mid-credits scene of Kev celebrating that his former coach is masturbating to him from prison. It is decidedly shameless, it’s true, but there needed to be some sense of shame when it came to this topic, and the show never found it.

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I don’t think everyone on Shameless needs to have shame. There is room on this show for characters to act in ways we disagree with, and for conflict to arise from that. But the show sometimes fails to show the work necessary for this: too often, like in Kelly cheating on Carl while in training, the show just decides that “people do bad things” and use it as a way to justify telling certain stories. There’s a similar energy in the story that gives the episode its name, as Rachel Dratch’s corrupt parole officer is pure caricature, all to justify the insane situation Ian finds himself in. These exaggerations might solve short-term problems, but they fuel long-term distrust in the storytelling, and do little to create momentum for the rest of the season.

Stray observations

  • The Lip and Tami storyline got us close to understanding Tami as an actual character, but the show is still struggling to not just make this about Lip: we get a few scenes with Tami alone, but things are still mostly framed through Lip’s anxiety, and his objectively bad call to bring Sarah into the picture. Her discussion about her mother was some good characterization, though, and I hope the show builds on that a bit.
  • I don’t think we’re getting a whole lot of mileage out of Anne’s family being in the house, but I honestly really liked the way they turned them into an audience for the telenovela energy of Frank and Carl’s baby daddy drama with Ingrid’s husband. That was a bad storyline that’s still a bad storyline now (also the size of those babies is Peak Timey-Wimey Shameless), but I chuckled at the growing crowd.
  • “I think I’m a democrat now or something?”—I still don’t understand how Carl became woke in 2.3 seconds just because he made some tamales with the coworker he literally met like a day earlier, but I guess we’re going with it.
  • Kevin complained about outside food with Frank, so I guess we’re sticking with the idea that there is a kitchen somewhere in the Alibi, huh? Would love to see it.
  • Anyone else find it super weird that Tami never once visited Ian in prison with Lip during her pregnancy? Did anyone ever visit Ian in prison, actually? I’m so perplexed. (Also, we’re not doing dialogue to explain why Fiona didn’t at least call her brother on the day he got out of prison, I guess?)
  • I knew as soon as Debbie’s foot chase with Peppa started that it was never going to make spatial sense, so I wasn’t shocked when it ended with Debbie somehow leaping like 25 feet to catch someone way faster than she was, but I was still angry.
  • The speed at which the show throws Kelly under the bus is intense: first she calls Anne JLo (despite having previously referred to Anne and her family as Mexicans), then she laughs at Carl being a democrat like he’s delusional, all before the STD reveal. It’s just...weren’t we supposed to like her in the premiere?
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About the author

Myles McNutt

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.