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Shameless starts Season 10 with a stellar argument against it getting a Season 10

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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Shameless’ tenth season premiere ends on a moment of Gallagher family unity. As Lip waits to hear Tami’s condition after she suffered complications during the birth of their son, he finds himself alone with the newest member of the family. But before he can be overwhelmed by the moment, that family arrives to support him, each dropping everything that was happening in their lives to be with him at this pivotal moment. Debbie even gets a call from who we presume is Fiona, letting her know that Ian—who’s still in prison—has yet to be told the good news.

It’s a heartwarming moment. It’s also a band-aid to try to hide how much Shameless has become synonymous with Aimless.

Let’s break down what was going on in everyone else’s life while Lip and Tami were in a life-and-death childbirth situation. Carl graduated from military school following a truly inscrutable series of events, and then had an absurd amount of sex with Kelly. Frank’s leg is healed, but he’s still trying to get high, so he’s teamed back up with Luis Guzman’s Mikey to scam drugs from old ladies and couch cushions from hotels. The show finally realized that Liam’s quest for an authentic black experience would maybe make more sense if it involved the African American woman who lived next door instead of some random classmate. The writers have decided that Kevin’s latest insecurity is his age, mostly as an excuse to put him back in the strip club to explore “Daddy” subcultures. And Debbie, who was arbitrarily chosen by “Fiona” (read: the writers) to handle the family’s finances, is secretly buying and returning designer clothes to pick up women at fancy hotels instead of saving for a rainy day or completing the job training she claims to be attending when she leaves Franny next door.

If you care about a single one of these storylines, I’m legitimately happy for you, but I was struck throughout the episode how badly John Wells has miscalculated the path forward in the post-Fiona era of Shameless. Yes, the episode ends with a moment of genuine pathos, but all that did was point out the complete absence of emotional resonance in every other storyline. To have everyone come running into Lip’s story at the end does nothing to address the fact that I spent the rest of the episode trying to parse why I was supposed to be engaged by their individual storylines. Who cares if Kevin is bad at basketball? What’s the takeaway from Carl and Kelly’s sexcapades? What is Frank’s latest scam adding to our understanding of his character? And how in the world did the writers think they could get away with making Debbie less likeable at this juncture?

“We Few, We Lucky Few, We Band of Gallaghers” is more perplexing than offensive, inert in ways that fuel the concerns about how the show intends to survive in Emmy Rossum’s absence. While the show’s erratic storytelling created complications for Fiona’s storylines like it did everyone else’s, Fiona had a clear narrative arc, something that the show has struggled to generate for other characters. Lip’s story may have pathos, but the pregnancy story with Tami is one of a number of stories introduced late last season that feel disconnected from anything that came before—it’s a “What if Tami got pregnant and Lip was going to become a father” brainstorm, and the show has never stopped to explore what that means for Lip given everything he’s gone through. The closest we get is some generic talk about his messed up childhood, told to Brad as an exaggerated anecdote in the workplace. They don’t even talk about Xan, whose presence in Lip’s life was a clear precursor to this story that the show is nonetheless ignoring.

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You get the feeling that when Wells and the writers sit down to write a new season, they mentally erase 90% of what happened in previous seasons, picking and choosing which threads they’re interested in. I’ve said before that Shameless sits at the intersection of the stitcom and the soap opera, which makes its selective amnesia jarring: it wants the stakes of a soap opera but is completely disinterested in the seriality and history that soaps generate, preferring the soft resets of the sitcom. I’ve ranted in the past about particularly absurd sitcom moments—the cadets literally killing Carl’s girlfriend, the Gallaghers abandoning the girl who raped Liam and allegedly got pregnant at a clinic or something—that the show chooses to completely ignore, and I have to think that the whole backstory of Carl’s time in the brig is going to be added to the list (more on that in the Strays). But when the selective amnesia extends to the soap side of the show, and it feels like the characters have forgotten their own histories and lack clear motivation for their actions, the basic appeals of the show break down, and we’re left with a collection of storylines that mean less than they should even before we consider how outright boring they are.

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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And even in cases where it feels like the stories could be interesting, the state of the show creates little trust in that. Liam’s search for his African American identity—Frederick Douglass cosplay, slave cookbooks at Vee’s—is the first time they’ve stumbled upon a meaningful story for the character. However, it was introduced as a punchline to the fact the writers kept having the rest of the family forget he exists last season, and even here it feels like the writers are more interested in quips about living in a Cracker Barrel than they are in his actual feelings. The idea of the entire family rallying around Liam like they did Lip just doesn’t seem feasible, and the one time they did that last season—after his run-in with the racist woman—felt completely arbitrary, because the show has abandoned the kind of meaningful convergent storytelling that could make an entire family and neighborhood uniting to fight a racist into character development instead of just plot.

And it’s the mistrust generated over the past few seasons that hangs over the big question moving forward: is there any hope for Shameless once “Gallavich” returns to the narrative? There is a conspicuous absence of Ian and Mickey in the premiere: they talk about visiting Ian, but there’s no mention of Mickey, and the “Previously On” sequence actually bizarrely leaves out their prison reunion entirely, only showing Ian when briefly explaining Fiona’s absence. As much as fans are rightfully excited to see their favorite relationship return to the series, this premiere reinforced all the reasons I’m skeptical Wells is capable of finding the necessary pieces to bring them back into this world successfully. An optimistic read is that Ian and Mickey’s history is not erasable, and that this protects them against their journey ever seeming inconsequential; a pessimistic read is that every Ian story after Noel Fisher’s exit was a complete and utter mess, and bringing back Mickey might not be enough to resolve the character’s place in this narrative.

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Over the past few seasons, these reviews have morphed into a thorough accounting of Shameless’ decline. From my perspective, watching Shameless is no longer about experiencing the story of the Gallagher family and their struggles below the poverty line. It is impossible for me to see Shameless as anything but a show that gained a late-in-life boost from Netflix, pushing executives and showrunners to extend it beyond its expiration date and sending it into a narrative mode that prioritizes longevity over basic coherency. This means that, if you’ve stumbled into this review believing that Shameless is just as good as it was before (objectively wrong, sorry), or still in decent shape (you’re entitled to your opinion), this probably isn’t going to be the space you’re looking for. And to be clear, it’s not the space where I want to be either. I wanted to sit down and watch this premiere and feel like Rossum leaving had woken up John Wells to what needed to happen for this season—and potentially another season after it—to feel like something more than a business decision. I want to watch the family rallying around Lip and his newborn son and feel something—anything—about these characters beyond some combination of disdain and disinterest, but that’s not the reality we’re in, and I can’t fight my skepticism that Ian and Mickey’s return next week won’t change things as much as it needs to.

Stray observations

  • As previewed online, Rossum’s exit forced them to revisit the opening credit sequence, which I appreciated. Mind you, the fact Tami appears sort of spoils that she’s not about to die on the operating table if you were anxious about that, but I’m all for adding Ian and Mickey to the bathroom sexcapades even if that is demonstrably not what the Gallagher family bathroom looks like.
  • I suppose it’s logical that Fiona would choose not to forward her mail as she builds a new life, but I remain a bit confused on how involved she is with the family: do they know where she is? How often is she calling like she does twice in the episode? Wells’ script is deeply vague on the subject.
  • Okay, seriously, what the hell was that Carl storyline? The show is being weirdly mysterious about it, but just to recap: Carl was thrown in the brig for weeks because he stood up for a fellow cadet being assaulted, but he just thought it was a transfer student, when she was actually a transgender student, which Carl is then immediately transphobic about? I don’t know if I’m more offended by the idea of them completely ignoring this or horrified at the prospect of the show giving Carl a storyline dealing with anything involving trans individuals.
  • I sort of understand why Carl wouldn’t tell anyone about his military school graduation, even if it’s mostly just to keep from diluting the family reunion at the hospital, but I admittedly was confused why Lip contacted zero members of his family about Tami initially going into labor despite the fact that Tami’s entire family was present and accounted for.
  • There are parts of playing a sport like basketball that would be impacted by age—your vertical leap, your quickness, your stamina, etc.—but the idea that it would arbitrarily make you take shots as terrible as the one Kevin takes on an open look? Nonsense.
  • Whoever was responsible for staging Debbie’s welding job has some explaining to do: did that van with the student driver sticker drive through that steel gate? And then into another car? And both cars are still on the scene, unmoved as the welders are working? Is no one paying any attention behind-the-scenes here?
  • There’s a moment where Frank tells Mikey he’s been recovering from heartbreak: it turns out he’s referring to Fiona, but I would’ve given Wells some points for self-awareness if he’d had Mikey bring up Ingrid and Frank’s lost embryos and Frank was like “Who?” Instead, I think Wells himself legitimately forgot Katey Sagal was on this show last season.
  • Okay, look, I know we play fast and loose with ages on this show, but there is no universe where Debbie is 21, and there is no way that a fancy hotel bar would accept someone that young even if she was wearing designer clothes, so show me a Fake ID or get the hell out of here, Shameless.
  • Remember when the show did an entire episode about Debbie’s quest for the morning after pill and the show used it as an educational moment about the messed up laws pertaining to women’s contraception, but then they gave Kelly and Carl a pregnancy scare and had them purchase Plan B mostly to kill time between sex scenes?
  • Welcome back, and thank you as always for joining me on this journey into madness. I’m here until the bitter end, for the record, but ask me again if the threatened Season 11 comes to pass.
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About the author

Myles McNutt

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