For the second year in a row, it seems I’ll spend my season of Shameless deciding how I feel about Shameless. I was slow to warm to the show when it premiered, because while I thought it was fun, funny, and oddly charming, I didn’t always feel a ton of urgency. I don’t mind the show being a slice-of-life, and I don’t need it to be heavily plot-driven, but I do need Shameless not to feel too leisurely, because that’s a poor tonal fit for a show about a perpetually desperate family. I wanted a firecracker from “Summertime,” something to rev things up following the ho-hum “Father Frank, Full of Grace,” but it was closer to a half-melted snow cone.
Time has jumped forward a bit since “Father Frank,” not dramatically so, but it’s been long enough that Eddie has been officially missing for a while, and Sheila is progressing apace with her self-administered agoraphobia treatment. I think those opening scenes might have set my expectations a bit too high, because there were plenty of threads I was hoping might just fall off during the hiatus that are still dangling around. When a show is light on plot, it’s easy to forget exactly what happened at times, and watching “Summertime,” I was unpleasantly reminded of the plot lines I wasn’t crazy about from season one. For example, Ian is still working at the Kash and Grab somehow, and Kash and Linda are both still horribly unpleasant people who I don’t care about. Kevin and Veronica still have custody of Ethel, the rescued child bride. Steve is still missing in action, which I normally would be ambivalent about, but it irritated me for reasons I’ll get into in a bit. Jasmine is still trying to turn Fiona into a greedy, grubby slut by leading an example, but doing not much else. I’ll grant a pass on Jasmine, since she was introduced late last season with the intention to bring her back in this one, but most of these plots had a one-season limit for me. Even if something interesting were to happen with, say, Ethel, I’d still be irked that I had to wait so long for it.
The new elements here read a bit like a really weird family newsletter: Debbie and Carl are running a day-care (complete with a dog cage as a time-out area); Kevin grew too much pot, and Veronica recruits the gang to help get rid of it all, but Kev holds back a couple of bags for himself; Lip is running an illegal fight club, as well as selling drugs out of an ice cream truck with Kevin and Karen, who is now making time with an 37-year-old sex addict from her 12-step group. Obviously a recap of what everyone is up to is now was a necessary component for this episode to have, but I didn’t think so much of the episode would be devoted to those characters.
I was also confused by the amount of time dedicated to Frank’s gambling debt. Frank could clearly use some money, and so he saw the boasts of the Black Street Tough as an opportunity to make a quick $10,000. Unfortunately, the Black Street Tough is so black, so street and so tough, that he can take a pair of Taser stuns without having to change his underwear. Of course, he’s a criminal and likes threatening people with physical violence, so when Frank tries to dodge his debt, Black Street Tough kidnaps Frank and Liam, then keeps Liam as collateral until Frank comes back with the money. I wasn’t crazy about any bit of this plot, really. Frank is a scumbag, Frank is a terrible father, Frank is a moocher and a no-good drunk. We already know all this, and we’ve already seen Frank in these kinds of pickles such that this particular one doesn’t seem fresh or interesting. Frank has to go to extremes to get the money, including prostituting himself at a gay bar and trying to move fake drugs, but I didn’t think those scenes were all that funny either. I like the wackiness of Shameless, but it has to feel moored to something, and Frank owing money for losing a goofy bet is neither tethered to anything larger, nor a well-executed episodic plot. By the end, Fiona has to round up the gang and retrieve Liam, saving the day just as she always does.
It’s taken me a while to mention Fiona, but that’s because “Summertime” was light on her character. When we did get to see her, she was still curiously fluttering around Jasmine, and dating a smarmy, banker-type named Adam (played by James Wolk, late of Lone Star), who Veronica is convinced is a rebound after Steve’s heartbreak. The relative absence of Fiona was a downer for me because while I don’t mind Shameless as a quirky slice-of-life, when it’s being that show I still need Fiona at the center of it. Shameless is not in a place yet with its ensemble of characters such that it can do an hour of “here’s what everyone’s been up to” with all of its characters getting equal time. Fiona is still who I care about most, and pushing her out to the fringe is not a good idea unless the other characters have something really absorbing going on, and I don’t see that here. I hope that Fiona’s role in the show won’t be minimized until Steve’s return. I was never that crazy about Fiona and Steve’s relationship to begin with, but in so much as it was significant to her, I’d be fascinated to see how Fiona negotiates a messy break-up. Shameless doesn’t have to be Parenthood, but in the weeks to come I’m hoping to see more of the smart character beats (like Fiona’s run at the end) and less of the broad, Twitter-bait stuff like Frank’s gay-for-pay misadventures.
- Steps in the right direction: Sheila’s agoraphobia is on the wane, and Kash is skipping town. Does that mean we’ll be rid of the Kash and Grab forever? Here’s hoping. (And what will Linda call the store now? …and Grab doesn’t have the same ring.
- Not to belabor the point about not liking Frank’s plot, but I find it really hard to believe that anyone would be subjected to being Tasered twice on a bet from a shambling drunk. Why would Black Street Tough think Frank could cover a $10,000 bet?
- As for Kash, is there something magical about this freezer that improves the quality of gay sex? Or does Chicago not have motels? Someone explain.
- “Molson’s? We serve American beer to children of age. Come back for a Bud Light when you’re 16.”
- “Kevin, there’s a couple tons of weed down here and I’m black.”