“There’s no way to pretend it never happened. The good news is you can always hit the reset button.”
Sean is the only person who has any real sense of what Carl’s going through: he was there when Carl showed up at his door looking for a place to stay, and so he saw a vulnerable kid reacting to something he can’t really process. He also, we know, went through similar things himself. While Fiona may have her experience with prison, it’s nothing compared to Sean’s, who killed a man while struggling through addiction. And so it’s only Sean who’s able to see how Carl’s excess—pimping out the Gallagher house with an indoor slide and a recording booth—is a coping mechanism, a way to keep from focusing on the fact that Nick murdered a local boy over a bicycle.
Carl’s story has gotten better now that we have a clear logic driving his behavior—while the show is still cracking jokes about his ghettospeak (even going so far as to use subtitles to translate it back to English), there is a psychological motivation attached to it. Moments of exaggerated behavior are anchored by pouring one out for Nick in his bedroom, getting stopped by a concerned Dominique outside school, or taking a condolence card with cash and cocaine (for them to sell for more cash) to the dead boy’s family. The show is taking a lot of shortcuts—what exactly does Carl do? Who is he even working for? Does the show have any interest in how Carl’s drug money didn’t raise alarm bells with the bank?—but the emotional core of Carl’s story finally makes sense.
Sean’s advice to Carl about hitting the reset button is apt: he needs to be able to move past what happened, while knowing it will never go away. It works for Carl’s story, true, but it’s a dangerous piece of dialogue considering the show happening around it. There is no doubt that “Pimp’s Paradise” is a reset episode for Shameless: the procedure of how the house was bought back is completely skipped over, and its return allows for hard left turns in various stories. The episode uses Frank’s flighty opportunism as a reset engine: when he sees that Queenie plans to take Chuckie and be on her way, he uses Debbie’s pregnancy to activate her maternal and eco-friendly instincts simultaneously. Much as he used Debbie as a way to find a place to stay with Erica, he calls her in here, although he notably doesn’t tell her they have the house back until he intends to use her for his own devices. He had seemingly forgotten about her entirely before then, which isn’t surprising but says a lot about the problems of recentering the Gallagher household around its patriarch.
The “reset” placing Frank back at the center of the family unit is swift, and unwelcome—it’s not poorly done, and Sherilyn Fenn is a nice presence, but the way the show pushes Fiona aside is concerning. Beyond the fact that the house is in her name, and she is the legal guardian of her siblings, the fact remains that the show has not had a great track record separating Fiona from her family. The episode shows Fiona trying to pick up where she left off, but things are different: Carl is remodeling the house, Ian’s taken over her room (after Carl kicked him out of theirs), and Queenie is the one who—free from any hangups over Debbie’s decision—is cooking for the family and bringing everyone together. The episode rushes to create a circumstance where Fiona could reasonably look at her family and say they don’t need her there, allowing her to move in with Sean without feeling like she’s leaving behind a family in peril.
But Fiona can’t be that naive, right? Does she honestly believe that Frank and Queenie—who she barely knows—represent stable heads of household? Is anyone concerned about Ian, who is off in his own storyline with Caleb (which I’ll get to in a second)? Should she really feel comfortable with Debbie taking care of Liam given Debbie’s lack of perspective on the circumstances by which she became pregnant? Is Fiona pretending that the various catastrophes that have plagued the Gallagher family didn’t happen?
It is here we discover the blurred lines: is the problem that the characters are forgetting their own pasts, or is it that the writers are betraying the seriality of the characters? It’s a difficult line to draw, as the characters on Shameless are meant to be fallible, making mistakes in ways that are human and “real.” But at the same time, stories like Ian’s have highlighted the challenge in parsing character motivations in the context of “reset” storylines. Ian clearly remembers his relationship with Mickey—each of his “dates” with Caleb has involved him telling the story of one part of their relationship as a way to illustrated how screwed up it was compared to his experience with Caleb. But with the show forced by Fisher’s exit to move Mickey into the rear view mirror, there is an attempt being made to give Ian new stories to tell, but we get so little of Ian’s own perspective that it feels motivated more by the writers than by the character. When you reset a character into someone who wanders aimlessly into situations, it’s hard not to focus on the writer sitting at their computer in Final Draft pushing them from Point A to Point B.
Ian and Lip actually have opposite problems in this case. Ian is moving on without any clear motivation—his time with Caleb at his wedding is not a bad story, but it lacks a clear purpose, and the show has yet to make the contrast with Ian’s relationship with Mickey into something meaningful. Meanwhile, Lip is refusing to move on with no clear motivation: the show is giving us the hard sell that Lip is still hung up on Helene, here giving him the perfect reset button only to see him ignore it. Lip is kicked out of his RA position for painting his wall—while is bullshit, but the show needs him gone to make a point—and happens to land a gig as a houseboy at the sorority, and it’s everything Lip should want. But even as he lands on his feet he pines after his lost love, despite the fact that the relationship was always doomed, there was a weird husband dynamic he’s seemingly blocked out, and she wants absolutely nothing to do with him.
Jeremy Allen White is a very good actor, and when he shows up to Helene’s house instead of hooking up with the co-ed who got him the gig he gives a great performance, but the problem is that what he’s screaming at was boring, and clichéd, and lacks anything that would make me feel sympathy for Lip in this scenario. He is stuck in a past relationship that never came together into a compelling storyline, whereas Ian is blithely moving past a relationship that was the most complex the show ever constructed. And so I spent all of “Pimp’s Paradise” wishing that they would reverse places, which is the problem with a television show hitting the reset button: the resulting decisions create a lynchpin for viewer frustration, conscious choices made by the writing staff that could take the series in undesired directions.
Undesired is not the same as demonstrably bad, it’s true, but that line tends to blur the deeper we get into a season. Shameless has never had universally great storylines: the show didn’t always know how to integrate Sheila, Frank has been a drain more often than not, and there have been growing pains in each of the siblings’ stories along the way. But even with this week’s reset button, I feel more disconnected from the show’s stories now than maybe ever before in the show’s run, which is not particularly hopeful heading into the back half of the season.
- What is there to even say about Kev and V’s romantic getaway to Gary, Indiana? I sort of appreciate such a small, inconsequential exploration of their relationship, but on the other hand it felt entirely disconnected from everything. They just shuttled the child soldiers off and went on vacation, a reset button that left behind only a blank slate.
- That said, inconsequential as they might have been, I liked the little glimpses of Svetlana’s time with the twins at the Alibi performing some back room dentistry—she remains a delight, and you can tell the writers like the idea of exploring her world when they get a spare minute.
- I expressed some initial confusion over why they’d bother bringing Chuckie back, but they’re making good use of him: Queenie gives Frank something of substance, and the Mein Kampf book report lets them tap back into childhood innocence as filtered through the lens of growing up in a messed up environment. I kind of feel like they’ve run out of potential story here, but they’ve mined the territory well.
- Another week, another reminder that Dermot Mulroney wasn’t upgraded to a main credits guest star and I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop there.
- As soon as Caleb made Ian promise he’d dance when Rihanna came on, I put a half-letter grade on the line if they cheaped out and didn’t license any actual Rihanna music for the wedding. They cheaped out. If you’re not sure you can license it, just made the dialogue “a banger” and avoid the disappointment.
- I was super confused by the school administrator’s approach to Lip’s removal as an R.A. I can perhaps see a case where the optics of someone in power breaking a rule could create problems, but it’s not like he destroyed his room—they just need to paint over it. And so I didn’t understand why she was so dispassionate and judgmental about it, as though she had zero sympathy. Perhaps just so that the assistant could be the sympathetic one to kickstart the sorority story? It’s clear I’m the only person paying attention to university bureaucracy here, so I supposed that was maybe a prudent choice.