Sitcom storytelling is predicated on a connection with character. The idea is that you’re so attached to a group of people - friends, family, coworkers, etc. - that you will continue watching their adventures even past the point where they lose a sense of novelty because you find comfort in their presence.
However, because sitcoms have historically run for 22 episodes per season, there is usually a few episodes a year that test this connection. Whether it’s an uninspired idea or a big swing that misses, an average sitcom will inevitably stumble, before picking itself back up and moving on to a story that better connects with its appeal.
If it wasn’t already clear, “Citizen Carl” has the energy of a sitcom episode that doesn’t work, but the consequences of that for a show like Shameless are more significant. For one, the show only has twelve episodes a season, meaning that a dud carries more weight given that it takes up a more significant portion of the year. Additionally, because episodes are at least 50 minutes long, there’s more uninspired storytelling to sit through, giving us extra time to reflect on whether we ever even liked these characters to begin with. While much of this season has forced reflection on whether the show is still interesting enough to merit close analysis, it has done so in ways that are at least interesting in their failure. “Citizen Carl,” though, is the first episode of the season that’s exasperating to the point of wondering if the show Shameless was even exists anymore.
The only storyline here that feels meaningfully connected to the core of the series is Lip and Tami’s quest to have sex amidst the scatalogical chaos of life with a newborn in an RV. It’s far from an inspired story, but it follows logically from what we saw before, and feels like a progression of their connection. I still have serious questions about how Lip and Tami apparently had zero conversations about their future before Fred was born, and Tami’s father showing up to challenge why she is living with Lip in a dirty RV instead of being at home only extended those questions. The show has done a really bad job of articulating clear stakes for this storyline beyond the baked-in stakes of a newborn, but those provide structure lacking in other parts of the narrative, and Jeremy Allen White is well-suited to this collection of cliches. Additionally, more than any other character, I’m connected to Lip in ways that can sustain an occasional cliche, provided they eventually find any sense of purpose for a character that was once a genius on his way to social mobility.
The only other characters who I have any investment in are obviously Ian and Mickey, but they’re now both trapped in what is a fundamental dead end, story wise. Rachel Dratch is having a lot of fun as Paula, but it’s just not an interesting story, even if it improves dramatically when Mickey is added to the mix just because it gets the two characters together. It’s an example of how it never feels like multiple Gallaghers can just be “living life” at any given time: there always needs to be some arch plot that envelops them, despite the fact that “corrupt parole officer uses her charges to do her dirty work” has no thematic value to speak of. What does this story do for Ian, or Mickey, other than distract them from other, more meaningful storylines that could address any number of topics (Ian’s mental health, the future of their relationship, etc.)? While the show’s best “sitcom” plot lines build out a dynamic world around one of the show’s characters, Ian and Mickey feel trapped both within the story itself and within the larger narrative trajectory of the show. It’s like they’ve been kidnapped by a bad story, and not just an insane parole officer.
In other cases, though, the problem is less the stories themselves and more the writers’ complete disinterest in seriality. After going through his whole experience with Anne and her family, Carl randomly moves on to campaigning the city to fix streetlights, enlisting Kelly and casually mentioning that Anne “moved away.” There’s no real attempt at explaining Carl’s sudden interest in being a good citizen as being connected to his experience with Anne’s family, or anything else about the character. There’s nothing whatsoever to make this feel like a meaningful stepping stone toward a new life philosophy: it’s just a random adventure for Carl, floating in the wind of “things the Gallagher family could do.” The chances of it ever being mentioned again feel slimmer than they should in a show that has traditionally committed to long-term storytelling.
This is especially true for Kev and Vee, whose stories are typically the most sitcom-like, like they’re chosen from a dart board of possible Alibi storylines they didn’t use in past seasons. But in this case the uninteresting story - a dead barfly, Frank stealing his stuff, Kev and Vee going to an AA meeting to drum up business - is particularly offensive given the big deal the show made about Vee’s relationship to her blackness in last week’s episode. There’s literally no mention of that storyline: it’s as though it never happened, and the same goes for everything else Kev and Vee have done throughout this season. Obviously, it’s not uncommon for Kev and Vee to be part of disposable storylines, and the same goes for Frank’s new “high class woman who lives in her fancy car” story: we should be used to the fact they never add up to anything. However, when Vee’s story felt like it was going in a more interesting direction last week, to see the show just pretend that never happened reinforces how a pure sitcom focus destroys any chance of the show growing out of its current funk.
The short-term storytelling strategies the show is currently utilizing don’t just limit the impact of the story in question: they also make us less likely to believe that the following story has any chance of turning into something meaningful. Debbie resolves her Franny and Pepa situation swiftly as the episode begins, easily fooling Derek’s widow despite the fact that surely there is a photo of the real Franny somewhere on social media that she could have found. And then she just moves onto a new story, following her odious friend Megan into happy hour drinks that turn into Constance Zimmer thinking she’s a high end escort. I’m deeply disinterested in Debbie as a character, but even if I wasn’t, I don’t trust that this is the start of a meaningful story and not just another 1-2 episode riff with no purpose beyond killing time. And while I appreciate Constance Zimmer in what feels like the equivalent of Courteney Cox’s appearance last season, tying it to Debbie creates limited potential, and leaves no impression.
If you’ve been reading these reviews, then you know my feelings about Shameless’ lack of compelling storylines are not new, and so this evaluation does not come with a sense of surprise. However, something about this episode did feel particularly listless, as though the combination of storylines bolded and underlined the problems I’ve been having with the show for multiple seasons. Another journalist sent me a message after watching the screeners and was especially flabbergasted by the lack of interest the episode managed to generate, and I have to agree: while not necessarily the most egregiously bad episode of Shameless, it may be one of the least engaging, a sitcom misstep that carries greater weight in the context of the show’s potential.
- Is the math really as simple as the fact that Fiona always provided at least one grounded storyline, and there was usually one other sibling who did the same in any given episode? Putting all of that on Lip just doesn’t work the same way.
- Liam gets wrapped up with Debbie’s Fake Franny’s sister, who she apparently trusts to take care of her child over Liam, or any of her other siblings. I don’t buy this, not really, but I realize the show is very invested in sexualizing Liam after the bizarre closet story (another example of a story they literally dumped out on the street) from last season, so I guess we just have to accept it. I do not care for it.
- I don’t mind the idea that Kelly and Carl are going to remain friends after whatever happened, but seriously: is Anne just gone? Wasn’t she just moving to a different part of the city? It’s entirely possible I missed something last week, because I was in a daze due to travel, but I had no reason to believe Anne would just be completely gone from Carl’s life/the show.
- If you’re new, you may not be aware that I started the #EmptyCupAwards hashtag to reflect my concern over the obviously empty coffee cups on TV, and so I would like to personally ask Shanola Hampton what I did to her to deserve the wild swinging of her arms on her way into the Alibi and why the foley team wanted to hurt me with that hollow sound effect. (Are they reading these reviews?)
- I’m perplexed that none of the people at the AA meeting recognized Kev and Vee when they got to the Alibi. Their disguises were an absolute joke, but I guess this is a world where their twins managed to pretend to be one child for months with no one notices, so maybe the people in their orbit are all legally blind.
- I know that Lizzo has made her way into the mainstream, but it’s extremely rude of Shameless to imply she’s so mainstream that Kelly’s rich white teammate is into her.
- The introduction of a Milkovich cousin that Mickey fooled around with as a kid but is now a lesbian was extremely sudden, and I’d be sort of interested if the show didn’t telegraph her as a love interest for Debbie. Stop tying things to Debbie, Shameless!