I admire that Shameless is thinking about issues of race in such a significant way this season. It’s always been a show primarily interested in white poverty, with only a passing engagement with issues of racial diversity, and so the fact that this season feels rooted in questions of blackness and the experience of Latino members of the community is a meaningful step forward for a show that has typically treated these communities as tangential.
However, it’s very difficult for me to trust the show with these issues, even more than in general: I’ve written this season about my cynicism about the show’s commitment to its stories, and that is doubly true when it comes to nuanced understandings of race in America. If we take Vee’s story in “Adios Gringos” at face value, it’s a step forward for someone the show has basically stopped treating like a fully-realized character in recent seasons. Her experience at the cookout—which someone wasn’t a trap set by doctors angry about her manipulating them, but just an excuse to put her around other black people—gives her a crisis of racial identity, as she realizes she’s out of touch with her community. She doesn’t remember the electric slide, and she thinks Goop is a good place to go for a potato salad recipe. The clapback against her potato salad sends her to her mother, who reminds her that she was raised in a black household, and that it must be her interracial marriage that has stripped her of her blackness. It’s a story that has a lot of things that I typically appreciate about the show, like acknowledging history (we see Vee’s “brother-nephew”) and addressing the characters’ identity on a meaningful level, and the moment where Vee teaches her daughters the electric slide is sweet and good.
But when we the story into context, how can we trust these moments when the show literally just had Liam meet his black family and screw them over because being a Gallagher overrode his desire to understand his racial background? And how can we enjoy the scene of Vee and her daughters when it’s followed up by Kev returning dejected that his truly idiotic effort to fake a case of child molestation by stealing a Michael Jackson victim’s story nearly word-for-word? And how can we believe that Shameless is committed to engaging with this racial diversity in a meaningful way when Anne’s family is entirely anonymous, and Anne herself is so underwritten that I understand nothing about her outside of her apparent attraction to Carl for some reason?
In the series’ engagement with these communities, there’s the idea that the show acknowledging the “problem” with its characters’ actions absolves the show of the consequences. Sure, Carl is basically playing the role of white savior with Anne’s family, but it’s okay if the family makes fun of him for his colonialist bullshit as he makes his big military speeches, right? And yes, Frank is literally selling a human being with his black son, but that’s okay as long as they have Liam tell him why the idea of that is problematic, no? And okay, so Debbie goes from trying to borrow a foster child to hiring one to make Pepa’s life miserable, but if they use that story for her to say some dumb things about how redheads are a minority group and “hairism” is a social ill, that continues the theme where we poke fun at the Gallaghers for failing to understand the history of race and discrimination in America, surely!
The problem, however, is that the Gallaghers are the heroes of this story, and the show has yet to present a meaningful character of color beyond Vee and Liam who feels like part of the fabric of the show. Anne and her family are literal props, there to alarm Mickey (who’s out on parole with a cartel out to get him) and eavesdrop on Lip and Tami, and have no names. The introduction of the rival tamale producers from Texas is complete nonsense, a turf war that springs up out of nowhere and falls into dumb cliché instead of exploring the stories of any of those Texan immigrants (where they’re from, who they represent). Frank might eventually feel bad about selling the baby to either of his prospective buyers (all of whom are non-white), but throughout the process he’s dressing the baby up in dumb costumes and showing just a deep ignorance to other cultures that the show doesn’t really hold him accountable for except by having the baby stolen by one of those couples likely never to be discussed again. And throughout both stories, the musical score is particularly vile, playing up stereotypes of the prospective parents and giving Carl’s big speeches a militaristic energy that the plot doesn’t undercut as much as the writers might think it does.
“Adios Gringos” ends with a romantic moment for Carl and Anne, but the preceding conversation reveals that the show is done with her family, shuttled off to a nice apartment by Whole Foods after Carl got them back on their feet in a single day by convincing them to sell to gentrifiers as though they, entrepreneurial people of color, never considered that. As I wrote last week, their presence provided the nice telenovela runner with Frank and the babies, and I will admit I loved how Mickey keeps being alarmed by them as the episode goes on, so I’m not going to argue they served no comic utility. However, they also had no real place in this story, and now that they’re gone it seems unlikely the show has any interest in the issues raised by their experiences. And this is why when we look at Vee’s storyline, it’s hard to feel like this is going somewhere meaningful, or adding up to the show radically reorienting its understanding of race and identity. It’s a story about Vee gaining a sense of self-awareness about her blackness, surrounded by a season and an episode where Shameless as a whole continues to showcase a lack of self-awareness around this issue even if they’re acknowledging its existence more than ever before.
I’ll accept the baby steps over nothing, perhaps, but I’m going to need to see a lot more follow through on these ideas for me to ever get excited instead of scared when this show about class extends its lens to race.
- So what is Debbie’s plan exactly? Why does Pepa give her a check even after Franny literally bloodies her son? Won’t Pepa eventually find out that Franny isn’t hers? I just don’t understand how that story resolved, exactly.
- I don’t know how far the show wants to take the idea that Mickey is in immediate danger, but the ability to contrast his and Ian’s respective parole experiences was meaningful, and I appreciated how worried Mickey was when Ian hadn’t returned from Paula holding him at gunpoint to stop helping people. I don’t love anything about Ian’s story, which feels like a dead end to me, but now that Mickey’s out at least we’re focused on its effect on their relationship instead of just Rachael Dratch’s wacky crazy parole officer.
- I know that Kevin Ball is not the smartest light bulb, truly, but the idea that he thought copying the story of Michael Jackson’s victims that directly would work is just dumb for the sake of being dumb, and I continue to find that entire storyline more odious than not. If this was the “payoff” for the story, it wasn’t worth it on any level.
- So the show is suggesting that Lip and Tami never had a “Define the Relationship” discussion in the six months between seasons? I get that they’re both big personalities and might not want to get into that mess, but it seems crazy to me that this wasn’t something they’d at least discussed generally (such that they could be referring to those past conversations in this dialogue, which they were not). But hey, they have an RV now!
- I already used “Deus Ex Mickey-na” to describe when Mickey happened to get put into Ian’s cell, so this is just returning to the same well in terms of how they got him out of prison. It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense that he wouldn’t have gotten an immediate release if his information was so valuable, and that he would have had no idea that he could be getting a release, but it’s a good development so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.