In a hazy and unpleasant summer spent largely in Berlin a few years ago, I was exposed to the original UK version of Shameless, which I did not care for at all. The US version of Shameless, on the other hand, I enjoyed right away, although I found it to be both bawdy with its off-color jokes, and difficult, digging into struggles with poverty, family problems, mental illness and identity. It has always been reliably entertaining, but the third and fourth seasons really kicked it into high gear.
In the lead-up to the new season of Shameless (already season six!), I have been thinking about how it developed into the confident, moving and human show it is. Its real power surfaced through deeply compelling characters whose backgrounds, full of imperfections and flaws, have been fully fleshed out to make the characters into real people: the Gallagher family. A drunken, drug-addled patriarch, Frank, malingers and manipulates as a narcissistic leech with no concern whatsoever about his family of six kids – Fiona, Lip, Ian, Carl, Debbie and Liam.
It would be easy to give in to the urge to shame Fiona Gallagher, the young, accidental “matriarch” figure who has always held it together to make sure the family is cared for and bills are paid. She had to take on all the responsibilities when it was clear that Frank wouldn’t, and their mother, Monica, was mentally ill (and left them). She had a lot dumped on her and never had her own childhood. So… when Fiona lost it, she really lost it… and in doing so, let everyone in the family down. But when you consider that Fiona was thrust into her role when she was just a child herself, it’s a bit easier to understand how she would act out. And keep making mistakes. And why the consequences are so much more devastating. Her role models/examples have continued to fuck up in worse ways than she could ever do (although her criminally manipulative, ne’er-do-well father, Frank, commits crimes, misdemeanors and trespasses and always seems to get away with all of his hijinks, depravity and dereliction). But for Fiona, the stakes are higher – always higher.
Fiona’s second-in-command, Lip, is a self-destructive genius who steps up to the plate when he needs to. Ian is another story (see the next paragraph). Carl is a not-too-smart would-be criminal (any smarts he has are used for scheming). Debbie has low self-esteem as she hits puberty and falls into some of the stereotypical traps (seeking out a sex to boost self-esteem, getting pregnant purposely to feel “loved”). Liam is a baby/toddler and is only interesting in that 1. he is black and no one knows or cares why, 2. he has to be cared for, and the challenges of rearing him play into larger plot points.
I would not be exaggerating, though, to say that the show turned a corner and became great in its telling of the Ian and Mickey story. Ian is the sensitive one in the family, very caring and yet rule abiding (he wants to join the military). He is also gay, which the family knows about and supports. During the run of the show, he falls in love with a tough and totally closeted neighborhood guy, Mickey Milkovich. I could rehash the way his coming out story unfolded when he realizes he is in love with Ian, but it’s better to watch. It’s also been written about in the perfect way. The deft handling of both the coming out and the subsequent relationship, which has been tested not just by the societal constraints of who the two of them are but also by the emergence of Ian’s mental illness, is nothing short of the best TV has to offer.
It is not necessarily fair to focus only on the core cast of characters because some of the supporting characters are essential – the neighbors/friends, Kevin and Veronica, are rich, viable stories of their own. Sheila, the agoraphobic mother of Lip’s disturbed girlfriend Karen and eventual paramour for Frank, is unassailably… weird. Some supporting parts are less effective (Frank’s daughter Sammi and her son Chuckie) even if they were important to the plot. But all the supporting parts hold the viewer’s attention and get the story where it needs to go.
But no supporting role(s) have been as key as the Milkovich family. Partly the sister Mandy, who is pivotal in Lip’s life – demanding that he live up to his potential (since he seems to be the only one in the neighborhood who has any). But most crucially, Mickey, because he and his relationship with and love for Ian form the real heart of the entire show. Others are the body and hold things together, Ian and Mickey are the heart.
I could ramble – clearly I already am. Some shows are good, and I write about them because I pick out one or two remarkable parts that strike me particularly deeply. In this case, though, it’s the whole package.