At this point, we're five episodes into the fourth season of the Showtime series Shameless. Before this season began, I had always viewed this show as an excellent form of entertainment that blended chaos and bad decisions with stories of poverty and rough neighborhoods and the people borne of them. It was sometimes poignant, approaching serious topics with a bit of humor, and always ridiculous. Trying to explain the plot to someone who doesn't watch it only comes out sounding insane, like life couldn't possibly be that f***ed up. Before this season I viewed this show as an excellent study for a writer because it delves so seriously into the lives of the people on the bottom rung, and all their unsavory acquaintances and all the ways they cheat and lie to make it by in the Southside of Chicago, where they are cut no breaks by the system or anyone higher up on the food chain.
When season 3 ended, it actually looked like the series itself could have come to an end. We saw Fiona (Emmy Rossum) finally excelling in a sales job that gave her a steady paycheck and health insurance, she's finally got custody of her siblings, and Frank (William H. Macy), her father and the father of the five younger siblings she's adopted, is dying of liver failure, after a lifetime of substance abuse and terrible decisions. Lip is heading off to college, after several teenage romances have forever altered his perspective, and Sheila is looking for meaning and a place to pour her OCD and manic energies after her nearly-brain-dead daughter heads off into the sunset with her husband to "heal" somewhere out West. I honestly didn't know where the show would go from there, after we had spent three seasons watching Frank at his constant antics to find more money, booze, and ways to cheat the system out of every opportunity for both of those. It was time for all of these characters to face realities.
Season four has blown me away. It has taken these characters to places I never thought I'd see. Fiona has spent three seasons showing us that if only it weren't for Frank, they would all be fine, because she's the responsible adult holding up the household. Certainly, Frank has never done that and we've seen Fiona do an awful lot more than the average twenty-something has to. But here's the thing -- Fiona can no longer blame anyone but herself for the mistakes she's been making now, and the mistakes she been making are huge. Life-changing things, like exposing her three-year-old brother to cocaine after an unstable fling leaves it at her house and landing him in the E.R. in critical condition and landing her in handcuffs in the back of a police car. That's on you, big girl. She didn't wind up in a terrible situation once again because of your drunken father or because the bills are due and the money's dried up. She was industrious in all those years she had to scrape the bottom of the barrel and do what it took to survive, working a a grocery store where the manager took blow jobs from all the female associates in shifts and in a HAZMAT suit cleaning shit out of the city sewage pipes, covered in maggots and back slime. We've seen her survive things we could not imagine. As soon as the regularity of a 9-to-5 and health insurance got her feeling normal, and dare we say it, bored, we start to notice all the faults of this entirely human character. And when she does make a few bad decisions--sleeping with her boss/boyfriend's brother and then using the cocaine he leaves behind at her house later--right in a row, she definitely, most certainly, will not get a break. Fiona, have you learned nothing about how the world works? That there are never any breaks in your world?
It's the best place this show could have taken her. The same goes with Frank. Facing death, even entirely of his own volition, is giving us some deep insight on this detestable man who we've seen treat all his children like absolute scum throughout the entire series. We're finally seeing his son Carl figure out that all this time, the scheming and the illegal activities countless, it hasn't been bonding time; it has been his father using him, in every single case. Frank told Carl that Carl had cancer, was dying, in order to try and get some money or prizes from one of those Make-a-wish companies. Carl honestly thought he was dying. And Frank wound up getting nothing out of it, as usually happens. Now, we're finally seeing him understand, and this season the stakes have been much higher. We've watched Carl spend the amount of time usually involved in a full-time job trying to find a replacement liver or any other means to help his father live, scoffing at Fiona and Li, his older siblings, for their lack of sympathy for their dying father. There is no way to feel any sympathy for Frank Gallagher, but do we ever feel bad for Carl, especially as he catches on now.
I like Shameless because the entire premise of the show--it's the name of the dang the show--is to have these characters make the wrong decision, or at least a bad one, in every single situation they are faced with. Usually it's been as a means to survive. When Kevin and Veronica inherit the local bar, The Alibi Room (which is the most perfect name for a seedy bar ever, can I say) and learn it's a money pit that they definitely can't afford to have drag them down while they have triplets on the way, the agree to let Mickey the angry closeted thug start up a Russian "massage" parlor in the upstairs apartment. Because, of course that's how they would rent out the upstairs space. That's what I mean. So far it's been funny, insane, and entertaining, while often serious too, but it's seemed wholly unsustainable. You can't have that many characters doing these things season after season without an audience beginning to wonder how it continues to work out, and honestly, getting bored.
I'm less bored now than I ever have been. I try to imagine the writer's room for a show like this. It has got to be epic the kinds of things they cook up.
This season, with Sheila (Joan Cusack) hanging out with her online dating find Roger Runningtree and making oodles of succotash since she's 1/32 Menominee Indian, it might be the most "normal" I've seen her yet, considering she spent a season sleeping with her teenage daughter's 40-year-old husband and turning him back into a kinky sex addict after he'd worked so hard to recover. (If you don't watch Shameless, perhaps you're beginning to understand what I mean by insanely ridiculous.) (And also, check out that fabulous log cabin quilt gracing the Gallagher couch now. Perfectly improvised, like them.)
All Sheila's weird brand of normalness is helping to balance out the new extremes we see in Frank and Fiona. It's been a fabulous introspection for these two main characters, especially as we watch Fiona begin to understand her own addictions, and how they've continually been plaguing her and ruining the otherwise happy home she's been working towards for so long. It's not just Frank who's been wrecking their home. And with other problems fading into the background, like money flow and bad parents and people who want to kill various members of her family, fresh and clear light is shown on her own weaknesses. It's not that we all can't have our weaknesses either. It's just that Fiona has spent the entire series ensuring us that she's got it all together, if only the Gallagher household could catch a break for once.
But the writers have definitely not given her a break, even when they're finally "moving up the food chain" as she puts it to Lip. And it's bringing her to fabulous new "shameless" places, and shameful lows. I'm excited to see where Lip shows his true colors now, with Fiona potentially facing very serious criminal charges for hard drugs and potentially manslaughter of her own sibling. You know, one of the ones she's worked so frickin' hard to take care of.
Good, good television. Writers, be jealous of these writers. It's seriously fun stuff to send a character down the path of a bad decision and see how they fail or succeed. It's what I'm trying to do better every day with my own fiction.