Kids really do grow up so fast. It seems like only yesterday we met the whole Gallagher brood when Showtime premiered Shameless in primetime. Yet here we are preparing to enter a third season of depravity, perversion, criminality and all the other forms of bad behavior Shameless is infamous for.
For those who haven’t popped their Shameless cherry and are still blessedly clean of this wicked world, the show is a loose adaptation of a British series by the same name. Adapted and reimagined for American audiences by producer John Wells of ER and The West Wing fame, it chronicles the lives of an impoverished Irish-American family on the South Side of Chicago. This hour-long comedy/drama derives its humor from the absolutely darkest, most miserable corner of the gallows. To quote a producer on Shameless, “It’s not My Name is Earl or Roseanne. It’s got a much graver level of poverty attached to it. It’s not blue collar; it’s no collar.” But be careful or you may pity or politicize the Family Gallagher at your own peril. If you let them, they will swindle and screw you eight ways till Sunday.
Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), the single father of six children, is an unemployed alcoholic who is more inclined to steal money from his kids than to help them. Macy is fantastic as the ne’er-do-well patriarch who has all but abandoned his family. The other major star of the ensemble is Emmy Rossum as Frank’s eldest, grit-iron daughter Fiona. Theatre Geeks may recall her as the enchanting Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera (2004) or possibly for her work as a member of the Metropolitan Opera House. For the rest of ye Geeks, she’s the chick from The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Bulma in Dragonball (2009). And she’s naked in the show. A lot. You can thank me later for inadvertently hooking you to a fantastic television series.
To bring everyone back up to speed before we plunge into the third season which premièred Sunday, we at Den of Geek decided that it’d be best to take one more look at last year’s insanity. So shake off that hang over, hide the drugs in the backyard and throw your bum father back onto the street as we remember just how Shameless things got.
Season 2 of Shameless started remarkably different…in the summer. Gone were the shoplifted parkas and hand-me down toboggans that one needs to survive the short days in the Windy City. No, the characters were letting their hair down and partying in the summer heat. For Fiona that meant waitressing with neighbor Veronica (saucy Shanola Hampton) until the wee hours of the morning, then banging a rotating line of guys for the rest of the dawn in front of the Chicago skyline. For wunderkind Lip (Jeremy Allen White) it meant continuing to pine for Karen (Laura Wiggins) as she continued her newfound celibacy at Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings (yeah…good luck with that, honey). He also, randomly, joined a fight club. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) continues working at Kash and Linda’s convenience store, even though things have gotten frosty between Kash and the kid since Ian started rolling in the grass with Mickey at the school baseball field. And Debbie (Emma Kenney) and Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) spent the summer raking in money with a sketchy looking babysitter service for the neighborhood’s youngest chumps.
Everyone was where they were supposed to be, including Frank who was still mooching off Karen’s mom, Sheila (Joan Cusack). Yep, things were going fine until Frank bet a fellow bar fly, who just happened to be a drug dealer, $10,000 that he’d pass out if Frank tasered him three times. That’s one way to burn through money. The drug dealer takes baby Liam Gallagher hostage when Frank won’t pay, thus leaving real parenting to Fiona again. With the help of Kev (Steve Howey) and Lip’s ice cream truck/marijuana dealing business, she buys Liam back and Frank is disowned by his offspring for the umpteenth time.
To simplify the rest of the season, we’re going to focus from here on Fiona, Lip and, of course, Frank. Fi spent much of Shameless’s second year getting over Steve/Jimmy (or as I like to call him, Simmy). If you recall, Steve (Justin Chatwin) asked Fiona to runaway to Brazil when he was being hunted for grand theft auto. But despite wanting to leave behind her super-shitty life, Fiona couldn’t let her five siblings fend for themselves with Frank’s predatory parenting. She attempts to get over it by sleeping with Simmy-lookalikes, including an older man. She even flirts with Jasmine (Amy Smart) in the one leftover story thread of Season 1 that goes nowhere. But ultimately, when she is laid out bare for being a high school dropout by a former classmate’s wife, it is Steve she is calling to come save her. The only problem is that Simmy got married to cartel princess Estafania to avoid being murdered by her cocaine-dealing dad.
Meanwhile Lip cannot get over psycho Karen using him just for sex. It’s only made worse when she announces she’s marrying fellow Sex Addict Recovered Jody (Zach McGowan), a man with more than a decade on the teenager. Lip drowns his sorrow by helping Ian get into West Point through his shady University of Chicago connections. But when Ian discovers West Point is really interested in Lip, the two brothers have a massive falling out which causes Lip to drop out of high school. This awakens the feral den mother within Fiona who kicks Lip out of the house for repeating her mistakes. As luck would have it, Lip ends up living in the penthouse of a returned Steve and Estafania (who is, herself, pining for a Brazilian dealer, but may settle for Lip’s slummy, genius charm). Oh and Karen? Turns out the marriage was a bad idea and Jody moves in with her mother when Karen gets pregnant with another’s baby. Karen does try to give the child away after a Thanksgiving birth, but mom steals it back to their house and chooses her innocent granddaughter over Karen. The vile creature curses her mother and promises to run away for good. Aw, shucks.
And then there’s Frank. Macy is fantastic in the series, but its main problem remains what to do with the most unredeemable protagonist on television. Like ever. He spends most of the season being even worse, such as when he reconnects with barmaid “Butterface” Dottie because she needs a heart transplant and he wants her government pension when she dies. He even goes so far as to not tell her when she got a call from the hospital for a transplant and instead literally screws the suicidal woman to death (sex causes her heart to explode). The show finally relents on making us hate Frank by doing the only thing Shameless can…it brings back his mother and ex-wife. Grammy (Louise Fletcher) shows up after spending a decade in the big house and with a bad case of cancer. She blows her last days on Earth by torturing her son with guilt and psychological abuse that almost makes Frank sympathetic. Almost. She also tries to buy her grandchildren’s love with thousands of dollars before fooling Sheila into mercy killing her. But the return of Hurricane Monica Gallagher (Chloe Webb) tops it all.
Monica, fresh off her failed lesbian relationship from the first season, decides to pretend again that she’s an actual mother to her six children. nstead, she and Frank steal the money from Grammy, along with the rest saved all season for the coming winter, and blow it all on drugs. When Fiona even gets Lip to come back and reunites the whole family for Thanksgiving, Monica has to make it about herself again by attempting suicide in the kitchen. Jimmy steps up and gets her to the hospital while Fiona deals with the fallout. But Frank? Frank slinks back to Sheila (who is now far too cozy with Jody and her new grandson). All in all, the only thing that can ever make Frank seem less bad in the second season is again the return of the Worst Mother of the Millennium.
Looking back, Season 2 carried on the Gallagher shenanigans from the first year, but in a more pensive and sobering way. There were still plenty of comically shocking moments, such as Ian beginning a relationship with a rich older man who turns out to be Jimmy’s father. However, it was grounded in a much drearier reality of poverty in the South Side. Lip dropping out of school is not funny, but depressingly stupid. His anger over the responsibility of being the Gallagher who might make something out of his life is dangerous for him and his whole family. Fiona ultimately gets her GED and proves Lip’s childish antics are absurd, but he was ready to marry Karen and settle down, as a high school dropout, before he found out her baby was Asian. Frank’s shtick went from grandly narcissistic to repulsive when he helped Monica rob their children for a three-day drug bender.
Yet, there is still plenty to like about Season 2 beyond the darkness. Ian comes out of the closet to more members of his family. Steve comes clean to Fi that he’s actually Jimmy, a rich kid from the suburbs playing poor. Even Kev and Veronica’s Mormon polygamist foster daughter gets a happy ending when she runs off with an inner city kid. Also, any scene with Joan Cusack is comedy gold.
Ultimately, it’s what’s underneath all this cynical “Fuck you too” bravado that makes it work. Unlike other snarky premium cable dramedies (ahem—Girls—ahem), we actually care about these characters. Most of them are likable and relatable despite their titular shamelessness. Kev and Veronica make a sweet couple who want to have a child, even if they make money on the side by selling their own sex tapes. Rossum’s Fiona, who has gone criminally overlooked by the evermore-irrelevant Emmys, is a protagonist we want to succeed and overcome the terrible hand her parents dealt her. At the end of the day, the Gallagher clan feels like a real family instead of a smug amalgamation of “timely” archetypes. The show thrives where most Showtime and HBO comedies fail by remembering that if we don’t like your characters, we won’t stick around no matter how oh-so-clever the witty banter may be.
That’s not to say Shameless is perfect. It started showing its growing pains in its sophomore return. Shameless got away with it last year, but can Fiona and Jimmy actually stay together a whole season without breakup drama? Can Karen and Monica stay gone? And can the writers make Frank likable without relying on the crutch of even worse mother figures in his life? Perhaps we’ll find out this week when Shameless, the most proudly immoral show on television, returns. We can all raise a glass to that.