And like an unexpected bum showing up passed out on your front steps, or the always-surprising odor that accompanies him, Shameless is back. And for the most part we couldn’t be happier.
Everyone’s favorite South Side family had been on hard times since the last we’d met. Fiona had barely recovered personally from living up to her parents’ shadow (she accidentally let baby Liam swallow cocaine), and Frank had spent most of the season on death’s door. For a series hailed as a comedy-drama, Shameless veered startlingly toward the drama side of things, and perhaps even tragedy when seen through the still palatable pain of Emmy Rossum’s eyes.
But having now watched the first three episodes of season five, I can definitely say things are being dialed back for the Gallaghers, whose high jinks hasn’t felt this frisky or buzzed in a long time. Without giving too much away, I’ll say it’s summer in Chicago, and most of the Gallaghers are ready to play. Except for Fiona.
Not shockingly, the erstwhile good times girl has tasted enough of chaos—at least that is what she is telling herself. The diner she got a job at last season is hardly the same as working in an office, but she has made the best of it and is even seriously flirting with the new boss, played by a guest star who looks to be sticking around for a while, Dermot Mulroney. There are also other temptations in Fiona’s path, but the girl who banged the brother while her boyfriend was asleep in the next room, appears to be trying to find a new lease on life by resisting such blatant vices.
It’s too early to say where any of this is going, but it is refreshing to see Fi, however much she’s struggling, find an equilibrium on this show that hasn’t been there since the earliest parts of season three (before Jimmy started his long drift out to sea). Rossum also appears to enjoy playing a Fiona that is not a complete train wreck for the time being.
But the real highlights in the first few episodes belong to Frank and Lip, the first of whom has changed dramatically and, yet, not at all. As he was told last season, drinking will kill Frank if he ever did it again. However, much of the beginning of season five is Frank accepting this new fact of life by finding small ways to cheat it. Sunday’s premiere episode will show Frank in surprisingly marital “bliss,” or at least tolerance, with Sheila Jackson, albeit much to Sammy’s chagrin.
But while the rest of the Gallagher family finds the odd way of celebrating each other, Frank is always in the corner ready to bring it down and add some revolting lightness. This is not a mellower or more sedate interpretation of Frank by William H. Macy; it’s merely the first batch of episodes he’s done in a row where his character is neither drunk nor terminally ill. Watching Frank be cognizant enough of his surroundings to have an ongoing mission while still being the mean asshole we all know him to be is intentionally reminiscent of his far more scheming days of season one and season two, except this time he isn’t seeing double.
Lip also has the potentially most intriguing plot of season five by judging from the earliest episodes. Coming home for the summer, he will have to face comparing his past with his present. And yes, that means (in one of its many forms) his new college girlfriend versus Mandy Milkovich (now with blonde hair!).
Speaking of the Milkoviches, Ian has moved in with them and despite careful prodding by Fiona, don’t expect too much to come of his newly discovered bipolar disorder. At least not in the first episode. Also, both Debbie and Carl are dealing with puberty in a big way in season five. And three episodes in, it is done with much more wit and measure than some of the worst aspects of season four—but it will still play as fully and irredeemably Shameless. I’ll leave it at that.
Shameless season five in many ways feels like a back to basics approach for John Wells and the rest of the writing team. The show is well aware of how dark things got (though riveting), and in the first warm days of breezes off Lake Michigan, season five is course correcting. But every character is also enjoying plot threads that show winter will come again sometime. There is a moment in the second episode where Fiona and Debbie share a genuinely heartwarming sisterly bond. But that quietness is underscored with a sadness for at least one of them, and it likewise is a sadness that haunts almost all the characters in season five underneath the surface. Even new parents Kev and V aren’t quite fully ready for what it means to have twins. Perhaps most chilling of all though is the encroachment of gentrification.
Starting as just a simple yoga studio in the season five premiere, within a few episodes middle class mobility has taken on an ominous (and hilarious) visage when it comes knocking door to door. It’s a prophecy of doom that in actuality should take years to come to fruition, but as foretold by the Book of Frank Gallagher, it all begins with a Starbucks.
That summer breeze will become a burden soon enough, and the only one who probably won’t be moved by it is Frank. Drunk or sober, his cheerful slothfulness is like the Rock of Gibraltar for this series. While it’s sunshine for everyone now, we’ll be clinging to that old bastard for when the winds begin to howl—or at least the cries for frappuccinos.