Published on May 7th, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
The Very End and Sad Reality of Shameless
It’s cheap bar grub, so the food isn’t awesome – but the Franks and Lips are pretty damn good.
Pull up a drinking stool. We gotta talk.
I don’t blame you if you haven’t kept up with Shameless (2011) over its ten year run. That’s a long time to pay attention to something on tv. One episode per week for three months every year for a decade. Therefore, I will (try my best to) not spoil any major plot-lines as we look back at the entirety of a pretty popular show.
Frank Gallagher is an alcoholic-drug addled socially reprehensible leech with six kids and an uncanny knack for dodging responsibility. His eldest, Fiona, raises the rest of her siblings while Frank drinks at the Alibi, runs street scams, and slips in and out of heroin comas for nine years. That’s the show.
And so the Gallaghers grow, but only in age. Lip (Philip), Ian, Debbie, Carl and Liam grapple with the struggles of a poor life for a decade, right in front of your eyes, and yet any development of their character feels like a con. The show is a moody stew of slumming, and in the depths of the filth is great humour. After all, you’re just visiting the south side of Chicago; you don’t actually have to live next to them or work with them. These absurd problems of drug addiction, poverty, identity struggle are (hopefully) on a horizon so distant from your life that you can barely envision them. And so, being that the setting seems as far-fetched as an alien planet, the laughs come from outrageous behaviour that a reasonable person would never tolerate. But, the Gallaghers go back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths! Self-sabotage is maybe the most consistent behaviour on the show. It’s shameless in its redundancy.
The second constant is the depths of depravity. Maybe as early as season three I started to think, things can’t get any worse or, Frank couldn’t possibly stoop any lower than that (insert remorseless act of the day that hurts a family member badly) but he effectively does so time and time again. Shameless is a rare type of dramedy that makes me think of Trainspotting (1996). Junkie problems are kinda hilarious when you’re watching from a distance. They’re even funnier when it only lasts 93 minutes in a theatre instead of ten years in your living room. But when episode #1 (of #134) comes crashing in for the first time, it delivers merciless portrayals of shocking humour in a neighbourhood where sensitivity is for cry-babies. Which means the Gallagher’s house is going to be the most gut-wrenchingly hysterical place you could ever want to hang out, or it will motivate you to shut off the tv, have a shower, and do something with your life.
The third reliable Shameless attribute is that if you find the laughs of the first season to be your brand, it will deliver steadily til the end. More or less. This is a show that deals with frustration. Characters in the show are frustrated with being broke, not getting a break, not having anyone to trust, or getting too close and becoming vulnerable. It’s hard booze and harder women, cigarettes and sweaty sex, fights, hospitals, brawls, overdoses and underachievement. The viewer also gets frustrated with watching the failures pile up, bad luck outweigh hopeful dreams, and a capitalist society crush people for the crime of being poor. Like last season, and the season before, and the season before that one, too. But maybe I just don’t have a sense of humour.
In just about the same fashion that Frank repeatedly snakes his way back into the lives of his exasperated children, Shameless did the same to me from 2011 until about a week ago. It’s funny as hell in a trashy way, and it holds an unmistakably unique spot on tv, the way AC/DC holds a spot on the radio. It might be all of the things I listed above that sound negative, but Shameless is also sudden and jarring shots of heinously ugly people, buck naked. That makes me laugh like I might when someone rips one in a quiet, crowded church. It’s Thunderstruck (1990) full volume at a monster truck derby, another scenario that makes me laugh like I have the keys to the nitrous tank at a dental office. It’s just so ridiculous!
The show scores an overall 8.6 on IMDB and an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes so it certainly presents to critics and fans as a top rated show, but what holds it back from being truly great is the lack of meaningful change for the characters. The most enormous of concerns are alarmingly presented again and again, but soon, perhaps two episodes or a half a season later, it’s like none of it ever happened. The character arcs don’t lead to the substantial possibilities they tease while in mid-season or even mid-series. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s not a funny show, rather it’s a depressing show with a bleak message that uses the jokes to distract you. I prefer to think of it as a comedy unafraid of addressing serious issues.
Shameless has finally wrapped up after eleven seasons – two of those minus breakout star and series anchor Fiona (Emmy Rossum). After her departure, the character of Fiona was rarely mentioned by any of her friends, family, ex-lovers or former co-workers. It’s not like they acted as though Fiona had never existed, but as though she doesn’t exist anymore. Not dead, but like she moved to another dimension rather than another city. It’s weird, but eventually Fiona only existed as a ripple in time, like Ian’s bi-polar diagnosis or Lip’s genius IQ. Year after year, Shameless teases relief from drowning in inescapable trauma, but hardly delivers. For some reason, the greatest stretch of imagination in television isn’t a time-warp realm of warlocks and vampires emptying into Manhattan (I’m sure that’s a show somewhere). No, the line that cannot be crossed in that name of all that is real and believable in television writing is one that says poor people will never have much life beyond the poverty they know. Irritatingly, Frank is brilliantly perceptive, spiritually accepting and hilariously cavalier as he parties and schemes through parenthood from diapers to diplomas. Frank doesn’t need more because Frank doesn’t want more.
My feelings on Shameless are as recklessly mixed as Frank’s pills, powders and bottles. Eleven seasons is a long time to watch and hope while characters struggle. Yet, I enjoyed it all. Hard binging an entire season in one weekend was the best delivery system, of course. And even when the door was open for the chance at a better life, these residents of Chicago’s South Side would rather stay in stable struggle than believe leaving will make things better. Somehow, a roof over their heads and food on the table was enough. Oh, and a loosey for after dinner. A couple beers too, if fortune should shine.
No matter how bad things got for the Gallaghers, there was always some rich prick with a burning Tesla to make fun of. The family, friends, neighbours, boyfriends and girlfriends, kids and infants would gather outside the crumbling house or filthy bar to point and laugh. Foreclosure isn’t until Monday and, in the meantime, these rich bastards don’t know what they’re missing.
All seasons of Shameless are now streaming on Crave TV.