Recently, Shameless switched Emmy categories from drama to comedy. In truth, the dramedy balances both approaches somewhat equally: it is loudly funny in one scene and then quietly devastating in the next. The switch makes some sense because Shameless hasn’t had luck competing with the dramas, but Joan Cusack (who plays Sheila, one of the more broadly funny characters on the show) has picked up three acting nominations. Plus, the drama category is already packed with the second half of Breaking Bad‘s final season and the first half of Mad Men‘s. Still it’s a strange move to make now, because Season 4 of Shameless is the darkest the show has ever been — and also the greatest. Sunday-night TV has some fierce competition, but while everyone was looking to HBO and AMC, Showtime’s Shameless quietly became one of the best dramas on television.
Shameless has always been a show about the poor. The members of the large Gallagher clan, including a missing bipolar mother and a degenerate alcoholic father who just brings trouble home, have to fend for themselves and often lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate the system (and occasionally other people) in order to stay alive. The past three seasons have been good but sometimes felt a little off. Sometimes Shameless was trying too hard to be shocking and vile, sometimes it was sticking too close to its original UK version, sometimes it seemed to be enjoying the “look what we can do on Showtime!” schtick more than it enjoyed caring about the characters. It was never a bad show, just one that occasionally took a wrong turn with plot developments or poor characters but could always steer itself back on track. This season, it learned how to start on the right road and remain there, finally becoming the show it’s been trying to be from the beginning.
Season 4 begins with the Gallaghers in a good place as they creep up on the poverty line, so it’s clear that something has to go wrong. What Shameless does is go beyond that and make everything go wrong. We’ve seen the Gallaghers poor; now we’re going to see them get a taste of something better — lunch money, health insurance, paid bills — and then have it harshly yanked away. The key to this season is Fiona, a deeply complicated character played amazingly by Emmy Rossum. She is a child of addiction and poster child for self-destruction. Things have never gone well for her, and when they start to, she doesn’t know how to handle it. She rejects it. She is, in some ways, like a prisoner who is released from jail, can’t function in the outside world, and commits a crime in order to be sent back. Fiona can’t handle a life without dysfunction, so she creates it herself. She self-sabotages a solid relationship and a good job in one fell swoop by sleeping with her boss-slash-boyfriend’s brother.
Season 4 examined how one shitty action can have a domino effect: this one mistake resulted in the family losing their income, the near-death of a child, the violation of probation, and a terrifying stint in jail. It ran ripples throughout the entire family; Lip (Jeremy Allen White) had to essentially become the family’s sole guardian while trying to deal with his first semester at college. Shameless piles on the problems because the show isn’t content until everyone is at the bottom, but that only makes the moments of triumph a sheer joy to watch. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) goes AWOL, struggles with his closeted boyfriend, and exhibits signs of bipolar disorder. Debbie (Emma Kenney) is obsessed with losing her virginity and gets her first real heartbreak.
But most important is Frank (William H. Macy), who is deteriorating on the inside and out while his family watches, particularly young Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), who may or may not be a budding sociopath. Frank spends much of the season in dire need of a liver. While most of his family is hesitant to help him out — truth be told, I spent much of the season wishing he would die because his once-funny alcoholic antics have become painful to watch — he eventually gets a transplant. He celebrates by taking swigs of liquor and cursing out God. It’s not exactly one of those victorious moments, but it’s a moment that could only happen on Shameless.
Earlier seasons of Shameless tried to pack so much into hour-long episodes, but the Gallagher clan (and their rotating relationships and enemies) is so big that it wasn’t very effective. It was rushed and crowded, with little time to pack an emotional punch. This season stayed mostly within the family and didn’t feel the need to include everyone all the time — Ian was absent for the earlier episodes, Sheila disappeared for a while in the middle — so it was able to really hammer home the Fiona and Frank narratives. When each plot reached its conclusion, it actually felt like a real and fully fleshed-out story. In Season 4, Shameless shed a lot of unnecessary elements and found a stronger voice, giving us one of the most memorable seasons of television in recent history.