Shameless is my favorite television watch for a reason: It’s relatable, raw, unapologetic, hilarious, and powerful all in one fell swoop. Everytime I tune in to the mischiefs of the Gallagher clan, I find it very hard not to root for them when they rise, and feel for them when they’re down. There’s also something special about this specific depiction of the South Side that resonates with my life and the perspective I’ve learned to see the world through, which makes each week and each new episode an opportunity to indulge in an experience that has always seemed like it was destined for me to watch.
However, my personal praise doesn’t elevate it above the best that television truly has to offer, and it has occasionally featured stretches (like last season’s disappointing final act) that go against the reputation it has built for itself overall. Certain characters are given fresh story arcs that help continue to define them further as the series wears on, and some of the show’s egregious themes are constructed with an awe-inspiring level of care and ingenuity. Other individuals or aspects that it has tackled fall under more scrutiny, with bland, unappealing or even repeated results that don’t ring true to the show’s usually expected level of quality. Shameless, in my opinion, is a captivating viewing unlike any other, but it’s also a flawed one unlike any other. It’ll make you laugh and cry here, then frustrate and let you down there. That, folks, is perhaps the best way to describe Season Six’s premiere, “I Only Miss Her When I’m Breathing”.
This wide range in caliber is most apparent in the Gallaghers, themselves. For example: The routine of Shameless‘s family dynamic is almost an eternal part of the series’s DNA. Something about Fiona waking up in the morning and brushing everyone else off to school or work has become nostalgic, and Frank consistently being shamed by the likes of his own kin never gets old. Shameless simply isn’t Shameless to me without these integral elements, and tonight’s season premiere is a firm declaration of a family that I actually wish I knew in real life for some strange reason.
Yet this season’s premiere, like the rest of the series itself, goes deeper than this. So much has happened internally to this family over the years that the dynamic between them has started to feel challenged in nature. Carl’s faced a prison sentence; Debbie’s now pregnant; Lip’s finding himself as a teacher assistant and is sleeping with his English professor; and Ian’s bipolar. These are the hurdles they’re currently striving to jump through, and the episode makes quick work of establishing their current status relative to their respective situations.
Some of this material is handled extremely well. As much as I am bothered by Ethan Cutkosky’s portrayal as Carl, there’s an inherent darkness and maturity to his story arc that never reared its head last season. I like the little instances that exemplify this, including his return home on his lonesome without so much as a single notice to Fiona. When he brings his troubled (by which I mean “really f%$#&d up”) friend over the house to sleep over, I see a young boy who’s both willing to protect his “homies”, and negligent of the potential chaos he’s inviting to his own doorstep. The disregarding response to the family celebration Fiona designs for his being released from prison is the show’s way of saying that this may soon no longer be a household that’ll be spiritually coherent enough to celebrate together. Hell, even the actual release from prison and the new hair style suggests a bleakness we’re not prepared to witness. It’s grim stuff, but given how assuredly Carl’s grown into his juvenile delinquency, and the background he’s been born from, these moments feel justified. We are finally seeing one of the show’s most underdeveloped family members come to life, and it’s rightfully sad.
Most of how I would describe Carl’s situation almost perfectly illustrates Debbie’s as her adolescent advancements have helped paint an even bleaker picture. Of all the curved outcomes towards the end of Season Five, the startling reveal of Debbie’s pregnancy rose alone as the only true development that Season Six would actually need to flesh out further, and I’m glad it is. The results of her efforts to mature into a woman are nothing to smile about – the show doesn’t even attempt to formulate a single gag out of it – and it’s disheartening to see one of Shameless‘s most beloved characters continue to spiral.
Worst of all, that downward trajectory is threatening to destroy the fabric of her relationship with Fiona – one of the strongest remaining connections from the beginning of this series. When Fiona takes it upon herself to drag Debbie to the clinic to confirm – or dissafirm – the pregnancy, only to have Debbie deny her presence alongside her with the doctor, you feel Fiona’s pain as she starts to realize that her association with her siblings is waning. The deceit that follows – Debbie lying to Fiona about the pregnancy being false – mixed with Derek’s parents showing up at the conclusion of the episode to guarantee that Debbie’s bearing child all hit home hard, clarifying that the sisters’ relationship may even collapse into a state of mutual abhorrence. All in all, you simply cannot ignore how Debbie’s initial urgency to have sex has played a large role in her current dealings, which makes the pregnancy a powerful reminder of how this society can strip away the innocence of any child, especially those who are too blinded by the instant gratifications growing up has to offer. This is where Season Six plants the seeds for a potential conflict that could destroy the complexion of the Gallagher clan for good. So far, it’s off to an emotionally riveting start.
Lip’s proceedings at school are still relatively difficult to decipher, but at least it ran through some much need character building. The lightbulb moment he has as the teacher’s assistant, followed by the humbling discussion with that student over a blatantly plagiarized essay, are some of the dark horse highlights of this episode. Through these scenes, we finally see the difference that Lip’s dedication to advancing his education are beginning to have, and the fantastic potential that lies in store should he choose to tap into it. When Shameless ignores the intricacies of college to delve into the intricacies of the kid who’s actually experiencing it, the show reaches new heights, and I can’t begin to describe how invested I was when Lip expressed himself here.
I’m still hoping that the show figures out exactly what it’s trying to do with Lip’s affair with Helene. There’s no real emotional weight to it as of yet, and Lip’s physical encounter with her son stresses his affection for this woman without justifying it. I keep thinking about how arbitrary her influence has been to Lip, and that impression strongly remains.
Speaking of arbitrary influences: is there any way we can possibly forgive Shameless for (almost) writing off Ian and Mickey’s relationship last season? Through “Miss Her”, the glaring writing mistake is nearly cleaned up completely, with Ian’s currently tempered mental state casting plenty of doubt over him having a definitive idea of where he stands with his former(?) partner. And thanks to Svetlana’s bribe, we got to briefly see him speak to Mickey again, in a wonderfully-scripted scene where both Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher wore a flurry of emotions without exactly expressing them. Very rarely has so much been asked from a simple request as “Will you…wait for me?”, and the uncertainty of Ian’s “Yeah” in response is profound enough to make you choke up almost.
“Miss Her” has plenty to smile about as a viewer, but almost equally enough to upset as a fan. Fiona’s sleeping around with Sean has not yielded the results I wished it did. That swirling wave of bedlam that hung over their “will they, won’t they?” phase from last season isn’t present anymore, which has totally dried up the intrigue of their relationship. The episode tries to inject some conflict between them by having Fiona be reluctant in accepting Sean’s offer as assistant manager (considering: A) other, long-time employees are more deserving, and B) she’s really getting the offer because she’s sleeping with him), but I was never invested in that. The chemistry is there between the characters – but so what? We’ve seen Fiona in love with Jimmy/Steve, and Mike, and Gus. Even if the promotion boosts her financial status, it’s impossible to avoid the realization that the show is running her in circles, thrusting her in the arms of a new man each and every season and keeping her character development in neutral. And since we know how the rest of those sex-crazed emotional endeavors have wound up, there’s no point in caring about these two, especially not right now.
Frank’s plight concerning the loss of Bianca can be a true turning point for him, but after tonight’s events, I’m not entirely convinced. Remember: Last season, shortly after recovering from the new liver he received, Frank went off on the same old drunken binges and tired acts of squalor we’ve witnessed from the beginning. This is not a man who’s automatically going to change, regardless what hardships life throws at him. Unfortunately, this version of Shamless still hasn’t figured out a way to make him at least a tiny bit endearing like the U.K. version did over time. This Frank is still just a scumbag, and although the montage with him trying out different religions is meant to prove otherwise, I’m not ready to embrace his new, more heartbroken demeanor. A large part of this has to do with the show relying too much on having Frank do horrible things in public, sacred spots. Him humping a grave spot, and insulting old women in catholic churches, have lost their comedic flair, but most important; they draw him out more as a person for which you have no sympathy. At this point, I need to see a real, tangible difference in Frank as a human being.
This is Shameless‘s sixth season, and if you’re not personally involved in the lives of these characters – especially the Gallaghers – at this juncture then you’re watching this program for all the wrong reasons. The messages, themes, and underpinnings of the show runs through them, and “I Only Miss Her When I’m Breathing” constitutes this ideal from the minute it commences. Thankfully, such an ideal still works to this series’s advantage, and right away we are provided with enough juicy material from each part of the Gallagher family to carry us over to the end – even though some of it stumbles out of the gate. It remains up to Shameless itself whether or not it will explore these particulars to the end (or draw up white flags like last season), but for the moment I really, really like where it’s going here.
+ Debbie & Carl growing up in all the wrong ways
+ Lip’s brief teaching moment
+ Ian and Mickey’s heartbreaking conversation
-Fiona’s story arc losing steam
-Frank being Frank