“Shameless” concluded its fourth season last night, and I have some thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole coming up just as soon as I feel a bit like “Pretty Woman”…
A few weeks ago, “Shameless” producer John Wells got permission from the TV Academy to submit the show as a comedy at this year's Emmys, when in its first three years it was submitted as a drama. On the one hand, this seemed like a worthy Hail Mary pass from a producer whose show doesn't quite fit either category, but that has a host of wonderful performances, especially by the aptly-named Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher, the young adult daughter fighting to keep her family together. On the other, Wells was doing it for a season where “Shameless” was more clearly a drama than ever before, especially where Fiona was concerned.
Fiona began season 4 having apparently figured life out. An office job with extensive benefits dragged the Gallaghers just over the poverty line, and boss/boyfriend Mike was perhaps the most solid, stable love interest she's ever had.(*) And then, it all went to hell, as Fiona proved to be the chip off the old block of alcoholic scumbag father Frank, sleeping with Mike's brother, using cocaine in the house – and within reach of little brother Liam, who nearly died from ingesting the stuff – going on probation and almost instantly violating it when life became too hard.
(*) The season ended with the “surprise” return to life – that is, it was surprising if you A)ever believe in a fictional death when there's no murder or body shown, and B)you weren't listening to the many Firewall & Iceberg episodes where Fienberg kept predicting this exact scenario – of Justin Chatwin as Fiona's car thief ex-boyfriend JimmySteve (or, I guess, given what guest star Dichen Lachman calls him, JimmySteveJack). I didn't especially miss the guy while he was gone, but I suppose he could be an interesting devil on the shoulder for Fiona as she tries to stay clean.
Fiona's plunge to rock bottom provided Rossum some of her richest material yet, but it will certainly be odd if she gets nominated and we see a clip of her crying over Liam's condition at the Emmys right after a montage with Amy Poehler and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We ended the season for her not necessarily in a happy place, but at least a more stable one: prison overcrowding got Fiona an early release from lock-up, her probation officer (Regina King, borrowed from Wells' late, great “Southland”) set her up with a job waiting tables at a restaurant run by ex-addict Charlie (a gaunt and haunted-looking Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and she returned home to a tearful reunion with her younger siblings.(**) And she accepted that while she may have been subject to the nature and nurture of Frank Gallagher, her mistakes have been her own fault.
(**) Great as Rossum was in the finale, top acting honors may go to Emma Kenney, since Debbie's tears at seeing her big sister in the kitchen making breakfast were amazingly raw and real.
Fiona's story played nicely in parallel with what was happening with both Frank and middle brother Ian. Frank improbably got the liver transplant he'd been waiting for all season (a plot twist that Wells likely never would've allowed on “ER,” but that was deemed necessary here because the show's not going to ditch William H. Macy), and even after being told that drinking could cause his body to reject the new organs, he had Carl drive him to Lake Michigan (looking ghostly and forbidding, as the season's later exterior scenes where shot in the middle of a polar vortex) so he could have a drink on what looked like the ends of the earth and taunt the Almighty for failing to kill him, in what may be the “Shameless” equivalent of the famous “Two Cathedrals” scene from “The West Wing.”
“Is that all you got?” Frank railed. “You see me standing here? You lost, asshole! I'm alive, motherfucker!” And in a beautiful moment that's a reminder of how great and versatile Macy is, even if the writing for Frank has been uneven for much of the show's run, the rant was followed by the briefest glimpse of remorse for all the bad things Frank has done to himself and others, before he shakes it off, grins, and offers young Carl a drink from the bottle.
Ever since Ian (Cameron Monaghan) reappeared at mid-season, meanwhile, there have been ever-increasing hints that while Fiona has been acting as her father's daughter, Ian has inherited their mother's bipolar condition. The finale confirmed that, with Ian staying in bed for days on end, cursing out any attempt by boyfriend Mickey (Noel Fisher) to roust him, until Mickey finally fetched his siblings to figure out what was happening. (Debbie, sadly: “Yeah, we know what this is.”) Crude thug Mickey finally coming out of the closet – to the rage of his gangster father, and the amused indifference of everyone else in his world – was one of many surprising, emotionally affecting story arcs from the season, and seeing whether Mickey has the patience to be with someone suffering from manic-depression should make for yet another interesting subplot next season.
There were some lighter parts of the season, and the finale, but even they were laced with sadness. Crazy, lonely Sheila (Joan Cusack) marries Frank so she'll be eligible to adopt a group of Native American kids, but the tribal council reassigns them to their great-grandfather (the kids didn't tell Sheila he existed because “He doesn't have wifi”), to her heartbreak, and now she's stuck with Frank (if he ever comes home). Lip (Jeremy Allen White) passes his college classes and gets enough money to keep the family afloat through his rich, controlling new girlfriend, but it's clear he still feels more deeply for Mickey's sister Mandy, who's stuck in an abusive relationship with a hulking boyfriend who doesn't even want her talking to Lip. And Carl had a fling with a budding juvenile delinquent, but their criminal capers were there to provide for her homeless siblings, and one day the van they live in simply wasn't there when Carl showed up.
So, no, not a ton of laughs in this season of “Shameless.” Just a lot of wonderful performances, patient character arcs and indelible moments. Call it a comedy, call it a drama, call it whatever; it's great, and this was probably my favorite season yet.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com