In one episode of the new season of Showtime’s “Shameless” (it returns Sunday night at 9), Emmy Rossum’s Fiona Gallagher finds herself on the run from someone who wants to beat her up with a baseball bat, and winds up cowering under a table next to her despicable alcoholic father Frank (William H. Macy). As Fiona realizes that she’s now in the same position Frank has been in so, so, so many times in the past, a giddy Frank declares, “I have waited for this day!” And as much as he wants to just seem smug about the daughter who has lectured him so often in the past about his own bad behavior, there’s a sense of perverse pride here, too – that this is the first time in a long time Frank has truly been able to relate to his eldest child.
And that, boys and girls, is “Shameless” in a nutshell. It is messy. It is vulgar. It is crude and loud and low-class. And it takes great joy in being all of those things.
It is also, despite being an hour each week and featuring dramatic moments – many of them heart-wrenchingly good – funnier than pretty much all of the half-hour shows Showtime tries to pass off as comedies, and it’s a pleasure to have it back.
I had, in fact, not realized just how much I missed the Gallagher clan – six kids, ranging from toddler Liam to 21-year-old Fiona, struggling to make ends meet and keep their family together thanks to their mother’s abandonment and Frank’s more visible neglect – until I started watching episodes from the second season. I liked but didn’t always love “Shameless” last year. Part of that was me never finding Frank as amusing as the show so clearly wanted me to, particularly when so much of the first season’s comedy spun out of things Frank was doing. But just as problematic was the way the show seemed to have trouble deciding whether it viewed the Gallaghers’ petty criminal lifestyle as fuel for black comedy, or as something that was going to leave all the siblings damaged in one way or another. It can be both those things, but there were many times in the first season where the one seemed incompatible with the other.
But the performances of and chemistry between the young actors – particularly Rossum as fierce mama bear Fiona, Jeremy Allen White as precocious hoodlum Lip, Cameron Monaghan as closeted Ian and Emma Kenney as wise-beyond-her-years Debbie – were so strong that I didn’t sweat the parts that didn’t work as well.
And the early parts of season 2 feel like some of the rough edges have been sanded off, qualitatively, without making “Shameless” itself feel any more cleaned up than a year ago.
Where the first season took place in a cold, grey Chicago winter, it’s now the summer, which has opened up all kinds of new criminal avenues for the Gallaghers to explore. Fiona sets up an unlicensed daycare center in the house, using 10-year-old Debbie to run the place while she sleeps off her night job. Lip and neighbor Kev (Steve Howey) dust off an old ice cream truck and use it to sell both pops and pot to people at the local park, and Lip also organizes a local fight club ring. Frank, meanwhile, is in a panic, because his sugar mama Sheila Jackson (Joan Cusack, blessedly muted in what could be an unrelentingly quirky role) is starting to get over her agoraphobia and will soon be able to journey into the real world and learn what a disgusting, selfish jerk he really is.
The warm weather brings with it a slightly more relaxed tone. The Gallaghers are still under constant threat of financial ruin – or, worse, being split up by social services – but overall the show seems to be enjoying their hustles more, and finding more ways to have comedy spin out of the kids, and Kev and his girlfriend Veronica (Shanola Hampton), rather than just leaning on Frank to make things funny.
For that matter, the writers have done a better job of calibrating Frank this season. Macy still seems miscast (there’s something oddly studied about the performance that’s not usually there in his great performances), and the draw for me remains Rossum and friends, but where I often viewed Frank scenes last year as the cost of doing business, this year, some of them are actually funny, and others do a better job of explaining why Frank hasn’t been lynched by now. And as an adult with his best years long behind him (assuming he ever had good years), the show can go much darker with Frank than it can with his children. He makes a decision midway through Sunday’s premiere that seems like the worst thing I could imagine him doing, and then does something two episodes later that makes the earlier act seem like jaywalking.
One other interesting change, at least in the early going: because of how last season ended, Justin Chatwin is largely out of the picture as Steve, Fiona’s car thief boyfriend, who’s been concealing his wealthy background. I had no problem with Chatwin last year, but it does feel like the show has more room to breathe in these early episodes without having to balance Fiona’s serious relationship (as opposed to several casual flings that don’t require much screentime) along with scams, sibling bonding and whatever shenanigans Frank is involved in. Rossum was a revelation last year – funny and touching and in complete command of the screen – and if anything, she seems stronger this season(*), even as Fiona is getting reckless without Steve in her life. I’m sure Chatwin will be more prominent as the season moves along, but the mix without him plays quite well.
(*) Showtime needs to give Rossum the same kind of Emmy push they give their better-known actresses – and possibly consider submitting the show as a comedy next year – since she’s every bit their equal, performance-wise.
There are a lot of comedies on television where the main characters treat each other horribly for most of each episode and then have some kind of phony heartwarming moment right at the end. With “Shameless,” the love is just as intrinsic as the bad behavior. The Gallaghers do all of these terrible things – well, most of them – because of how much they care about each other and want to stay together. (And also because their father is Frank Gallagher and the apple doesn’t usually fall far from the drunken tree.) And because the bond between them is so strong, all the show’s disparate pieces – the filthy comedy and the desperation, the joy and the depression – hold together just as well.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org