During the last Shameless season finale, Fiona Gallagher, the matriarchal glue that presumably held the family together, left the building. This wasn’t sudden departure but happened after several months of public announcements and buildup, and the end result was that Emmy Rossum’s departure felt understated, rather than notable. In a show that’s jam-packed with shenanigans and dramatic hijinks, this seemed, well, odd, but Fiona had accomplished all that she could possibly do for her family, and it was time to live her own life. The fear, of course, was that the series would sink without Fiona but, surprisingly enough, there’s been a burst of energy now that the anchor has been lifted. Although the first episode of this season struggles to find a new rhythm, the next few that follow (three were provided to critics for screening) prove that there’s more life left in the Showtime series.
This is a welcome development, but frankly one that I’m still attempting to digest. Perhaps I also now feel disloyal to Fiona after she busted her ass and gave up her life for her siblings? The better explanation is that Emmy Rossum delivered a pitch-perfect portrayal of Fiona as written, but it’s now apparent that her character no longer fit into the series. Whether the character actually outgrew the stories presented on Shameless can remain up to interpretation, but fans will soon see how — despite some stressful moments within the tenth season — the show feels (overall) freer with Fiona gone and doing her own thing. Strange, I know! Yet Fiona became a portrait of inertia. She wouldn’t stop dating the same variety of men, over and over again, and no number of tedious real estate ventures could make Fiona compelling again. She’s better off on a beach somewhere, and so is the series.
This success is largely due to the writers making a few key characters increasingly dynamic — there’s no shortage of compelling developments in this season. And yes, the Gallaghers’ penchant for grifting can continue to reach new heights. Frank, obviously, is still the same variety of drunken mess, but everyone else’s antics now feel amplified in a pleasant but not-too-showy way. It probably won’t surprise you that even though Debbie’s appointed herself the new family leader (and to be fair, Fiona did leave that $50,000 with her sister), the emotional focal point of the series now sits upon Lip’s shoulders. To that end, Jeremy Allen White’s stepping up to the challenge quite nicely. Multiple seasons after his character went sober, White’s now pulling off some incredible shades of comedy, tragedy, and several emotional states in between. I won’t go so far as to call Lip the new Fiona because that’s unfair to both characters, who’ve both faced their own different challenges. Let’s just say that fatherhood brings out new aspects of Lip’s nature, and White’s up for the increased burden and focus.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. We’ve already seen Lip in the gutter, literally, while he descended into the depths of alcoholism and losing his grip on the bootstrap of college education. White’s performance during those seasons was brutal and tragic and fearless as we saw Lip claw his way into sobriety and help others achieve that same precarious goal. And we watched with trepidation while Lip grew involved with Tami, who’s still around and very pregnant when the action picks up. Yet you’ve never seen Lip go through anything quite like what he faces in this tenth season. Neither Fiona nor Debbie dealt with the same version of events that Lip must confront, and White holds nothing back in his performance. He’s certainly not replacing Rossum in any way, but White’s now coming into his own, probably in a way that he could never do as Lip if Fiona was still on the scene.
However — and you knew this was coming — we should probably fully consider this season in full context of the series. So, let’s do that.
Is the new iteration of Shameless as enjoyable as, say, seasons five and six (my favorites, not only because Dermot Mulroney portrayed an irredeemable cad)? No, of course not. And although Mickey Malkovich is back as a regular character (that tease was neither a drill nor a dream last year), he and Ian rekindling their relationship can’t measure up to how they once were, even though Noel Fisher’s still bringing his special blend of toughness and vulnerability to Mickey. Still, Shameless is still more than good enough this season to take up space in existing fans’ hearts.
Beyond that, some solid side arcs are working their magic. Kevin and V feel like they’ve been pointedly rejuvenated and bring the most sheer joy to the season so far. Ian’s Gay Jesus is gone, Debbie’s new duties and interests are serviceable enough, and Liam’s finally branching out beyond being the character who represents the audience’s point of view. (He’s still my main choice for getting a spinoff series some day, and I’m very serious about starting that fan campaign in five years.) For right now, it’s simply a relief to see Shameless looking unexpectedly solid, other than a floundering Carl. He needs a new focus beyond graduating military school and having a lot of sex in bathroom stalls. Really, let’s stop and think about when we first met Carl, nearly a decade ago. He was the character melting action figures in the microwave and felt like carefully controlled chaos personified. Now he’s a snooze, but if that’s my biggest disappointment with this season of Shameless, then the show’s getting things done. The U.K. version of this series ran for eleven seasons, and I see no reason why the U.S. edition can’t go there (and maybe beyond) as well.
Showtime’s ‘Shameless’ airs on Sunday nights at 9:00pm EST