It took me a long time to watch Shameless, and that’s probably for the same reason that I see so little chatter about it now. It had the bad luck of drowning in a sea of a hundred other premium cable shows that also joyously depicted despicable characters, and Showtime’s marketing department did very little to set the show apart from a basic “it feels so good to watch people be bad” show. For two years I ignored Shameless, assuming it was yet another show that relied too easily on shock factor without any sincerity or emotion at it’s core. But the fact that Shameless is so critically overlooked is, well, a shame. In reality it is a much more genuine and empathetic narrative, one that actually subverts the standard antihero formula by following the people who are left to pick up the pieces after a cable-standard “sinful genius” breezes through. It doesn’t wink at selfishness; instead it highlights the caretakers left in its wake.
Possibly because of that focus, Shameless has an impressive roster of fleshed out, powerful women. I say “powerful” here not in the general ass kicking, strong-female-character sense — although there’s some of that — but instead in the amount of empathy and understanding these women command. The women on the show aren’t badasses, except for when they are. They aren’t role models, except for when they are. They aren’t interpersonal geniuses, except for when they are. They’re allowed to be contradictory, and for that they feel much more textured, human, and affecting.
So far in season 4, the role of the women as caretakers has become a bit more complicated, for better or worse. It’s been obvious that Fiona has been the rock of the Gallagher family since episode 1, orchestrating the family’s chaos into something that, if you squinted enough, slightly resembled functionality. On paper, she’s now become more of a provider than ever. She’s the kids’ official legal guardian as of last season, and with her newly stable paycheck, 401k, and health insurance she’s already become far more of an adult than either of her parents. Literally the only bad thing any of her siblings can say about her ability to care for them is that she refuses to give up part of her liver to her alcoholic narcissistic father. But in last night’s episode, “Like Father, Like Daughter” both the audience and Fiona herself had to come to terms with the fact that she isn’t as stable or as responsible as she would like. Good hearted and solid as she is, deep down Fiona’s become as addicted to dysfunction as Frank is to everything. It’s hard not to notice the distance her new job and adult life are putting between her and her family. Her passing attempts to engage Debbie and Carl fail completely, she has no idea where Ian is, and she fails to hear the sadness and longing in Lip’s voice as she hangs up on him to let him go back to his “party.” Fiona’s worked her whole life to find a way to support her siblings in a way Frank and Monica never could, but now she’s become out of synch with the only people she would do anything for.
She has that in common with Shiela, possibly my favorite Shameless character. My love for Shiela, played so perfectly bizarre by Joan Cusack, was cemented late in season one where she (significant spoilers for Brendan, please don’t read the rest of this paragraph) overcomes her agoraphobia without a thought as she chases her husband out of her house for insulting their daughter. If a single moment epitomizes the show’s reverence for caretakers, it’s that scene. It gives me chills thinking about it now, and I stupidly well up whenever I rewatch it. Which is often. So the scene late in the season 4 premiere where Shiela, her loved ones long gone, makes herself an immaculate dinner for one and says a lonely grace hurt me deep in my core. From her housedresses to her “Good Housekeeping”-esque cooking obsession, Shiela is almost a caricature of a caring ’50s homemaker. And she is empty with no one to care for. With her lonely prayer, Shiela’s house feels as terrifying and sad as the world she once hid away from. So she has filled in for Fiona – not perfectly, it’s important to note – migrating over to the Gallagher’s and taking care of the youngest of the clan, as much as they allow themselves to be cared for.
But listen: the role of women in Shameless’s world of poverty-line Chicago is sort of an abstract blog post, and not one that relates explicitly to season 4. Because while I love this show, and while I think it’s unfairly dismissed and deserves a far more critical eye, it’s definitely flawed. Often, especially in season 3, storylines would feel groaningly predictably and/or written just to be shocking without an eye towards nuanced narrative. Thankfully, the writers are skilled and empathetic enough to always steer the plot away towards a more complex place with the true emotional center discussed above. For every “Lip fucks a fat girl isn’t this such a low point” shitty moment, or every “Lip talks out of his ass but it turns out he said the wrong thing to the wrong person” predictable moment, or every “Lip isn’t as smart as he thinks he is” stale moment (some of the show’s most predictable moments center around Lip, unfortunately) there’s Fiona hating herself for wearing a pencil skirt instead of ripped tights and Shiela loving the special needs child her daughter refuses to or Debbie pricing her virginity using economic principles or Veronica telling Kevin she doesn’t want her future baby circumcised because it might make gender reassignment more difficult if he was transgendered, and she wants her child to have a fulfilling sex life no matter what. It’s that heart and sincerity that makes Shameless so much more than the show Showtime pretended it was going to be. So in season 4, I’ll be wishing for more of these soft moments, more heart, and more people to talk to me about this show.