what i watched last week
opening day #35

not about game of thrones (shameless, season four finale)

Bad timing. Shameless had the finale of its finest season to date at the same time HBO was running the season premiere of the endlessly talked-about Game of Thrones. I could write about Game of Thrones, but what’s to say? The premiere was as good as ever, it’s a great show, glad to have it back. But right now, I’m mentioning it only to increase the number of search-engine hits this post will get.

And it’s not quite accurate to say Shameless suffered from bad timing, considering the finale got its highest ratings of the season (for that matter, the season-long ratings were also its highest ever).

But no one talks about Shameless, which has never been a “water cooler” show (unlike GoT, which has been attached to the cooler since it started … last night’s premiere shut down HBO Go). As I said on Twitter, one nice thing about Shameless is that I don’t have to worry about my friends spoiling it before it reaches the West Coast.

Shameless is a character study, and one reason Season Four was the best yet is that we know these characters, but they are still evolving, so we see them in more depth. And their circumstances change. From the beginning, Shameless promised to be a show about the lower classes that felt real even as the plot got silly. As Paul Abbott, who created the U.K. original, said, “It’s not blue collar; it’s no collar.” The essential core of Shameless is the extended Gallagher family, and again, it’s the combination of deep characters and their interesting evolution that carries the core.

Shameless also deals with social issues (key word also … it isn’t a social realist drama with interesting characters, it’s a character study that is also social kinda-realist drama). The social issues … poverty, alcoholism, mental health … are not presented via soapbox speeches, but are instead the basic experiences of the characters. We don’t need someone to give a lecture on the curse of alcohol, we see it in every episode, not just in the alcoholics, but in the families and friends who have to live with the alcoholic legacy. Shameless is not perfect … one of the biggest problems the series has is dealing with William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher. Frank is the titular head of the family … he’s also a terrible alcoholic, a terrible father, a terrible human being. And Macy does a great job with Frank. But sometimes, I think we’re supposed to find Frank lovable, or funny, or anything other than a bum, and he is not lovable.

I have to admit, though, that a scene late in the season finale made the whole Frank trip worth it. Having survived situations that would have challenged Job, having somehow (in one of those silly plot twists the series is unfortunately fond of) gotten a new liver, Frank, who is told by his doctor that he can’t drink (Frank wonders what the point is of getting a new liver if you can’t use it to start downing the booze again), Frank has his young son Carl wheel him out to a frozen Lake Michigan, where he gives a triumphant fuck-you speech to God (and all of us in the audience who hoped he would die): “You lost, asshole! I'm alive, motherfucker!” He takes a drink from a bottle of booze, and passes it to Carl, telling him a little nip can’t hurt. Inevitably, Frank is “passing it” and more to his offspring.

The gradual telling of the story of Ian Gallagher, the gay son in the family, is also remarkable. (The series has been nominated for a GLAAD award for Outstanding Drama Series.)  The often-heartbreaking relationship between Ian and the thuggish Mickey (Noel Fisher gives one of the best performances among this great cast) seemed to come to a happy ending this season, albeit in a Shameless kind of way, with closeted Mickey coming out in a packed bar to his father, prompting an enormous fight (the father had threatened to kill his son if he didn’t turn his back on being gay), Ian getting in some timely blows (over the years, he has worked out and grown up enough to be one of the physically stronger characters). Afterwards, bloodied but happy, Ian and Mickey can finally meet each other as equals, out of the closet, and Noel Fisher gets a smile on his face that is so beautiful after several seasons of his hating himself. This being Shameless, though, nothing good can last, and we discover that Ian seems to have inherited his mother’s bipolar disorder. (This makes more sense than the usual plot shenanigans on the show.) Not only is his disorder unconnected to his sexual preference (this isn’t about how being gay is bad for your mental health), Mickey’s rabid insistence on being able to care for Ian shows the kind of love the best people on the show thrive on. And, as Mickey says, “we’re family, right?”

This may be the most I’ve ever written about Shameless without getting to Emmy Rossum. She remains the center of the show, and the best performer in a cast full of best performers. Rossum had to play a different Fiona this season. She began on an up, with a “real” white-collar job and boyfriend. Of course, this just set her up for a fall that ended with her in prison. At season’s end, as she sees that no matter how much her family missed her, they managed without her, Fiona may have finally taken steps to look out for herself and not just for others.

But Rossum/Fiona being off-center left lots of room for the rest of the cast to shine. Jeremy Allen White has always been wonderful, with his Robert Mitchum eyes and twitchy smarts, and his Lip Gallagher rose to many occasions this season. The budding sexuality of 13-year-old Debbie Gallagher has at times been handled in an awkward manner (perhaps that’s to the point), but there’s nothing awkward about Emma Kenney’s performance, and while all prior seasons included at least one Rossum clip to break hearts all over YouTube, it was Kenney who had that moment in the finale, when Fiona returned from prison.

Shameless came up at a dinner with friends the other night. One person was looking for a new show, and had read some of my comments about Shameless. My first thought was, she reads my blog? My second thought was that it would be nice if someone tried Shameless thanks to my tireless and tiresome promotion of the show. As I have noted many times, I only know one other person who actually watches Shameless, and in four seasons, I haven’t convinced anyone else to join me. It’s on Showtime, which lots of people don’t get. I’ve never been able to give the series a full-out positive push, because it’s always been a bit too erratic for its own good. But it warmed my heart to know even one person was considering Shameless.

During that discussion, my wife explained her long-held (and mostly accurate) opinion that I like shows about pathetic people. When she says this, she’s thinking of Larry David, or David Brent/Michael Scott, or Valerie Cherish, and I know what she means, even if I think those characters are just as different as they are the same. But I’ve always been surprised that she thinks this about Shameless (no, I’ve never convinced her to watch with me). She notes that the show features a family with a drunken father, an absentee bipolar mother, and a bunch of kids who show the tendencies you might expect from such parents. She points out that the Gallagher’s poverty is an example of a pathetic situation. And she’s not wrong, if that’s where you stop. But Larry David doesn’t know he’s pathetic (and he’s more asshole than anything), nor does David/Michael … that’s part of what makes watching them so excruciating. (Valerie Cherish knows but can’t see an alternative, which makes her sad more than pathetic, and perhaps is why her show only lasted one season.) But the Gallaghers? The entire series is premised on the idea that they never give up. They probably should … their situation is pathetic, indeed. But Fiona and Lip and Debbie and Carl are trying … like Valerie Cherish they know the situation sucks, unlike her they refuse to accept that there is no alternative. They fail, again and again … Shameless isn’t about happy endings. As Fiona asks Lip, “is this family ever going to catch a break?” The wonder of Shameless is that it always asks the question, and never quits hoping for a positive answer.

And yet … here I am, giving Shameless another A- grade. Why don’t I just give in to my enjoyment, and finally give it the “A” it comes so close to deserving? In this case, it’s another of those damn plot shenanigans. I’m not even going to dignify it with a spoiler, but during the closing credits, we get a very brief scene, a teaser for Season Five, that I hated. Not “never gonna watch again” hated, but “no way this show gets an 'A' grade” hated.