Father does not know best.
by David Goldberg
Over the past few years, TV has blossomed with more diverse portrayals of gender and sexual identity, with series like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent blowing the past away. But there are few spaces in our culture that celebrate the alternative, self-made families seen on Family Guy and Modern Family and reject the conservative
stay-at-home-mom model. Many of us don’t belong with our parents in the suburbs anymore. Shameless, which begins its fifth season on Showtime on January 11, has a different message for sons and daughters who want to embrace their difference: father does not know best. In fact, he might even be a total moron.
Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) personifies this ideal. As Chicago’s most unkillable alcoholic, Macy roars around the screen like a genie out of the bottle: manic, fearless, and nonplussed by consequences. He lives by his own hobo code, replete with political philosophy that none of his bar-mates want to hear. He wakes up in all manner of places: dumpsters, under the snow, and once, in Mexico.
But at least Frank is consistent; his six children know not to expect any parental support. Led by Fiona (Emmy Rossum), the Gallagher brood relies on one another to maintain their decrepit home and make the gas bill. Together with their neighborhood friends, they build a family dynamic on survival and dependability, not on moral hierarchies. “I trust you,” Fiona says to her first love, Steve. “That’s bigger to me than ‘I love you.’”
With Frank doing God-knows-what God-knows-where, it’s up to Fiona to hold the family together. But with a penchant for dangerous men and self-destructive behavior, Fiona may be inching toward her father’s legacy. The other siblings are not that far off, either. Lip (Jeremy Allen White), blessed with an abnormally high IQ, could be bound for greatness, but with every stumble, he convinces himself that he will never leave the neighborhood. When Ian (Cameron Monaghan) begins to exhibit symptoms of his mother’s bipolar disorder, his siblings share looks of concern, but not of surprise. For the Gallaghers, inheritance is nothing more than a time bomb.
But it’s not all that grim, really. Shameless is driven by the same daredevil mania as American Horror Story or even Jackass, and at its best portrays sickening behavior as a part of survival. Frank has outdone himself every season: he’s been used as a drug mule, tried his hand at male prostitution, and lost—and regained—a liver. I’d love a whirl in 3D, if only to better enjoy the phantasmagoria of shattering beer bottles, dripping sweat, gushing fluids, exposed buttocks, and the occasional cadaver.
Sex on Shameless may take place behind bodega freezers and under bridges, but it has never felt detached, especially for Ian and his thug lover, Mickey (Noel Fisher). Their passionate and often bloody confrontations return a sense of curiosity and even danger to gay sexuality on TV. Not every couple needs to be nice, or suburban, or safe.
Like Game of Thrones, Shameless has a bad habit of punishing its female characters for no good reason. Particularly disappointing are Lip’s girlfriends, who have all acted like jealous psychopaths when meeting one another. Mandy (Emma Greenwell), Lip’s most consistent love, has suffered too many physical wounds of poor creative taste over the years. The writers of Shameless flirt masterfully with taboo, but their missteps in certain touchy areas have left too many characters—dare I say it?—shamed.
The show has careened into nonsense and lost its moral footing before, and likely will again. But Shameless’ mission to portray outsiders at the extreme edge of the American dream will likely never get stale. The Gallagher children have a great many hereditary woes to contend with, and some will likely succumb to the shadow of their parents. No matter how strong our self-made families are, we can never escape our upbringing. But who wouldn’t want to watch us try?
Shameless’ fifth season premieres Sunday, January 11, at 8 p.m. CST on Showtime (sho.com).
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.