Season five of “Shameless” kicked off on Showtime Sunday night, and it looks like transition may be the overarching theme for the Gallagher clan and the other denizens of the south side of Chicago. Not only are they going to have to deal with the usual anvils that seem to drop on their heads from the clear blue sky, but for almost everybody (excluding the gleefully clueless patriarch Frank, played with the usual hilarious ferocity by William H. Macy), it’s becoming clear that life can’t quite go on as usual.
Seasons one and two worked on a frenetic level; we are introduced to the Gallaghers, who were spawned by Frank and Monica (Chloe Webb), but led by the earnest hood rat beauty queen Fiona (Emmy Rossum), the elder sister who is bound and determined to keep her family together and to also keep pushing ahead for some far off goal. Their immediate goal is to survive and make it to the next day, but there was always some vague understanding that things had to get better, and that the younger children needed to succeed where the parents and even the self-deprecating Fiona felt she had failed.
The show didn’t wallow in the premise that the characters would say and do anything, as if it were some gimmick. It was their modus operandi, but it also was them. On first viewing, it did take a minute to adjust, like finding yourself in a higher altitude. Things streak by you and you’re not sure what you just saw, but you were rewarded. Some shows are almost overcome by their premises; there is so much winking and nudge-nudging that it starts to detract from the story. There are several shows on the premium pay channels that come to mind where they scream at you, “Look at what we’re satirizing.” While they are well made, it all depends on the viewers’ individual ability to overcome the preciousness with which these shows present their worlds.
“Shameless” never had that feel. Certainly, there’s the occasional incredulous moment. But then it becomes part of the fun. And the moments never last for long. There is always another hustle, another scheme, another naked body (occasionally an incredulous naked body as well—I’m thinking of Stan, the senile owner of the Alibi) to send you careening into the next scene.
Seasons three and four started to incorporate consequences, and as last year was wrapping up, we thought it may have been the end for Frank. Not only was his liver failing (although it never quite forced him to come to terms with his own mortality—but then again, what has?) he even had a kidney stolen. And Fiona, the bedrock of the clan, had a little crack-up of her own. With Jimmy/Steve (Justin Chatwin) out of the picture, it looked like she may have found a steady job and a solid relationship with a nice guy. But that soon fell apart and in the process of her spinning out of control, her youngest brother Liam accidentally ingested some of her cocaine.
The careening stopped for a little bit, as the tone of the show shifted somewhat with Fiona’s storyline. The threat of prison time loomed over her head, but almost worse than that, second in command Lip (Jeremy Allen White) was giving her the cold shoulder and refused to forgive her—if only for a little while. His own struggles at college—lowlife Southside genius in the land of rich kids—introduced new locales, but Lip was resolute in not breaking.
Even Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), whose emotional depths rarely extended beyond his own preferences for what he was going to melt in the toaster, met a girl and began feeling the pangs of adolescent love. Of course it turned out that she was homeless and had intimacy issues (always strange to write about a 13 year old, but the sex drives are quite accelerated on this show), which meant she could bunk with Carl but withdrew when he tried to delve a bit deeper into the emotional realm. And coming from a kid who willingly took a baseball bat to the head while wearing a football helmet, that meant growth.
It is nice to know that “Shameless” can spread its wings now and again, but still operate within the show’s framework. It’s not fair to say that the shows which are less about Frank’s latest scheme or Fiona’s latest hook-up are less entertaining. They just have a different feel. And the show is very character driven, which means that the characters will evolve. Once you’re invested in them and their struggles, it allows for the writers and producers to introduce a few new layers.
And that’s what we have with the season five opener. Evolution and transition. It’s written all over Lip’s face as he gets ready to leave college for the summer, not really knowing where he stands with Amanda (Nichole Bloom) or how he really feels about being back in the world he was raised in but also knowing it may not be the world in which he belongs. We know Fiona will always be the one who calls for an impromptu pool party, but she also wears an ankle monitor and can only go so far and for so long before she “turns into a pumpkin.” Next door neighbors Kevin and Veronica (the combatively entertaining Steve Howey and Shanola Hampton) have a growing family. Kevin has converted easily into daddy mode. Veronica’s feelings about parenthood are a bit more ambivalent.
In the end though, it’s evolution and transition “Shameless” style. So it won’t ever be in a straight line, and there won’t be any, “Gee whiz, I’ve figured it all out” moments. While Lip is questioning his place in life, he will probably engage in a few fistfights and find himself with a girl who will complicate things. And Fiona’s own relationship issues always complicate things. And Frank may never evolve. But that’s okay. It just goes to show you that organ failure doesn’t always have to change the way you live.