In each of its three seasons, the U.S. version of Shameless has drawn a line in the plot where it transitions quickly from TV's most wildly inappropriate comedy to an award-worthy drama. The humor is always there, but the harsh realism of the Gallaghers' poverty eventually raises the dramatic stakes much higher we're used to from such an overall funny show. With last Sunday's episode, "Cascading Failures," Shameless took its most confident step toward full-on drama by diving head first into the Gallagher family's deepest, darkest places.
Shameless has always dropped references to screwed-up events that took place before we joined the family in Season 1. Often these were played for humor—Frank's fond memories of a particular drug binge or a reunion with Monica that produced another child. But Fiona's memories were of the dark times when she had to fend for herself and her siblings in the absence of a parent, sometimes while being pulled in and out of government care. Now that we've seen how truly ill-equipped for real life the Gallagher clan can be at their current ages, it's almost impossible to believe they were ever able to survive on their own.
Slowly but surely, the wandering plot of Shameless's third season has been building toward playing its disastrous wild card: a return to life in the system for the Gallagher children. In Season 1, their poverty was not insurmountable. The streetwise Gallaghers had perfected a few scams to pay the bills and, more importantly, avoid the government's wrath. Character-driven plotlines have made a weekly kitty fund crisis unnecessary since then, but the threat of financial ruin has been ever-present for the Gallaghers as a result of Frank's continued welfare fraud.
Season 2 pushed hardship a little further as Frank's destructive nature all but bankrupted his family. But we also witnessed a fate far worse than financial ruin as Frank's corruption of his wife (again) pushed his family toward emotional ruin as well. In Season 3, we've been treated to the rejection of Frank by each of his children in the name of self-preservation, with Debbie in particular sealing the deal on his ouster from the house. Pushed against the wall, Frank did what we assumed was the unthinkable, and called in his own flesh and blood to Child Services.
After an episode that scattered the kids across Chicago, showcasing their individual talents for survival in the process, the payoff was a gut punch courtesy of Emmy Rossum's wide eyes. The look on Fiona's face as she listened to Frank's anonymous call to was, for me, the show's most powerful moment to date. It greatly opens up the possibilities for the second half of Season 3, with Fiona again fighting to save the family while facing Frank, the government, and a suddenly on-the-fence-about-everything Jimmy as hurdles (and plenty of new ones to come).
If you told me this was Shameless's final season, I'd be 100 percent on-board with this arc as the final test for the Gallaghers. But now that the show has upped the ante, how can it possibly top itself in Season 4 (and likely future seasons thereafter)?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What do you think is in store for the rest of Season 3? Are you all-in on Shameless's yearly dramatic turn?
– A similar tonal shift would be completely jarring if applied to any other comedy today (with the exception of Louie). Parks and Recreation can move nimbly between comedy and sweetness itself, but while Pawnee can be a messed-up place at times, Leslie Knope's ability to keep the city on track is considerably less fraught with actual danger than Fiona's upcoming battles.
– All this goes to show, of course, that Shameless has been badly mis-categorized comedy during award season, as Emmy Rossum and crew can certainly go punch-for-punch with the best dramatic performances on TV.
– After carrying much of the dramatic weight in Season 2, Lip's been largely carefree this season. Between laser-wielding-battlebot competitions and his mission to expose a teacher who served time for molesting a student, he's had some odd impulses. But clearly we'll see some real Mandy drama ahead. Any bets on how it plays out?
– Kev and Veronica have been particularly great this season as their struggle to create a family was very much the storyline we've been waiting for. Across the street, Jody and Sheila have been more of a miss for me as they navigate caring for Karen's baby and balancing their individual sexual needs.