In its two U.S. seasons to date, Shameless has achieved a fairly balanced mix of comedy and drama, though I've always thought of it more as comedy. Last year, Showtime submitted the series' first season for Emmy consideration as a drama, which turned some heads. Horrible things have routinely happened to Shameless's main characters, but the spirit has remained light. At the head of the family, Frank Gallagher is certainly a terrible human being, but he has always escaped death, injury, or imprisonment—often coming out of his various scrapes with more money, booze, or drugs to his name. And while Fiona and her siblings have suffered greatly as a result of their financial struggles, they have soldiered on as a family, upping their street smarts in the process.
Season 2 has tested the comedy/drama balance with moments much darker than those of Season 1—especially the two assisted-suicide plotlines. The deaths were to minor characters in Butterface and Grammy, and were played largely as black comedy, helping to better humanize Frank in the process. After Butterface's death, I wrote about Frank's role in the matter, believing it was the darkest plot Shameless could manage without losing its comedic edge, and many of you have agreed that Frank's actions this season have really pushed the boundary. The more recent return of Monica Gallagher, a character even more unstable than Frank, also walked the line, and her bankrupting of the Gallaghers in the process of her collapse seemingly marked the season's final low point.
That was seriously the most brutal episode of this show so far. It was completely heartbreaking to watch and I found myself more infuriated than ever at Frank and Monica. I literally cried at the end watching Fiona. This show never gets the respect it easily deserves.
What else could possibly go wrong for the Gallaghers? Perhaps I should know by now that the answer to that question is, "Things can always get worse," but I was still completely blindsided by this week's episode, "Just as the Pilgrims Intended," which featured two shocking events—one of which was intensely violent, and both of which will undoubtedly influence the show throughout the rest of its run:
1. Monica's suicide attempt during Thanksgiving dinner.
– The scene was timed following an upbeat song as the Gallaghers passed their improvised feast around the table, completely upsetting the expectations of a Thanksgiving-themed episode. Steve and Kev jumped swiftly into action to save Monica, while Frank, who had given her lithium only moments before, predictably fled the house.
– My first thoughts were for Debbie and Carl. They've witnessed so much beyond their years, but they had a clear vantage point of their mother bleeding to death on their kitchen floor. Debbie spent much of the episode worried that she'd someday turn out to be bipolar like her mother, and this week's events certainly will not help her psyche. As for Carl, it wasn't clear that he understood the seriousness of the situation, a bad sign going forward as he has very little adult supervision to guide him in the right direction.
– It seems as if Monica survived, but I would not be surprised if this season marks the end of her run on the show. If Shameless is to maintain any comedy going forward, it will need to minimize the revisiting of her suicide attempt.
2. The birth of Karen's baby.
– Many viewers have predicted that the father of Karen's baby would be a surprise, and it turned out to be a character we'd never met in Timmy Wong. The additional shock of the baby having Down's syndrome combined with Karen's rejection of the child made the moment even more heartbreaking.
– Lip's video for his son should have been my first clue that disaster was ahead. The birth was then bookended by two poignant moments: Lip asking the potential parents to someday share his video with the boy at the beginning, and the tape being hastily handed back to him after the news of the child's condition had been delivered.
– What's next for Lip? He's been a frustrating character this season, unwilling to return to school and go to college. While this event could easily put him over the edge, it might be exactly the wake-up call he needs to return to his senses. This was foreshadowed nicely by his moment earlier in the episode as he walked away from Mandy and her brothers, unwilling to aid in the robbery of a liquor store—a good sign that a serious criminal lifestyle is not in Lip's future.
– Sheila's theft of the baby was a late attempt to bring some humor to the final montage, but it definitely fit the caretaker arc the writers have developed for her this season. Still, it's difficult to imagine an extended amount of comedy to be drawn from Sheila raising the child.
There are very few shows I can compare Shameless to, but one that comes to mind is Rescue Me, whose second season followed a remarkably similar path. The series expanded its comedy chops throughout the season, but finished with a pitch-black dramatic arc of a hit-and-run death—a far cry from the firehouse banter and dysfunctional-relationship humor that defined the plot before it. While I consider Rescue Me's second season to be one of my favorite television seasons, the show never recovered; the dramatic finish required that character relationships be dramatically redefined, with harder edges that led to darker writing and put pressure on the writers to create equally heartbreaking finishes to future seasons. It was a feat they never quite accomplished.
Next week's Shameless finale should help to soften the blow we've been delivered, but I do hope that the show's third season will reset itself a bit in order to rediscover its comedic genes. Do you think it's possible?
– Do you view Shameless as a comedy or a drama?
– What other shows besides Rescue Me have attempted to balance such humorous and tragic extremes? Which have done it best?
– Will Carl and Debbie grow up to be even half as well-adjusted as Lip or Fiona?