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There’s a word uttered in the pilot of Showtime’s Shameless that isn’t much heard these days as the long-running dramedy nears its last call: “Dad.”
In the first episode, which lays the groundwork for John Wells’ South Side of Chicago-set adaptation of Paul Abbott’s working class British comedy, we learn about the Gallagher family: Eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum), a dropout with a repressed thirst for danger who quashed any dreams of her own to care for her younger siblings; high schoolers Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and Ian (Cameron Monaghan), who always watch each others’ backs; tween Debbie (Emma Kenney), who is still in her girlie pink and pigtails phase; trouble-making elementary schooler Carl (Ethan Cutkosky); and toddler Liam (played here by twins Blake and Brennan Johnson).
The quintet is introduced in the series’ opening scene by Frank Gallagher. Despite being a perpetually drunk, stoned, and unemployed con artist who’d rather spend his fraudulently-claimed disability check on a bar tab than helping his offspring pay off the electricity bill, William H. Macy’s patriarch still somehow manages to conjure empathy out of them. They also respect him enough in this first episode to address him as “Dad” or “Daddy.” When the police bring a sloshed Frank home and interrupt Fiona’s dalliance with a new guy (Justin Chatwin), she simply responds with a smirk and a “what are we gonna do with you?” shrug as he falls on the kitchen floor—relieved, really because she thought they might be coming for her.
Of course, this was before Frank would (and this is neither a complete list nor one that is in any particular order) sabotage Fiona’s wedding, cut off her jeans and turn them into shorts for himself, steal the kids’ cash savings to spend on drugs, convince Carl he had cancer to extort the Make a Wish Foundation, lose Liam in a bet, and alert Child Protective Services to say the children are living without a guardian when he feels he’s not being properly respected at home. (He also amputated a couple of Debbie’s toes when he stumbled in drunk and saw her lying injured on the kitchen table. We’ll let that one slide because she needed the procedure done, couldn’t afford a real doctor, and it was clear Frank had more experience in the matter than her original choice of Liam).
Now in the 11th, and final, season, Frank is usually referred to by his first name, usually uttered in a tone of exasperated screaming such as when one of the now-grown kids kicks him out of the house or tells him to mind his own business. Or it is said with piercing directness. When Rossum left the show in 2019, some of her character Fiona’s final words to her father when he tries to suggest that she merely “helped” him raise her younger brothers and sister were “I did it all, Frank” and “see ya around, Frank.”
But in the pilot? A lifetime of failed parenting that no doubt pre-dates the start of the show doesn’t mean Fiona won’t stay up late rolling joints and drinking long necks and shots of Makers with Frank as he argues reverse sexism with Chatwin’s character while blasting Cream’s “White Room.” Debbie, who in an episode from this season argued to loyal Gallagher neighbor Veronica (Shanola Hampton) that she had a worse upbringing in part because of Frank, is seen in the first episode putting one of her hot pink pillows under her father’s head so he won’t asphyxiate when he’s passed out on the floor.
Also central to the pilot is the storyline between Lip and Ian, awkward hair styles at all. Ever the scientist, Lip’s first instinct when he finds his younger brother’s stash of pictures of naked guys is to test his hypothesis of Ian’s sexuality by getting his new tutoring client Karen (Laura Slade Wiggins) to hook up with him. It doesn’t go well, but we do get to spend some time with her agoraphobic mother, played by Joan Cusack, and horrible father, played by Joel Murray.
Once the boys talk it out over a pack of smokes, Lip quickly accepts that Ian is gay. He, however, is not OK when he learns that the teen is secretly having sex with his adult boss. Lip is fearful Ian is being coerced into a non-consensual relationship. In the current season, a now-adult Lip comforts his partner Tami (Kate Miner) when it dawns on her that she was taken advantage of by her high school music teacher.
Elsewhere in this first episode, Ian tells Fiona that Frank hates him. She says to not take it too hard; that Ian just reminds him too much of their mother, Monica (Chloe Webb), who has abandoned the family. Years later, when Ian—like Monica—is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his siblings rally to help him. Eventually, it’s Ian’s blessing that Fiona takes with her when she leaves the family to start her own life. All the other siblings are there for Ian’s wedding to neighborhood hooligan, Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher). (Well, technically, Debbie isn’t there to witness the ceremony because she’s causing a necessary distraction in a truly Gallagher way).
Shameless is a dark comedy, yes. But it’s also a show about consequences and trust much more so than others in that genre (how many times did Nancy Botwin, Mary-Louise Parker’s heroine on Weeds, manage to avoid being shot in the head?) The pilot sets up a world where Fiona is both looked down upon by men above her income bracket while she also (and, also probably because of this) doesn’t trust them. She’s eager to dismiss a suitor from getting to be anything more than a fling on the assumption that he’s an educated trust funder who won’t be able to handle her mess. But when she learns he steals cars for a living? Well, now that puts them on an even playing field.
Later in the series, Fiona’s irresponsibility with cocaine usage will land Liam in the hospital and herself in county jail after a truly emotionally-wrecking strip search scene. Her attempts to deal with parole and job opportunities upon release are realistic. So is the riff in her relationship with Lip, who blames her for messing up their plan of “Fiona holds it together while Lip goes to college to strike it rich and save them all.” Eventually, the family’s history with alcohol abuse comes calling for Lip as well.
I’ve written before about Shameless’ perfection of the “hey, Myrna” moments, an old-school schlocky TV writers’ term for a shocking or hysterical point of an episode where someone calls another person into the room to watch the shenanigans. Scenes in the series like Frank simulating sex on a grave or a social worker who speaks with a surprising dialect are teases and cons to draw you in. But it’s always been the sweet nature of these characters that make you stay.
Because, if there’s one thing the Gallaghers know, it’s a good con.
The final episode of Shameless will air this April on Showtime. The series is available to stream on the Showtime app and on Netflix.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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