Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
It has been three years since Emmy Rossum last appeared in a television role (aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Mr. Robot), but Peacock’s Angelyne has arrived to remind us that she continues to be one of the most underappreciated actors currently in the business. While watching the limited series recently, I was captivated by Rossum’s approach and dedication to playing the titular 1980s billboard icon, not only because of her physical transformation, but also her fierceness and complete understanding of who she is embodying. Watching Rossum once again command the screen and deliver a stellar performance that will likely fly under the radar reminded me of her time starring in Showtime’s lengthy dramedy Shameless (as well as serving as director on multiple episodes), for nine of its eleven seasons—but she never received the praise she deserved.
Shameless is a show about a dysfunctional family and the equally dysfunctional people living in the South Side of Chicago trying to make ends meet in a system that is built to fail them. In the central Gallagher family—composed of deadbeat patriarch Frank (William H. Macy) and children Lip (Jeremy Allen White), Ian (Cameron Monaghan), Debbie (Emma Kenney), Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), and Liam (played by twins Blake Johnson and Brennan Johnson as a baby, twins Brenden and Brandon Sims from Seasons 3-8, and Christian Isaiah from Seasons 8-11)—Rossum plays Fiona, a mother figure struggling to raise her siblings. It’s safe to say that Rossum’s Fiona is the glue that holds the Gallagher clan and Shameless as a whole together, and without her everything would (and did) fall apart.
Advertised as a dark comedy, Shameless packs a serious emotional punch (it will probably make you cry more than laugh at times). Every single cast member is at the top of their game when it comes to balancing the complexities of the genre and many storylines. Most importantly, the ensemble works because they look like they belong to the same family. I could argue that any other actor in the ensemble besides Macy deserves to have their performance appreciated, especially as we witnessed its child stars grow up on screen while still holding their own, and it would be just as valid as the case I’m making for Rossum, since White, Monaghan, Kenney, Cutkosky, and company played an equally vital role in keeping the series afloat for a decade. However, Rossum (and, by extension, Fiona) was easily the greatest part of Shameless, and it’s unbelievable how the showcase of her talent has been ignored for so long.
Shameless introduced countless bonkers, questionable, but mostly fitting plots each season, like Carl becoming a drug dealer who lands himself in prison and Debbie becoming a teen mom who gets pregnant on purpose, among many others. Therefore as the series progressed, Fiona emerged as the show’s most grounded and consistent character in spite of her many faults and flaws as she attempts to make something out of her life, even if most of her goals and relationships end in ruin that take her back to square one… which is a daily occurrence in the Gallagher household.
Fiona is perhaps one of the most imperfect characters to ever grace a long-running television show, especially given the fact that she exists in a series that revolves around a group of intensely flawed individuals. Rossum’s greatest achievement was portraying a character who could have easily been one-note and clichéd with empathy, while never trying to justify the mistakes that Fiona makes—which is exactly why we can find the space to keep rooting for her even as she makes bad decisions. Fiona is a hard-working and strong character, and Rossum does her justice by portraying her as a real person we can relate to.
Even when the material was not up to par with her talent levels, Rossum still found a way to elevate it, delivering a moving performance imbued with humanity. Fiona was a trainwreck for almost the entirety of the show, often having a redemption arc just to once again spiral back into the deep end. I’m slightly convinced that the Shameless writers wanted Fiona to suffer for eternity, constantly putting her through a cycle of experiencing moments of happiness just for life to naturally go wrong again. In the eighth and ninth seasons, for instance, things start looking up for Fiona when she moves out of the Gallagher house and comes close to owning and landlording an apartment property, only for things to come crashing down when an investor pulls out, causing her to go broke, move back home, and start heavily drinking just like her father—in addition to later finding out her Irish boyfriend has a secret family. Rossum, however, approaches Fiona here with care and restraint that makes it nearly impossible to find yourself hating her in any capacity.
Shameless is a show where I could pick out any Fiona moment and it would be worthy of serving as Rossum’s Emmy clip, but her performance in the Season 4 episode, “Iron City,” has always stood out as her peak. After 3-year-old Liam overdoses on cocaine accidentally left out at a party due to Fiona’s irresponsibility in the prior episode, “There’s the Rub,” the episode follows her as she gets arrested and sent to the county jail, with a detailed strip-search scene lasting several minutes. The painfully real and emotional scene’s impact lands entirely because of Rossum’s heartbreakingly brutal performance. Fiona’s life had been in a decent place up until the previous few episodes, but once again it spirals downhill as her family begin turning their backs on her as a result of her actions.
Awards are certainly not the ultimate measure of talent—many excellent performances have been snubbed by awards bodies and still managed to leave a lasting impression (Carrie Coon in The Leftovers, to name but one), but it’s always nice to see an impactful performance and the actor who put in the dedication get acknowledged for their work. In this case, the emphasis on awards does play a significant part, since I would be remiss not to point out that Macy received a total of six Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in Comedy Series and won three of four SAG awards for his performance, while Rossum only received one Critics’ Choice Award nomination in 2014. Whether Macy is deserving of these accolades is not the point (although he is fantastic in the series), since Rossum consistently turned in equally fantastic performances throughout her run, but went largely unnoticed by anyone outside of the dedicated Shameless fanbase online.
Prior to the premiere of Shameless’ ninth season in 2018, it was announced that Rossum would not be returning to the series after the season ended. The news came only a year and a half after she had successfully negotiated her pay, discovering that she was making significantly less than Macy despite sharing top billing, and it was cited that she left due to a desire to pursue other acting endeavors (Rossum spoke more about the subject in a recent interview). I remember being devastated over the announcement, but it clearly made sense given the absolute dust she had been paid despite serving as the show’s anchor up until that point.
When a prominent and vital cast member leaves a series, it throws the entire show out of orbit and causes it to start grasping at straws (see: Mischa Barton leaving The O.C., Dan Stevens leaving Downton Abbey, etc), and Rossum’s departure was the first major crack in Shameless’ foundation. Rossum was the beating heart and unsung hero of Shameless for nine seasons, and once she finally decided to move on, it all started to unravel. Sometimes you never know what you have until it’s gone and thriving elsewhere.
Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter @jihanebousfiha__.
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