April 7, 2013



In the post-Homeland era of Showtime, SHAMELESS, the network’s Parenthood on crack, has been pushed even farther to the background–and to be sure, the two shows aren’t comparable in terms of seriousness of purpose or blazing quality.  Nor does Shameless have the tabloid zing of Dexter‘s plots.  Nevertheless, apart from being a steady, reliable performer for Showtime in the ratings, Shameless is tonally different from almost anything else on the air, and as its lead, Emmy Rossum, may be giving the most underrated performance on television.

Season 3 brought the usual assortment of travails to the Gallaghers, both economic and personal, and alternately gritty and over-the-top in tone.  Fiona (Rossum) made a disastrous attempt to become a club promoter, then after some time in a supermarket that featured a remarkable amount of sexual harassment, she took a somewhat more stable path as an office temp, while trying to maintain her live-in relationship with former car-thief and one-time medical student Jimmy (Justin Chatwin).  He, for his part, successfully kept from Fiona that he was actually secretly in a green card marriage with Estefania (Stephanie Fantauzzi), daughter of a South American drug kingpin.  Brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) continued his stormy relationship with Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher), who’s not able to admit that he’s actually gay (and if he did, his father might literally kill him), and had a fling with Jimmy’s father (guest star Harry Hamlin).  Meanwhile, Mickey’s sister Mandy (Emma Greenwell) became a more integral–and ultimately more disturbing–part of Lip’s (Jeremy Allen White) life, as he tried to get over his feelings for sociopathic Karen (Laura Wiggins), absent until late in the season.  The more comic strains of the season, as usual, belonged to endlessly drunk and/or stoned paterfamilias Frank (William H. Macy), whose adventures included a brief turn as a drug mule, passing off young son Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) as a cancer patient (and convincing Carl he actually had cancer) in a failed attempt to get free Bulls tickets, the need to dig up the body of his sister, whose Social Security checks he’d been cashing for years, and a fleeting but triumphant run at being both a gay activist and a recipient of heterosexual therapy–and simultaneously compensated for both.

Despite all that lunacy, this season seemed a bit more melancholy than previous years, and the season finale (written by Co-Executive Producer Nancy Pimental and Producer Etan Frankel, and directed by Mark Mylod) was even more so.  Although Fiona had always been the most responsible of the Gallaghers, this felt like the season she really began to grow up, particularly in a midseason story arc that had a momentarily pissed-off Frank call Child Services on her, breaking up the clan while Fiona desperately tried to get the kids back together, ultimately assuming legal responsibility as their guardian.  At the end of the season, she’s left with her first steady job, albeit not one likely to fulfill her dreams.  In addition, the Jimmy story, treated light-heartedly for most of the season, concluded on what certainly appeared to be an extremely trenchant note, even if viewers didn’t quite witness the finale.  One never knows what a show’s producers will decide between seasons, but Shameless concludes this one with the departure of one Gallagher, the potential exit of another, and a less humorously open-ended future for Frank than he’s faced before.

The constant switch between low comedy and serious drama that Shameless has as its stock in trade won’t work for everyone, and even fans will find that their mileage will vary within and among episodes.  For me, there was more about the sexual preferences of Karen’s mother Sheila (Joan Cusack) and her lover/Karen’s sometime husband Jody (Zach McGowan) than absolutely necessary, although the season finale provided a fine, funny punchline to that story.  And the plotlines involving Fiona’s BFF Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and her husband Kev (Steve Howey), although amusing–this season they concerned the couple’s ribald struggle to have a baby–always feel like they’re not really central to the core of the show.

What do work on Shameless, almost all the time, are the relationships among the Gallaghers.  Monaghan, White, Cutkosky and Emma Kenney as the now-pubescent Debbie are all excellent, members of a very messy but believable family.  Macy, of course, is one of America’s great actors, and this season Frank gave him opportunities to do more than slur his voice and quick-change between vaguely present and momentarily shrewd, as he had to pass more than once as a functioning member of society.  The lioness’s share of the credit, though, has to go to Rossum, who fearlessly jumps from wrenching drama to scatological comedy in a single episode, hilarious or heartbreaking depending on who she happens to be talking to.  If Shameless were a show that got taken seriously, Rossum would be part of the Emmy conversation.

Shameless is already renewed for a 4th season, and it should be an interesting one, with plenty of loose-ends and open possibilities.  The series, however wild, is never out of control, its story arcs always well-plotted–a hallmark of its showrunner John Wells, who when he wears his more respectable hat has brought shows like ER and The West Wing to network screens.  Shameless may lack shame, but it doesn’t lack polish, and it’s a sideways tribute to the number of excellent series on the air these days that this one can so easily be ignored.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."