April 7, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Shameless”


It made plenty of strategic sense for Showtime to reclassify SHAMELESS in its 4th season as a Comedy for Emmy Award purposes, since television is now swamped with contending dramas, but if the plan works, the result will be pretty ironic, since this was the season where the actions of the mostly happy-go-lucky Gallagher clan of Chicago had their most serious consequences.

It will be particularly odd if Emmy Rossum–who’s deserved to be honored since the series began–finally winds up with a nomination for Best Comedy Actress in her biggest dramatic season yet.  Her Fiona, the responsible foundation of the Gallaghers, started the season as a virtual advertorial for upward mobility.  She had a job with a real future as a salesperson for a box company and a relationship with one of the company’s executives, and even if neither the job nor the guy truly excited her, it all represented a possible way out for her family.  But Fiona gave into her Gallagher tendencies and went off the rails with her boyfriend’s ne’er do well brother, shattering the confidence everyone (including Fiona herself) had in her when the coke she had left out during a party was ingested by her young brother Liam, sending him to the hospital and her to jail.  Then she went off the wagon again, and this time wound up in prison (depicted here as a factory for hopelessness more disturbing than the melodramatic Oz-like jail of this season’s Justified).  The year’s scripts gave Rossum a chance to do just about everything from buoyancy to utter despair, and whatever her category is called, she richly deserves a nomination for something.

Until the unneeded shock-ending coda of the finale’s last few seconds (the return of Justin Chatwin’s Steve/Jimmy from his presumed death at the end of Season 3), this was a very strong season for Shameless.  Along with the surfeit of powerful material for Rossum, this season essentially made Jeremy Allen White, as Fiona’s brother Lip, the co-lead, following him to the University of Chicago, where he bracingly discovered that he couldn’t coast through classes the way he had all the way through high school.  The requirement that Lip abruptly grow up, and his ultimate ambivalent acceptance of the need to do it, provided White with his biggest presence yet on the show, and he more than held his own.

As the younger actors in the cast have grown up in real life, the show has been able to give them meatier storylines as well.  Emma Kenney’s Debbie faced adolescence and a first extremely inappropriate love, highlighted by her war with her much older “boyfriend’s” older girl.  Ethan Cutkowsky, as Carl, developed beyond being the budding sociopath of previous seasons, and had his own heart broken by a girl even more dangerous (and broken) than he was.  It was also a strong season for Noel Fisher’s Mickey, who finally came out as boyfriend of Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan); Ian was absent from most of the first half of the season (in the Army), but was revealed in the finale as having inherited the Gallaghers’ mother’s bipolar condition, and will probably have a big Season 5.

As usual, William H. Macy’s Frank had a story that mostly ran parallel to the rest of his family’s, and this season he was given a new foil and enabler, his long-lost older daughter Sammi (Emily Bergl, who will be a regular in Season 5), who was nothing but supportive of her dad once she knew who he was and stopped trying to have sex with him.  Macy himself was given plenty of big sequences as Frank miraculously managed not to die despite a ruined liver and, at one point, the unintended removal of one of his kidneys.  Also as usual, Shameless‘s most problematic character was Sheila (Joan Cusack), the figure least rooted in any form of reality, who spent much of this season trying to adopt five Native American children, and who ultimately compelled a wedding between herself and the near-death Frank (and then she didn’t get the kids anyway).

The finale was written by US series creator John Wells (one of the season’s episodes had a cute in-joke when Frank had to go the ER and ran into Scott Grimes, from Wells’s own ER, as his doctor) and directed by Mark Mylod, and rather than provide neat resolutions, it mostly set things up effectively for Season 5, notably by introducing Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Fiona’s new boss at the restaurant where she now works, who presumably will be seen again.  Apart from the questionable return of Jimmy/Steve, it was a very solid hour, especially in the taut sequences where Fiona wasn’t sure whether she was about to be busted for drugs she didn’t take–and found herself released from jail because of overcrowding instead.

Shameless has never gotten the kind of critical acclaim that’s made Homeland Showtime’s breakout series, nor is it as widely popular as Dexter was, but it’s been a steady, healthy performer for the network, and after 4 seasons, one can fairly make the argument that it’s been Showtime’s most consistent hour, considering that Homeland‘s quality level barely survived its Season 2.  One hopes that the final twist doesn’t suggest a more gimmicky, less emotionally convincing 5th season on the way, but like the Gallaghers themselves, until the bad news arrives, we can lose ourselves in the pleasures of the moment.

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."