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Note: This recap contains spoilers about the season premiere and the past three seasons in general. It also features frank, if not explicit, mentions of sex, drugs and all sorts of inappropriate matter. But then again, if you had a problem with sex, drugs, and all sorts of inappropriate matter, you probably wouldn’t be watching and then reading about Shameless.
Well, it’s only episode 1 and I’ve already f-ed up.
Perhaps Shameless is rubbing off on me too much. I watched and loved the first three seasons of the Showtime show and chose to re-watch the first three seasons to prepare for writing this season's recaps (plus a subsequent Top 10 I’ll get around to writing soon) since it’s been years since I’ve seen some of the earlier episodes. But personal obligations (very dull, un-Shameless personal obligations I must add) prevented me from finishing all three seasons before the fourth season premiered on Sunday. I don’t say this to get some kind of sympathy – I know, poor me for having to watch an approximate 30-something hours of TV – but to explain why this recap is so late. But hey, there’s something cosmically right about not playing by the rules when it comes to Shameless, a show that’s unorthodox in just about every way.
When we last left the Gallaghers, it was at the end of a tremendous mixed bag of a season. Season 3 had some incredibly strong moments including the material involving Frank’s call to Social Services, the kids’ foster care experience and Fiona’s subsequent legal fight for her siblings’ guardianship. Yes, the season had some incredibly strong moments and a lot of funny ones too (the last two episodes were very strong as a whole), but it was also the season where the show started to unravel just a touch. Although the plot about Frank becoming a gay rights activist was funny, it disappeared too soon and felt like it was dropped as soon as the writers got done laughing at their own joke. That was even more apparent with Sheila’s “Retard Nation” story line. On the other hand, the thread involving Kev and Veronica’s mother seemed to go on for far too long.
There was one more thing about season 3 that started to get under my skin. As it went on, there felt like less and less characters we could root for. The show has always shown its characters’ rougher edges and I love how Shameless doesn’t present one-dimensional characters. Frank’s sole selfless act at the end of the season, for instance, was a great touch. But in the course of the 12 episodes, Fiona became just a touch too egotistical and catty, Steve became a touch too reckless and even Lip’s arrogance turned into something unpleasant, especially when dealing with Mandy and the MIT rep (who, by the way, would never work so hard to recruit anyone let alone a wise guy with a criminal record). It just seemed to throw off balance a tad and make us, the viewer, question who exactly we’re supposed to root for.
But it’s a new season and a fresh start for the Gallagher clan. When we’re reconnected to the family in the season premiere, they’re more splintered than we’ve seen them before and, generally, much more stable.
Fiona is still working at Worldwide Cups and dating her boss Mike, a genuinely nice and - dare I say - normal guy from a close, upper-middle class family. Things seem to be going well – he takes her to a Bears game and dotes on her in a loving way – but Fi does seem a bit lost in this new semi-affluent world of 9-5 jobs and 401(k) planning. In one of the episode's best scenes, she even marvels to Veronica how they haven’t had sex yet and Mike hasn’t “forced himself onto [her] so [she] has to decide whether to Taser him or go along,” unlike the other guys Fi usually dates. This is Shameless and stability usually isn’t in the cards for the Gallagher home, so it’ll be interesting to see how Fiona’s steady paycheck, health insurance, and nice-guy boyfriend will play out over time.
On the other hand, Frank’s future seems more predictable and a lot bleaker. At the end of last season, we learned that Frank’s body is shutting down due to a lifetime of alcoholism and rampant drug use. When we rejoin Frank in episode 1 of season 4, he’s gaunt and pale, living in an abandoned crack house and turning to heroin to satisfy his addiction since any kind of booze exacerbates bleeding sores in his throat. After a drug raid at the home, Officer Tony (whom you might remember as the cop Fiona deflowered in season 1) delivers Frank back to the Gallagher home. Although Fiona is quick to kick him out, Carl convinces her to let his dad stay and even spends the rest of the episode babysitting a very ill Frank (who must now resort to chugging boxed wine in the least lady-like way imaginable). While Carl’s story line had some very funny material, the relationship between Frank and Carl was the emotional crux of the episode and, as I can gather, one of the main story lines of season 4. It would be so easy to write these characters as caricatures – Frank, an egotistical and out of control drug addict and Carl, a preteen and budding sociopath with a penchant for killing small animals – but between the uniformly strong writing and acting (especially from young Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney, who have really grown into themselves and their roles over break), both Frank and Carl are as human and multidimensional are possible. These father-son scenes are not just beautifully acted but show the depths of both these characters beyond the show’s usual hijinks.
The rest of the episode was brought to you by the letter H for hormones. With guidance from new roommate Frank, Carl, heavily in the throws of puberty, gets a lesson on…self-pleasure, which he takes to with startling abandon (and, according to the bumper at the end of the episode, an economy sized tub of lubricant). Hormones are also flaring for Debbie. After taking her attention off Little Hank and the mean girls at the pool (remember the ketchup incident from one of last season’s best episodes?), Debbie is now hanging out with a new group of oversexed teens who dress in tight, revealing clothing and go out into Chicago to bait teenage boys. Of course, Debbie doesn’t fit in with them, she’s innocent in an endearing way, a virgin and flat-chested, but it’s fun to see her play off characters so different than her with a vision of what her life could have been without Fiona as a mother figure.
While Carl and Debbie are trying to figure out their new urges, Mickey Milkovich is trying to suppress his. In a beautifully acted scene, Mickey, now married to a pregnant hooker, goes to the bathroom and tries to masturbate to a picture of Ian before breaking the mirror in anger. It’s probably the saddest on-screen self-pleasure I’ve seen since Shame. Although it is often glossed over for some of the show’s more outrageous moments, the relationship between Ian and Mickey was always one of the most fascinating. I’ve never seen a homosexual love story (if I dare call it that) like Mickey’s, a street thug totally unable to express his emotion, and this new glimpse into his inner-life was very well done and a great insight into one of the show’s most complex characters.
In other Shameless news, Sheila is hanging around the Gallagher home (uninvited) and trying to clean the whole house. Lip is quickly finding he can’t coast in MIT the way he did in high school. Ian and Karen are MIA. Oh and Veronica is, incredibly, pregnant. Guess Kev didn’t need to go through all that…mother-loving after all.
Shameless airs Sundays on Showtime.
Image Courtesy of Showtime/CBS