“Father Frank, Full of Grace”
March 27th, 2011
By the conclusion of its first season, I would argue that Showtime’s Shameless found something of an identity independent of its British predecessor. This is not to say that the show is better or worse, something I can’t judge given that I’ve seen only brief glimpses of the British series, but I felt as though the first season seemed driven by characters more than versions of characters. Between the work of Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Kenney, the Gallagher siblings feel as though they (if not necessarily the world they inhabit) are real people who I want to see face the challenges that result from their position. Their story never felt like we were seeing someone else’s story transposed onto these characters, as each performer seemed to be driving the characterization as much as any sort of influence from across the pond.
That is a testament to the strength of the cast, and the writers for working with them, but it is only one component of the series’ future. The other side, the part where we consider the world that John Wells and Paul Abbott have created in Shameless’ Chicago, seems problematic as the show heads into an extended hiatus before a second season. “Father Frank, Full of Grace” has some strong moments, but it has already put into motion an enormously problematic return to the status quo which threatens to undermine whatever strong character work might be done.
Or, to put it in other words, it’s already threatening to be just like every other problematic Showtime series.
I was not surprised to see that Lip stopped short of killing his father, but I have to admit I was more than a little disappointed. True, it was naive to think even for a moment that the show might kill off Frank given that William H. Macy was the centerpiece of the show’s promotional campaigns (and will be at the center of its Emmy campaign come July), but the character remains the most frustrating part of this show. There is no universe in which Frank is actually the most important part of this narrative, and no justification for his continued presence beyond a desire to inject a sense of comedy and anti-heroism into the show to fit more closely with the Showtime brand.
I just can’t imagine looking at this show and saying “I think we should pretend Frank is the lead character” when Fiona’s position is so much more infinitely interesting. I think Frank’s presence within the Gallagher family’s life is important: he is the symbol of their struggle, the man who Lip and Ian might be destined to turn into and the parent who Fiona fights so hard to make up for. However, why do their lives have to intersect as often as they do, and why do we need to spend quite so much time with Frank on a week-to-week basis? The show seems built to send Frank off on off-screen adventures, chances to allow the specter of Frank to hang over his family rather than having him literally causing them trouble. While the antics that usually result from Frank’s direct interaction with his family are some of the show’s larger comic setpieces, they seem so much at odds with the “reality” of the family’s situation that I find myself resenting his presence.
What the finale reveals is that the show and I are never going to be on the same page as it relates to this issue. Showtime peddles in what I’ve taken to calling “Xtreme Dramedy,” in which there is an active tension between comic and dramatic elements that the series tend to revel in. Shows like Weeds, Californication and Nurse Jackie don’t just mix comedy and drama, they mix broad comedy with “dark” drama in an effort to play up the inconsistency as if it were a virtue. It’s an occasionally successful combination, but most of the time I find it tremendously off-putting because it creates all of these different shows of varying quality within each of these shows. As a result, I find myself enjoying parts of these shows (like the more serious drama on Weeds, or the light comedy of Zoey on Nurse Jackie, or…nothing on Californication) but am held at a distance from the rest of it. Every time it appears that the show truly wants me to engage with it on its highest possible level, it pulls back the curtain to reveal that it is not interested in committing to that potential in favor of maintaining its dichotomous existence in hopes of drawing a broader audience.
Forget, for a moment, that the network’s most successful series is also its most committed to a single aesthetic: Dexter, while certainly having its own struggles with inconsistency (mainly its terrible storylines for supporting characters), at least offers a dominant tone that viewers can take or leave as they so choose. I’d also argue that United States of Tara, despite Diablo Cody’s reputation for quirkiness, has settled into a pattern wherein comic elements are sublimated into a dramatic space. But Shameless, solely because of Frank’s behavior and demeanor, settled into inconsistency heading into tonight’s finale with no sign of changing gears.
“Father Frank, Full of Grace” doesn’t even bother following the pattern of shows like Weeds or Nurse Jackie, wherein cliffhangers are introduced and then written away in the following premiere. Instead, this finales does all of the writing away immediately, returning to the status quo by smoothing over some pretty substantial story developments without much fanfare. Lip and Ian are arrested, but Tony’s obsession with Fiona (and his apparent access to Bears season tickets) gets them off without any jail time (and, as far as we can tell, without being charged with anything); Steve is forced to leave town and asks Fiona to leave with him, but she chooses the safe (and show-saving) job with her new BFF instead; Frank sleeps with Lip’s “girlfriend” and his quasi-stepdaughter, but the two bond over the former urinating on the latter after the closest thing Frank has managed to a heartfelt apology for being a worthless piece of shit.
There are some strong moments in the episode: the little beat with Ian coming out to Fiona was beautifully handled, for example, the kind of moment that the show is capable of handling so well. The problem is that execution is, well, not the show’s problem: I thought the scene with Lip pissing on Frank was poetic and well-acted all around, but that it actually served to resolve the two men’s issues (or at least reset to the point where Lip simply hated his father for being a drunk as opposed to hating him for having sex with his girlfriend) feels enormously regressive. For a show that claims to be shameless, to find the show pulling back from complex storylines in favor of Lip and Karen sitting on top of a building allowing the night’s sky to resolve their differences is just tremendously disappointing. While I respect that they didn’t create a cliffhanger suggesting more substantial change and then retreat in the season two premiere, it’s still the same pattern that I find so problematic with Nurse Jackie in particular.
From what research I’ve done about the British original, I know that the show operates in cycles: characters leave the show’s world entirely, as plot developments necessitate their exit and provide a sense of progress (which, of course, operates independent of Frank who remains the Gallagher family constant). I’m curious to see if this series lasts long enough to follow the same pattern, and if Showtime would be willing to commit to introducing new characters and allowing others to escape (or become victims of) this world, but nothing in this finale points towards such a conclusion. The one “escape” we see is dark and impressive, as Eddie commits suicide having been shamed by his daughter in ways he feels cannot be erased, but that simply ties off an arc that was always somewhat tangential given that Sheila and Karen were clearly the primary focus within that family. By all accounts, the show intends on following the Gallagher family through the trials, tribulations and hijinks that a shameless existence will bring them, rinsing and repeating as they see fit.
That does not make Shameless a horrible show: as noted, the performances (especially from Rossum and White) have been strong, and I thought they did some nice work with Ian toward the end of the season as he moved away from a fairly one-dimensional exploration of his sexuality to some interesting work surrounding his parentage and his relationship with his former nemesis. And there were even moments where Frank’s interaction with the family felt like it slowed down long enough to become contemplative, like taking Debbie and Carl along with him as he searched for a job on which to injure himself. There’s enough here that I’m willing to stick around for another season, to grit my teeth during the inevitable reboots and regressions and enjoy some flashes of a more even and more successful drama series.
A series that I really don’t feel Shameless will ever commit to.
- Given that we never saw how Steve’s mother responded to Debbie’s revelation, and given that Tony is hardly a viable love interest after his almost psychotic behavior in the penultimate episode of the season, I presume that this is not Justin Chatwin exiting the show by any means. Curious to see if they’re willing to let him drop to recurring and introduce a new love interest, but either way the character will be returning.
- Showtime has chosen to call the show a drama series so as to better highlight its success (since it is one of their more [read: only] successful drama debuts in the post-Dexter era of higher visibility), but I’ll be curious to see where it ends up at the Emmys. If they are focused on getting Macy a nomination, they’ll want to submit it as a comedy (since he could take Tony Shalhoub’s spot, as opposed to fighting his way into the intensely competitive Lead Actor Drama category), but the actual best performances on the show are clearly in the dramatic categories, so I’m interested in what direction they choose.
- If the show wasn’t already building towards a Karen pregnancy in season two, having Lip throw his hat into the ring the morning after her altercation with Frank certainly creates the requisite paternity mystery to fuel the storyline in question. That scene, with Karen crying as Lip proclaims his love in a moment of ecstasy, was really well-handled, by the way.
- Some beautiful shots here, Eddie’s suicide being chief among them – the show uses its Chicago setting to its advantage only ever once in a while, but that long shot of Eddie walking across the frozen lake to turn something ritualistic and recreational into something self-destructive and deadly was haunting.