Season Premiere: Shameless – “Summertime” and Televisual Space

“Summertime” and Televisual Space

January 8th, 2012

After rewatching the entire first season over the holidays with my parents, I found myself enjoying Shameless more than when it premiered (as I wrote about soon after), and I looked forward to checking out the second season. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was to find it so disarmingly different from what we saw last year.

This isn’t to say that the show has dramatically changed its approach to storytelling, although there is evidence to suggest that they are finding better ways of balancing the different character dynamics based on reviews from critics who have seen beyond tonight’s premiere. Rather, the fast-forward to the dog days of summer has created both a temporal shift and, more importantly, a spatial shift in terms of the characters and the world they live in. More generally, though, the long summer days offer a plethora of sunlight, dramatically transforming the aesthetic of the show and signaling a new season in a very direct, meaningful fashion.

I realize that this is not particularly evaluative, and if we were to speak exclusively on those terms I found the premiere promising but uneven, but I want to spend a bit of time discussing these changes relative to the question of space, an increasingly important factor as worlds begin to converge in a new spatial dynamic within the series.

The Gallagher house has always been small, but the question of space was always taken for granted. In fact, looking back, the show largely cheated by rarely showing Karl in the room with Lip and Cameron, isolating that space for the two older sons to interact while largely dislocating Karl within the home. Similarly, while Debbie and Liam technically shared a room, the fact never proved particularly important, the conflict a long-accepted consequence of having limited resources. We entered this story long past the point where the limited space of the Gallagher home was an important story point, which meant that we never really had a chance to focus on questions of space in that context.

Now, however, this is beginning to change. Debbie is getting older and wants her own room, creating a crisis of space that was perhaps unavoidable but not easily reconciled. Gender would suggest Liam bunk with the other boys, but there’s already three of them in that room, making such a proposition challenging (especially given that Liam is still very much a toddler). While Liam could move in with Fiona, that character has gained a certain level of spatial independence within the home given her central role supporting the family, although the arrangement for the daycare operation (with Fiona present for drop-off and pick-up for the sake of appearance, but with Debbie doing all the work while Fiona sleeps after a night out on the town following her shift at a nightclub) would suggest that Debbie is equally pivotal during the summer months. All of this is to say that the spatial challenges of the Gallagher home are expanding beyond broken amenities and staggered shower times necessitating invading Kevin and Veronica’s space.

Of course, the answer to their conundrum is sitting right in front of them, but it’s a space that the show has largely ignored throughout its run. Frank’s bedroom has gone mostly unused since he shacked up at Sheila’s for the free food and hot water, but there seems to be an unwritten rule that the space cannot be taken over, either because it could endanger their custody arrangement (with no space capable of being shown to child services workers as “Frank’s bedroom” in case of an inspection) or because they’re simply holding out on Frank eventually ending up right back where he started.

I make this observations in part because it feels like these two threads are now converging. Just as the Gallagher clan finds themselves short of space, Frank finds his space threatened by a newly explorative Sheila. Sheila’s struggles with agoraphobia were the first series’ most concentrated engagement with space, both capturing the character’s anxiety over space and rendering her home a particular isolated, controlled space in which multiple conflicts are forced to co-exist (as when Frank and Eddie were both living there, or the period after Karen effectively raped Frank). When Sheila finally escaped the house in order to save Liam and then in order to force Eddie out of the house following his embarrassment of Karen, it was largely positioned as a triumphant moment for the character, an arc that while not necessarily consistent was very well captured by Cusack’s performance. However, what I didn’t really realize at the time was how much the show was predicated on the spatial divisions created by her condition, and how much her steps outside that door threatened Frank’s position within the household.

“Summertime” brings this to the forefront, with Karen laying out that Sheila will see an entirely different world if she actually makes it all the way to the Alibi Room (as the map on her fridge, counting out her daily steps, indicates). Frank has been living two different lives in two different spaces, but the moment those worlds collide he is going to be revealed as a fraud. On some level, it seems difficult to believe that Sheila would have put up with him this long, or that she couldn’t surmise what Frank does at the Alibi Room for herself. However, so much of Sheila’s life has had to imagine the world outside her door that I’m guessing she has tuned it out, and so her awakening is a threat on a number of levels, especially once the novelty of new experiences wears off.

Still, for now there is something beautiful about Sheila striding down the street in the summer sun, the weather both a symbol of her increased freedom and a facilitator of that freedom. While the show has always used outdoor spaces, taking advantage of limited location shooting of a show that largely films interiors in Los Angeles, the new found warmth has made those outdoor spaces more liveable, habitable by the characters. It’s created a new balance between the Chicago locations and the Los Angeles sets, with the premiere featuring a larger percentage of location shooting than the average in the first season. Ethel’s garden creates another outdoor space where characters can interact with one another, while front yard conversation between Tony and Fiona emphasizes how the former’s new living arrangements complicate the spatial dynamic of the block. The increased mobility of the show’s characters is highlighting the way they relate to the spaces around them, with even some new “sets” (like the alley beside the bar, for example) being used as bridges between sets and the outside world (which is now more readily a part of the narrative).

Of course, on a more simple level, the show is spending more time outside, moving sequences like Fiona’s early morning sexcapades with James Wolk, Amy Smart and some old guy from a seedy hotel to a local park. This may not seem as important, but it still highlights how the shift in season would change character behaviors. Winter was never explicitly positioned as a necessary component of the first season, but in retrospect is was a central force behind where characters went, what characters did, and how characters made ends meet. The characters haven’t changed that dramatically between seasons outside of getting a bit older and some shifts in appearance (with Ian bulking up and Kevin ballooning out), but their routines are dramatically different given the shift in seasons, making for a very different kind of show in terms of what characters wear and, more importantly to my central concern here, where characters go.

As noted, this isn’t particularly evaluative, and my interest in space largely ignores the one storyline that I didn’t care for, being Liam’s kidnapping at the hands of some thugs who Frank lost a bet to at the Alibi Room. The storyline makes sense as a point of introduction, forcing the Gallagher’s to band together and robbing them of their summer savings to create a bit of tension and urgency in the coming weeks, but I’m hopeful that the show can figure out a better way to integrate Frank which doesn’t involve a scheme of this nature. I want a reason to care about Frank that doesn’t involve a toddler in a cage being his raison d’etre and a point of sympathy, and “Summertime” didn’t offer this. However, it also didn’t reintroduce Justin Chatwin’s Steve, and it also raised a number of interesting questions for Ian (now faced with Kash abandoning his wife and children) and Lip (still after Karen, still dodging a real future in favor of selling weed out of an ice cream truck) that I’m very much excited to see develop in the future.

The verdict on the season’s sense of balance, then, is a little hard to make at this point. I found the introduction of Fiona’s new routine a bit jarring, but in a way that I found effective, and the final shots of Fiona trying to prove something to herself by taking to the track were highly effective. It’s a strong launching point for the season, lest my decision to focus on matters related to my academic research interests suggest I was not otherwise engaged with the episode. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this heads, both in terms of questions of space and in terms of questions of character, and while I’m not likely going to be able to review week-to-week I’m certainly drop in should either issue require further consideration.

Cultural Observations

  • Kevin has generally been portrayed as fairly sympathetic and intelligent compared to some of the other characters, so I do think his enormous pot stash (and not realizing that the electric bill would balloon for his (broadly-drawn) racist boss living above the bar) were a bit of a stretch, dumbing down the character. I did like the expansion of pre-existing space that the room above the bar created, though.
  • James Wolk nearly made the problematic protagonist of the compelling Lone Star likeable, so I’m intrigued to see what happens with his character here, someone who seems genuine but is unlikely to stick around for long given Fiona’s track record. I’m also excited for what feels like The Year of James Wolk, given his upcoming guest role on Happy Endings (another show I quite enjoy).
  • While I am aware that Kevin wasn’t a small guy to begin with, Steve Howey seems to have ballooned between seasons, to the point where I expected a story justification. I don’t even mean this as a criticism, but it just felt unavoidable to me.
  • I was going to say it was spoiler-ish to presume that Steve would return, but they left Justin Chatwin in the credits, which sort of took the suspense out of the situation.
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