When Showtime’s Shameless returned last week (which I continue to cover for The A.V. Club), it was months earlier than normal, the second season to air this calendar year. It meant a lot of Shameless in a short period, which reinforced that Shameless has quickly become one of Showtime’s longest-running hour-long series, now entering its seventh season
I had the chance to speak with Shameless executive producer Nancy M. Pimental, who’s been with the show since its first season, earlier this summer, and was mostly interested in how the show is looking to age into its final seasons, however many they may be. The conversation starts with a moment from last season that, for me, could have easily been a part of a theoretical series finale, and moves from there to cover topics related to upcoming character arcs, keeping storylines fresh after seven seasons, and how much they’ve thought about where they want each character to end up when the parties involved decide there’s been enough shamelessness for one lifetime.
Cultural Learnings: In the middle of last season, Fiona walked into the empty Gallagher house after it was auctioned out from under them, and my first thought was that this could have been the very last scene of the series.
Nancy M. Pimental: Really?
Yeah, the house has seemed so crucial to the show, and so the idea of it being a symbol of the end made a lot of sense to me—of course, then they ended up getting the house back, and the storytelling reverted to the status quo, but did you ever think of it as carrying the weight of finality at all?
Wow, no, but that’s interesting. I like seeing things through other people’s eyes, how it landed on them. We did not think it was final—what we wanted to show was just the kind of reality of living where they live, and how everything is a juggling act. So, you’re getting one ball in the air and paying one bill, and then something else ends up creeping up on you. Living in that socioeconomic environment you’re not planning for the future or anything—if anything we were just trying to show reality, as opposed to closure.
Was there any point where you considered abandoning the house, or is the standing set element of it too substantial?
Yeah, I think it’s too substantial. As writers we explore every option—“Oh, would it be interesting if everybody moves into the Milkovich house,” or “What if everybody splits up and goes to live with their respective partners?” I think we definitely explore every idea.
The season did end up playing with that latter idea, dividing up the characters while the house was in jeopardy. It actually made me wonder if you might go through with it, but eventually you did bring everyone back to the house.
You know, the truth is it’s such a fine line, as just practically and realistically as people get older they move away from their houses. I have friends who have kids that are that 16 and 17, and they’re never around anymore, and I think it’s natural and normal. And so we want to tell the truth, but sometimes it’s not great for storytelling, because you do want to see a family unit conquering or overcoming some obstacle.
This played out a bit in season five, where Fiona was away from the house for so much of the season, and the family dynamics shifting accordingly. That balance is something the show has also had to adjust to more now that we’re seeing Carl and Debbie emerge as more significant characters with their own storylines—how have you approached this balance in light of the expanding narrative framework of the series?
Right. It’s hard—how much as writers do we try to include the characters in each other’s stories? Also, how big or small is their world? We do a lot of scenes in the Alibi, and it’s like: is this realistic that these people are having a meeting in the Alibi when there’s so many other options? Does this show that the world is too small? Or does it show that this is a familiar neighborhood, and this is what people do?
We’ve seen expansion there as well with the gentrification storyline—the world around the Gallaghers is changing, in addition to the family itself. Has there ever been an instinct to blow up their world in a more significant, long-term fashion?
Like doing the Roseanne Lottery storyline?
That, or something like Weeds where they abandoned Agrestic and moved locations. The Weeds writers said that helped them refresh the stories they wanted to tell, which becomes an issue as shows run longer. Given that you’ve stuck to the status quo, how have you tried to find a sense of freshness while moving forward?
I think putting new stories in more familiar settings is probably how we do it. This season we’re going to have Fiona taking over as manager of Patsy’s, and she’s going to turn it around so that it’s not just this diner—she’s going to gentrify it in a way. Instead of the greasy hamburger, it’s going to be a turkey burger with aiolo sauce and kale, or whatever fancy food talk. It’s still the same shell, but adding a freshness, and then we’re watching this woman who’s done with men for a while because they’ve gotten her into so much trouble, and she’s going to focus on her. And can she turn this business around? Does she have the ability and skills? Having new stories in an old environment is the way that we do it.
The British series didn’t end up having this problem with a character like Fiona, who—per our discussion about realism—moved away after just a few seasons of that series, changing the family unit in the process.
True, although that’s also behind-the-scenes—James McAvoy was about to become a movie star, and she was his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife. I also heard, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but British television sometimes doesn’t pay as well as U.S. television, and they don’t have long-term contracts.
Right, which is what also happened with Downton Abbey and the character of Matthew more recently. But that almost made the British series seem more realistic, as someone “escaped” and the family dynamic shifted. Have you thought about this with characters like Lip and Fiona, where it seems plausible that one or both might be able to find a way to move beyond their current situations?
It is what we’re constantly talking about, and trying to see what is actually realistic. Like I’ve said, when you’re in this socioeconomic environment and you don’t have good role models, and education maybe is not a priority, and survival is really the theme and the throughline for your family—it is a balancing act between bougie writers who want to infuse their own personal stories on this character, and get them out, and the feeling that “No, we’ve got to be true to these characters.” Like, what are people’s options who live in this upbringing? What are your options if you haven’t graduated from high school and/or college? What kind of jobs can you get when you’re still trying to make ends meet today? We [as writers] all have made choices to invest in ourselves and take out student loans and hope we’re going to make money to make all those back, but if that’s not the way you were raised and the framework around you, how much can you bet on yourself? And then you throw in the narcissism of how you were raised, and you throw in the addictions, and so you’re just getting obstacles thrown at you as you’re on this new path and forced to face these challenges.
You mention behind-the-scenes issues as being interconnected with this. Obviously, there were some of those issues with Noel Fisher and the character of Mickey last season—putting aside the actual details, which I know aren’t being discussed, what did you learn from having to move away from such a long term storyline, and effectively “reboot” Ian as a character?
I think where we’re going with him this year with him has been really interesting. I think we’re going to see Ian grow a lot, as he learns he has other options romantically, and we’re actually going to see that he has his bipolar under control. I think what’s interesting about his character is that you thought initially going to ROTC that potentially he had a way out, but then he sabotaged that because of his bipolar disorder, and being a Gallagher. And then you had his relationship with Mickey, which was certainly passionate, and had its own twisted romanticness, but was kind of self-destructive as well. And so I think he’s gonna be kind of the sleeper character who you don’t expect, who’s actually going to rise from the ashes and “get out” a little bit.
You mention his disorder being under control—what kind of conversations have you had about his management of his disorder? Last season, some of my commenters noted the challenges of adjusting medications and finding the right balance, and it’s a complex, day-to-day struggle for many people. They felt it was sometimes glossed over, and so how do you depict “control” and not just make it feel like his bipolar disorder isn’t there anymore?
It’s a good question, because at the end of the day as writers and a viewing audience, how much do you want to talk about medication, and how much do you want to talk about “is this the mania or is this the depression right now?” It is a delicate tightrope of storytelling, and it’s also tough for Cameron—he’s done an amazing job of playing it. It wasn’t our intention at all to gloss over it—John Wells, our 800-lb gorilla that’s steering the ship on this show, very openly talked about family members in his life that have bipolar disease, and how yes, sometimes they’re super functioning and you’d never know, and other times a cocktail or stress sets them off in one direction or another. I feel like we’ve done a pretty realistic job, and it was definitely not an intent to gloss over things, but I think it’s also a little bipolar fatigue that people suffer from when you’re serving so many characters. How much do people want to see somebody popping medications all the time? I think it’s also realistic that somebody with bipolar who’s young like him—how much does he want to have part of his personality cut off? And so we did want to leave it sometimes vague as to whether or not he’s taking his meds.
As you map out these and other stories, have you started thinking about where they end up? The show can’t run forever, and so as you’re breaking stories for characters are you putting things aside to save for the final season? Are you setting markers you hope to hit with each character?
I don’t think we’ve landed on anything, but we certainly talk about each character in those terms. Do we want Lip to go back to school? Do we want him to finish school? Do we want him to get a job? Do we want him to stay in the South Side? Do we want him to get out? What kind of job is he going to get? Will he work at Best Buy, or will he get an engineering job? We’ve landed on nothing. With Fiona: is she going to get married? Is she going to be an independent woman? Does she go and get pregnant? It’s anything that any viewer would be wondering and thinking too—we’re exploring every option, and where they all land.
Do you feel like the ending you’re building to is one where we get a glimpse of every character’s “ending,” or is it possible we’ll see an ending that leaves the family in a state of flux? Do you have a sense of the type of ending you are aiming for?
Like, are we doing a combination of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, or something?
Right, have you thought about it in terms of format?
Look, I have no idea, but I feel like we would want to let everybody know where everybody lands. We’ve asked the audience to invest all these years in all these journeys, and I think people will want to know where everybody lands. But, who knows? I’ll let you know when do Season 15 and we’re wrapping things. I don’t even know how many seasons we’ll end up with. I think it’ll be a combination of talking to Showtime and what they’re looking for, and how much more story we feel like we have to tell.