I’m sorry dear reader, but I really don’t want to write this piece. Certainly “Shameless,” which is ending on Sunday, has been uneven across the 11 seasons of its existence, and particularly since Emmy Rossum left the series in 2019 — and left it without an emotional axis.
But that’s the norm when it comes to TV sagas built for the long run, in this case to detail the lives of one of America’s abandoned no-collar populations. I may have cringed at a few of the more shameless “Shameless” excesses (yeah: the throuple), and I may have forgotten or blocked out many of the more ludicrous twists across the years, including the fact that Frank is not Ian’s biological father. But ever since “Shameless” premiered on Showtime a decade ago, an American adaptation of a British series, I haven’t missed one single episode.
In short, I love this show, messy flaws, brazen outrageousness, frenetic pacing, offensive story lines, hyper-farcical turns and all. It’s not a “Breaking Bad” or a “Mad Men,” a pair of near-perfect specimens, but it has the kind of humanity that inspires my devotion.
Charles Dickens once wrote that, in his “heart of hearts,” “David Copperfield” was his “favourite child,” and that reflects how I’ve favored “Shameless.” I’m attached to every character, as well as to the actors playing them, in a way that transcends the ups and downs in quality.
And Dickens is relevant here; I’ve often compared the show to Dickens novels, and not just because of the lengthiness factor. Like Dickens, the tragicomic “Shameless” story is shown through a socioeconomic lens, with an emphasis on how the country’s systems — and its adults — fail the most vulnerable children. At the core of the series, within its exuberant buffoonery, there is a wellspring of compassion for the five Gallagher kids, raised by addicted and absentee parents, without money, and in the proximity of crime. Frank, their pathologically self-serving father, is a kind of Fagin figure, frequently exploiting his own kids for a few bucks.
Why do I love the show, beyond its social issues? There are so many reasons, some of them right there in the “Shameless” title sequence. I eventually click forward through most TV openers, but I always let the “Shameless” one play out, to the High Strung’s “The Luck You Got”; it brings me headlong into the home of the Gallaghers of Chicago’s South Side. We’re in the bathroom, which is successively used by all, so we know we’re going to get an intimate, privacy-free view of each character. Most TV series don’t want us to see people using the bathroom, but “Shameless,” the opener informs us, is going to be altogether different. We’re going to see everything, not just the civilized stuff.
“Shameless” can heighten that irreverent POV to a joyous level. But the tone of the show has been remarkably elastic, so that even while there are plenty of high jinks — even while Ian is going AWOL from the Army and V’s husband is trying to impregnate V’s mother with V in the room — there are plenty of deeply affecting moments. I was thinking about that during the most recent, penultimate episode, as we saw the uneducated, scrappy Mickey (the amazing Noel Fisher) wander the halls of his and Ian’s new apartment complex. He’s a lost puppy outside of the South Side. Likewise, my eyes did get a little watery when young Liam took his ailing (and undeserving) father on a day of Frank’s Greatest Hits.
The ability to evoke serious drama is a big part of my love of the show, and it has peaked this season with the Frank arc, as the pathetic patriarch suffers from alcoholic dementia. We’re living in something of a golden age right now of actors portraying dementia, with Glenda Jackson in “Elizabeth Is Missing,” Anthony Hopkins in “The Father,” Stanley Tucci in “Supernova,” and Lance Henriksen in “Falling”; William H. Macy in “Shameless” is as good as any of them. Macy, whose consistent and lived-in performance has made Frank into one of TV’s best-ever characters, has shone as a man whose almost supernatural resilience is utterly useless in the face of mental deterioration. Seamlessly, Macy brings the fear, the confusion, the humor, the grief, and the depression, as the writers give Frank what seems like a fitting fate. When Frank can no longer physically tolerate alcohol, he says, in a moment of clarity, “My one true love and now she’s rejecting me.”
Macy is brilliant, and he leads an ensemble cast that has kept up with him admirably. The acting has helped to keep me in the “Shameless” loop, particularly with the Gallagher kids, a collection of extraordinary young performers from Rossum on down. One of the first things I noticed about “Shameless” after it premiered was that the young actors truly looked like they could be the children of Frank and Monica, and that has remained true throughout, even as they’ve all aged in front of us. More important, each one has stood out, no matter what the writers throw at him or her.
Indeed, the writers have churned out a lot of sharp and unexpected turns on “Shameless,” rarely taking the characters where we expect them to — Emma Kenney’s Debbie, for instance, who started the series as a good girl but has blossomed into a hot mess, or Ethan Cutkosky’s Carl, who was obsessed with being a bad boy until it was clear he needed to become a cop. As the children of two lawless, addled narcissists, each of the Gallagher kids has been dogged by a similarity to their parents at some point — something that was clearer than ever when Rossum’s caretaking Fiona wound up in jail.
It used to bug me that the Emmy Awards failed to give the show the recognition it has deserved. Sure, it got about a dozen nominations along the way, including five for Macy. But the show itself, its writers, and the rest of the regular cast, particularly Fisher and Jeremy Allen White (as Lip), surely deserved some notice. Ah well, it truly matters not. “Shameless” leaves the air as a chaotic, raunchy, touching, wise, and somewhat unsung treasure, one that has satisfied its large viewership over many years, and I’m more than fine with that.