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It would be a shame to overlook Emmy Rossum in ‘Shameless’

Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher in Shameless.Warren Feldman

“Shameless” is one of TV’s finest, most consistent, best acted, most heartbreaking, edgiest, best ensembled, least creatively compromised, funniest, most class-conscious, and most family-minded shows. If you read this column, you’ve probably already heard me heap praise on the Showtime series, which finishes its fine sixth season on Sunday night. I love “Shameless,” think of the characters as real people, scarf up new episodes, and fully know that, with its racy humor and gonzo plot twists, it’s not for everyone.

The entire cast is extraordinary, as together they evoke the daily realities of the financially strapped Gallagher family holding it together despite a pair of narcissistic, absentee parents. The actors don’t just work together beautifully; they even look like they belong to the same family. To me, “Shameless” feels like a contemporary Dickens story, as the Gallagher children of Chicago survive in spite of a system that fails them over and again, and as their father, the slimy Frank, played with comic gusto by William H. Macy, behaves something like a plastered Fagin. Every young actor in the Gallagher family shines, not least of all Emma Kenney as the newly defiant Debbie and Jeremy Allen White as the brilliant but difficult Lip. Oh, and then there’s Ethan Cutkosky as Carl, whose recent shift from thug to wannabe cop has been brilliant.


This season, however, I have been reminded of just how amazing and essential Emmy Rossum is as Fiona, the oldest sister, surrogate mother, and lost soul. Sometimes I forget to appreciate her performance, since Rossum is so thoroughly natural in the part, and since she is surrounded by louder, more scene-stealing dramas involving Ian’s bipolar disorder, Frank’s life-threatening illness, Carl’s gun-dealing, and the like. She delivers a miraculously lived-in turn, wearing the character like Fiona’s comfortable old clothes.When I see Rossum gussied up on some red carpet, or singing in a video or in a clip from “Phantom of the Opera,” or being all poised on a talk show, I remember that Rossum is acting on “Shameless,” and seamlessly at that.

Fiona is the backbone of the series and of the family, in that, despite being one of the Gallagher children still maturing, she is the caretaker. She needs to nurture her own desires, to pursue a career and build a romantic life, but she is too busy keeping an eye on everyone else. She’s more altruistic than she realizes — basically, she’s a single parent — and it catches up with her at times. She refuses to give up her struggle to raise her siblings; she’s a fighter. But then she loses another lover, or job, and she becomes frustrated and exasperated.


Rossum subtly places Fiona right in the middle of those two giant forces — self and selflessness — without making the tension obvious. She doesn’t show Fiona as an oh-so-noble do-gooder running the family, nor does she present a poor-me Fiona depriving herself of experience. She doesn’t telegraph anything. She gives us a young woman in the moment of her life, just trying to be true to her deepest feelings, and sometimes failing — which she did, miserably, in season four, when her youngest brother, Liam, overdosed on cocaine she had left out. As with every Gallagher child, Fiona struggles every day against the deeply seated self-destructive tendencies she inherited from Frank.


This season, movingly, Fiona found herself in a corner with Debbie, she of the freckles and fearlessness. While Debbie, still in high school, was bent on having a baby, a person she could call her own who wouldn’t desert her, Fiona was dead set against it. With maternal concern, she desperately wanted to stop Debbie (which led to some interesting abortion-themed material); ultimately, she told Debbie she’d need to move out of the house if she kept the baby. Rossum played it cold as ice, with great restraint — but also with lava flowing beneath the surface. It was a great stubborn vs. stubborn moment, with the kind of riveting interplay between Rossum and Kenney that comes from years of working together.

This season, Fiona has found her way out of her impulsive marriage to Gus and into what seems like a solid union with Sean. The season finale is scheduled to be their wedding, but do things ever go Fiona’s way? I’m eager to find out. I’m also eager to find out what Rossum does once “Shameless” leaves the air and the Gallagher family goes on their merry if troubled way.

Eager, but definitely in no rush.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.