It’s fair to say that Showtime’s Shameless is one of the most frustrating shows on television. The dramedy about a South Side Chicago family fathered by an alcoholic con man is an uncomfortable blend of hilarious and depressing, though in recent seasons it has slanted more toward the latter. Watching the Gallaghers make bad decision after bad decision sucks the life out of you, and we’ve had to bear nine seasons of this BS. They’ve almost lost their house multiple times. Half the kids have spent time in jail or juvie at this point. But through it all, they keep fighting and surviving, and in a way it’s oddly uplifting.
Shameless is not afraid to dip its toe in (or jump straight into) political narratives, usually in a glib way that highlights the most ridiculous aspects of a situation. They’ve tackled everything from reclaiming slurs to purity balls to date rape. Like, I said, uncomfortable. That’s always been the show’s MO. And while they’ve touched on many topics over the years, the overarching theme of the series is classism in America. In that sense, it should be no surprise that Shameless is unafraid to deliver gut punches to the audience to drive home the effects of unequal opportunities and a subpar education. Or that they’re unafraid to let their protagonists fail miserably.
Unfortunately, the latest Gallagher to fall flat on their face is the one who was doing the best for herself. Eldest daughter (and matriarch figure) Fiona hit rock bottom back in season 4 when she had a stint in prison after her youngest brother, Liam, accidentally ingested some cocaine that a horrible ex-boyfriend had given her for her birthday. After that she struggled to find work as an ex-con, settling for a job waitressing at Patsie’s Pies. Since then she has worked her way up the social ladder by sheer force of will, and by season 7 she was managing Patsie’s and flipping properties for profit. After her first venture was a smashing success (quite literally), she bought an apartment building and started making bank on the rich yuppies encroaching on the South Side.
Fiona looked into buying another property early in season nine and ended up investing $100,000 that she did not have into a retirement home venture. It was hard to tell whether she made this decision because she was greedy for more money and success or because she wanted the snobby real estate mogul who told her about it to respect her. Probably a bit of both. Fiona was ecstatic after signing the papers, sharing a celebratory drink with Liam on the lot where the retirement home was to be built. (Don’t worry, his was only fruit punch.)
We did it. A Gallagher finally made it off first base. —Fiona
Fiona was doing so well she even had a storyline about being a class traitor. During election season she campaigned for a pro-business candidate who opposed rent controls, much to the disgust of her friends and family. Fiona just wanted to do what she’d always done: do whatever she can to get ahead and provide for her family. Why should she stop just because she was transitioning from the “have nots” into the “haves”? Eventually her conscience and a tiny identity crisis got to her and she voted against the candidate.
It was very interesting watching Fiona try to reconcile her identity of where she came from with where she wanted to go. Even before the election it seemed that she saw these parts of herself as incompatible. Over the last couple seasons she changed her clothes and the way she carried herself, and while that was surely at least partly to get respect, it seemed it was also an identity marker to her. She’d risen above her impoverished upbringing and she wasn’t one of those trashy South Side kids anymore. Her reaction to things falling apart later proved this theory true.
Unfortunately, construction on the retirement home got delayed and extra costs started piling up, costs Fiona could not afford. She tried to take out another mortgage on her building and couldn’t get approved. Unlike many investors, since no one in her family has any money, she had no safety net. Watching her smiles get more and more strained as she realized she had no way out was excruciating. She even briefly considered resorting to illegal activities to keep her investment. Adding to her troubles, she crashed her car while driving drunk after finding out her boyfriend was secretly married with a kid and ended up with a broken wrist and a huge ER bill.
In the end she sold her building to the snobby guy for the price of what remained on the mortgage, leaving her with nothing. (Except perhaps the $100k investment that may not pan out for years, if ever? This was unclear.) She even lost her dog she adopted from a previous tenant because it didn’t want to leave the building. Fiona marked the occasion by going full hood rat, falling apart on purpose because why the hell not? She traded in her business attire for the least classy outfit she could put together and dragged her belongings out of the building in a trash bag. While buying supplies for the welcome home party she threw herself at the family house, she drank right out of a variety of liquor bottles at the store.
Debbie was the only Gallagher who knew what to do with their wasted and hysterical sister when she showed up at the house, raising her spirits by giving her a chance to enact a particularly humiliating and painful form of revenge on her former boyfriend. Fiona ended the episode on a bittersweet note, drinking in the backyard and basking/stewing in her return while her siblings looked on in concern. They, like the fandom, can’t do much but watch her downward spiral. A spiral that unfortunately will be continuing into season 9B.
This is all especially depressing because Emmy Rossum will no longer be on the show after this season. It looked like maybe Fiona’s arc would end with her moving on to bigger and better things, a bittersweet goodbye. Now it’s scary to think about where Fiona could end up. Prison seems to be the biggest depository of major characters who have left the show, including her brother Ian and his boyfriend Mickey. That’s not encouraging.
Classism is Depressing
With all that in mind, it’s reasonable that a number of people have stopped watching the show because it is too depressing or frustrating. Shameless is very draining emotionally for the viewer. But it’s important to remember that, despite being a dramedy, Shameless is supposed to be depressing. The show is, more than anything, about the cycle of poverty. It illustrates how an impoverished upbringing affects one’s expectations and decision-making, making it difficult to gauge long-term consequences. Indeed, the Gallaghers are all quite hedonistic, grabbing whatever kind of pleasure they can to make their existence less miserable. Oftentimes it backfires and ends up making their lives worse.
As mentioned earlier, class issues are a huge part of Shameless’s politics. There has been an ongoing gentrification storyline playing out since season 4 or 5, a storyline that ultimately led to Fiona’s rise and subsequent downfall. It showed up in many other ways too. Neighbors who complained about things South Side natives took for granted, like noise and dirty streets. Local public schools being closed due to lack of enrollment while a fancy private school popped up down the street. It was never more clearly addressed, however, than when oldest brother Lip got invited to a party at an affluent person’s house in his family’s neighborhood and pointed out to the host that now people who grew up there couldn’t afford to live there anymore. Needless to say, he didn’t fit in seamlessly.
Shameless has illustrated time and time again the non-existence of class mobility in the USA. Aside from Fiona’s recent troubles, Lip is another great example. He is quite literally a genius and was courted occupationally by everyone from his girlfriend’s techie dad to the military. However, he had to participate in a work/study program to afford college, and this made his schooling more difficult. This was particularly true because his poorly funded school in the South Side had left him very ill-prepared for the rigors of a university workload. He turned down an unpaid internship that could have opened a lot of doors for him, wrecking his body doing a summer of construction work instead. His anger issues and alcoholism eventually led to him being fired by his mentor and leaving school altogether.
Liam, meanwhile, got a scholarship to the aforementioned uppity private school when father Frank guilted the principal about how his underprivileged black son was getting such a poor education. Liam was popular and got absorbed into the culture there, arguably becoming a bit of a class traitor himself. But he was later kicked out after Frank spread venereal diseases to the entirety of the PTA after he had affairs with all the moms in the group. Sins of the father, as the principal put it. Once again, hedonism gets in the way of future opportunities. Liam is still benefiting from his stint in the private system, though, and is being bumped ahead two grades in the upcoming school year.
The Gallagher other than Liam who seems most on track for success is surprisingly Carl, the reformed drug dealer who was portrayed as a child psychopath in early seasons. The main reason things are looking up for him is because of affirmative action, of sorts. Carl’s academics were horrible – nine year-old Liam did much better on the assessment test than he did – but his girlfriend realized he could qualify for admission to West Point based on his adverse childhood experiences. Finally, the system may be working in a Gallagher’s favor.
America’s poor education of its lower classes shows up in other ways, too. In a particularly cringy (yet important) storyline, Debbie invited her much older ex-boyfriend to a house party and led him upstairs once he got wasted. She was shocked when he confronted her the next day and informed her she date raped him. Her sad, confused, “I didn’t mean to rape you” was heartbreaking, not just because it’s Debbie but because it illustrated so clearly that no one had ever taken the time to properly explain consent to her. When she mentioned the incident to Lip he similarly brushed it off as though a guy should be happy to be raped by a girl. Yikes. (Debbie later got pregnant on purpose by lying to her boyfriend about being on the pill, in an attempt to lock him down as her partner. Apparently she learned nothing from this experience.)
All in all, the show makes clear again and again the lack of support and opportunities for America’s poor. It shows the way they are set up for failure, and how their low expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s depressing, largely because it’s true. Shameless is only a slight exaggeration of the kinds of problems facing America’s poor, and it stings. It’s anything but escapism.
Perhaps part of why Shameless is falling more and more out of favor is because audiences are starting to push back against grimdark peak TV in favor of lighter narratives. It’s easy to understand why—with the way things are going, hope is what people need right now. Shameless is no tale of hope. But it is a harsh look at our reality, something people shouldn’t forget. Reality can’t and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. As hard as it can be to watch sometimes, we need cultural commentary like this. If you can’t stand to watch it, you can’t stand to watch it. But I personally am glad it exists.