I’ll be honest, I couldn’t write a recap of the much anticipated Shameless premiere (3×01 “En Gran Canon”) because I was so unimpressed it actually killed me. Shameless came in at #2 on my Top 10 Shows of 2012 list, and after its lackluster return last Sunday I couldn’t bring myself to write a lackluster review. I held out hope that the second episode would be better, and thank God it was!
The problem with the first episode was that we’d seen it all before. We’d seen the episode before, albeit with difference circumstances. Still, Frank is missing, wakes ups in a strange place, has to find his way home. Money troubles, Fiona and Jimmy troubles, Lip still resists the opportunities available to him etc. etc. etc. I was less than entertained.
And yet, when I think back on last night’s episode (3×02 “The American Dream”), I wonder why I enjoyed it so much more. It stuck to the same formula. Frank accosts the house and then rants and raves about his unappreciative kids. Fiona tries to make more of her life. Lip remains pessimistic. Ian trysts with Mickey. In fact, this cycle of repetition is at the theme of the episode, and perhaps the entire show.
The idea that Fiona can make a gamble on herself, invest in herself and her ability to be successful at something that may bring her in some good money seems like a normal, doable thing. It is, after all, the American Dream. But Lip counteracts this idea. There is no dream, there is no way to break the cycle of poverty. If you want to make money, you do it dishonestly. It’s the only way. Society will knock a poor girl down for trying to do it right. But Fiona doesn’t listen. She bets on herself. Hard.
In fact I’m unsure we’ve seen such a reckless Fiona. She puts up the property tax money in order to get a shot at promoting a club night. She writes a bad check to the mob for the liquor, risking Kev’s good name as well. She even snags the top promoters e-mail list. But things add up and soon she’s facing paying back the alcohol bill, the property tax, a thousand dollars to some guy talking about business licensing, the waitresses’ cut and she barely breaks even. Despite her reasonable success, Lip tears her down in the final scene of the episode. He made up the property tax money by scamming rich kids, and chastises Fiona for being so stupid.
It’s a rough scene between the two heads of the Gallagher family. Well, it’s always been Fiona, but I can see this season positioning Lip in a patriarchal position at odds with Fiona. And the most interesting and heartbreaking fact about their differing in ideologies is that Lip is so intelligent that he actually has a chance to get out, but he fights it at every turn. It’s become to obvious that Mindy is trying to get him into college now. He’s never articulated it, but it feels to me like he believes it’s unfair if he takes advantage of his intelligence to better his life while people he loves are left behind. Of course, this is totally the Good Will Hunting syndrome where he stays put and everyone around him wants him to go. He’s Matt Damon and everyone else is Ben Affleck.
But Lip’s entire ideology is grounded in the poor man’s plight. He’s anti-establishment to his very core. He views himself as being left out in the shit by society and so he sticks it to society as much and as often as he can. Can he really ever reconcile his life philosophy enough to join this society that he hates so much? Just for his own gain?
See, that’s why this episode was so good. With so many incredible characters, it’s just a fact that Fiona and Lip are the heart and soul of this soul, and perfect foils of each other. The first episode made no use of their differing ideologies nor made any commentaries regarding the possibility or lack thereof of a better life. It was gratuitous, whereas “The American Dream” had something to say.
It’s unclear whether the show takes Fiona or Lip’s side, but it seems more and more like it may be Lip’s. Despite allowing some successes, some positive change and betterment, there’s a reason that Shameless returns to the same storylines, the same conflicts, the same character’s acting in the same way they always have. It’s a bleak philosophy that maybe people and things don’t change. Frank certainly doesn’t change.
This episode saw Frank return to his old habits. He attempts to use the house for his own use, demanding the master bedroom and inviting his drunkard friends to do drugs and sleep in any bed they please. All the while he rants and raves that it’s his house and how ungrateful his children are after “all he’s done for them”. And when he breaks Debbie’s social study project and then remarks that it was a piece of shit anyway, all hell breaks loose in the Gallagher family.
Debbie, whose way of coping with the lack of parental attention in her life is to love her father no matter what, breaks down. Debs, whose resolve to treat her father with love and care despite his neglect and ignorance, runs to get her pillow full of soap bars and beats Frank with it mercilessly. When she finally runs him out, she collapses into kicking and screaming face down on her bed and Fiona has no idea what to do but watch, horrified.
At the core of Shameless, and what it does heart-breakingly and expertly, is represent the real and raw experiences of a destitute, troubled and dysfunctional family. There is love, there is hatred, there is wonderfully comical situations, but there is tragedy that boils over too. Frank is played for laughs a lot, but really there is something vile and disgusting and unbelievably sad that these children have him as their father. It’s funny that the kids barricade their rooms to keep him out. It’s not funny that Lip and Ian have to stand in his way to prevent his ransacking their home. The show knows its limits, it knows the line when it comes to Frank, thankfully, what’s funny about him and what’s absolutely vile about him.
Now, especially, seeing that his own selfishness and warped sense of reality drives him to call child services and report on his own household, the fallout from which we’ve yet to see. But it’s coming. And though last season saw Frank at his worst (denying the phone-call for a heart transplant so he could have a dying woman’s money once gone) and possibly at his best (upon witnessing his vulnerability when it came to his mother and his wife), season three is looking pretty despicable as far as Frank goes.
The hope is that the cycle of repetition, the resolve to be as unchanging, stagnant and pitiful as Frank is, does not have to be the fate of his children. I think that’s the central conflict of the show, and when it sticks to those ideas, those dynamic, and those competing philosophies, there’s one incredible television show on our hands.
Until next week, when V smacks down Kevin’s wife? And probably some more boring Brazilian mob stuff with Jimmy and an Ian/Mickey/Mr. Jimmy awkward situation!