Here’s why you should binge all the seasons of ‘Shameless’ available now.
The Gallaghers are back! The eighth and latest season premiered on Showtime in November, and those without a Showtime subscription (or those who just crave a rewatch) can binge Shameless seasons one through seven on Netflix. Out of consideration for those who are new to the show, we won’t discuss any major spoilers here. Instead, let’s talk about what Shameless is all about and why you need to hop onto this roller coaster ride of a show.
What is ‘Shameless’ all about?
Make sure to clear your schedule before you sit down to watch the first episode of Shameless, because you’re sure to be hooked immediately. We get a pretty vivid picture of the dysfunctional Gallagher clan in the opening scene, in which the patriarch Frank introduces everyone in a voiceover: there’s Fiona, the oldest child and the one who actually keeps the household running smoothly while Frank is on his benders; Lip (short for Philip), who is insanely smart but also a juvenile delinquent; Ian, who’s determined to join the army one day; Debbie, possibly the sweetest and most innocent of the bunch; Carl, who’s a tiny force of destruction; and Liam, the baby. Of course, there’s also the supporting cast: Kevin and Veronica, their next-door neighbors, and the quirky Sheila (played by Joan Cusack), plus a rotating cast of love interests, most notably Fiona’s on-again-off-again flame, Steve.
The heart of Shameless is Fiona, played with both flintiness and vulnerability by Emmy Rossum. Rossum made headlines last year when she held up season eight by demanding pay equal to that of the show’s other major star, William H. Macy (which she eventually received). Fiona would be proud. Stuck raising her younger siblings on the South Side of Chicago because her mother left and her father Frank is an alcoholic, Fiona has street smarts but couldn’t finish high school. She spends her days struggling to earn enough money to keep her family together and off the streets by working endless low-paying, exhausting jobs — but she often spends her nights partying with her friend Veronica and having wild one-night stands.
It may be a testament to Rossum’s acting chops or it may be the similarities that we share, but I immediately found myself watching Shameless mainly for Fiona’s story lines. Fiona has ecstatic highs and many, many lows. Her family hurts her, and she hurts them. She tries to move on and start her own life many times but always gets pulled back by her siblings’ sheer need for her. She’s always working hard but never has enough money. She gets her heart broken so many times and sometimes breaks it herself. She’s stuck in an endless cycle of poverty and bad relationships. You don’t need to have grown up as the oldest girl in a large family or worked awful low-paying jobs to relate to Fiona and her struggles, but as someone who has, Shameless really hit home for me.
Oh, and if this all sounds really dark and depressing so far, don’t let that put you off. Shameless might deal with a lot of harsh realities, but it’s also extremely funny. It’s mostly dark humor, but I think the Gallagher clan would agree that’s the best kind anyway.
Why Can’t the Gallaghers Get Their Shit Together?
One common complaint about Shameless is that it’s frustrating that the characters constantly self-sabotage and fail to improve their lives, despite multiple opportunities. It’s true that it’s impossible to watch this show without wanting to shake the Gallaghers for poor decisions, such as a planned teenage pregnancy, refusal to treat mental illness, substance abuse, engaging in harmful relationships, stealing a baby, going to jail and juvie, refusing to take education seriously and, of course, Fiona constantly making terrible career and relationship choices. We won’t even get into Frank’s misdeeds, given that he’s a lost cause. The frustrating part is that Frank’s children don’t have to be lost causes. They’re all constantly given chances to improve their lives, but more often than not they choose self-destruction just when things seem to be getting better.
However, if you see this as a valid criticism against the show, you’re missing the point. The entire theme is just how much the family and the social class you’re born into affect your ability to cultivate a happy, successful life with a stable career and relationships. If you’re going into every season of Shameless hoping for the Gallaghers to finally get their shit together, you’re going to be disappointed. As frustrating as it is to watch these characters you care about fail time and again, there’s a certain beauty in the way the show manages to constantly find new, deeper holes for them to dig.
“But it’s not realistic!” one might protest. Au contraire: anyone who’s experienced poverty can relate to the Gallaghers’ never-ending struggle for survival. Studies back it up: MIT economist Peter Temin wrote in The Vanishing Middle Class that escaping poverty requires a successful education, which in turn requires almost 20 years of dedication, support from family and the community, and nothing going wrong (such as an unintended pregnancy or health issues). As depicted in Shameless, this isn’t easy. Even with the smarts of someone like Lip or the drive of someone like Ian, graduating high school is a struggle when you don’t have a stable home life and financial support.
Even if you can’t relate to the cycle of poverty, most viewers can have empathy for it. Fiona’s poor relationship choices, however, seem to cause the most exasperation among viewers. Other characters on the show deem her “slutty,” but she’s really more of a sex and love addict. It may not be entirely her fault, though. According to an Atlantic article titled “Your Brain on Poverty,” research suggests that poverty has such an effect on the brain that it can cause you to completely abandon long-term decision making in exchange for impulsive, short-term choices, because the immediate need is so great and the long-term options may not even be reliable.
An anonymous anecdote included in the article offers a lot of insight into Fiona’s (and her siblings’) relationship choices: “Poverty…cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different baby daddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive…. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable.” In that light, immediately Fiona’s relationship patterns make sense.
So moving forward with Shameless, what can viewers hope for in terms of the Gallaghers’ futures? Long-term happiness seems too much to ask — plus, it would be boring to watch. Executive producer Nancy Pimental told the Hollywood Reporter, “Which one of the Gallaghers has the tools and the potential to get out of their circumstances and what would that look like? Do they end up falling back? It’s something we’re constantly exploring.” So it sounds like we can expect even more ups and downs from the Gallaghers, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.