Showtime’s original series Shameless really lives up to its name. The dramedy — another spot-on descriptor — has spent eight seasons making it hard for viewers not to laugh at things that aren't actually funny like addiction, poverty, and even death. In fact, what makes the show work is the insistence of the Gallagher family and their immediate circle of cultural outcasts that their alternate reality, one that requires them not to take anything, including their own fucked-upness too seriously, is anything but shameful. It’s just the way things are on the Southside of Chicago. And this season, Shameless appears to have turned it up a notch. Episode five, “The (Mis)Education of Liam Fergus Beircheart Gallagher,” included several plot points that not even I, a diehard fan of the show, could graze over as casual Gallagher mischief. It forced me to finally ask, how exactly does Shameless get away with being so dark? I think the answer is in its whiteness.
In his journey to kick alcohol, Lip Gallagher (Jeremy Allen White) has found that he cannot live without sex. At one point in the season, he devolved into yelling “I need some pussy!” at work, much to the annoyance of one of his female co-workers. Tired of hearing him complain about it, she demands that they sleep together. And they do. But she slaps and hits him repeatedly, despite his protests each time they do it. Should the gender roles been reversed, this non-consensual sex act would likely not have made it off of the Shameless cutting room floor. But the fact that Lip is the one experiencing this violence doesn’t make it any more settling that sex on Shameless is often overlaid with a sense of demoralization and coercion.
Along a very similar vein, Lip’s younger brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is presumably forced to sleep with an older couple after he threatens to expose the husband’s sexuality to the wife if they do not fund a homeless shelter for LGBT youth. While Ian’s extortion plot is risqué on it’s own, the immediate consequence of the action results in an even more sinister act.
The perversion of Shameless isn’t just sexual, either. Episode 5 sees Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) holding a local drug addict hostage in the Gallagher’s home basement to rehabilitate him. Carl, a budding teenager, is one of the most complicated characters on the show, having an exhibited an early affinity for crime that has yet to wear out. For the past two seasons, Carl’s unlawful streak has been juxtaposed with the new sense of discipline and patriotism he has gained at military school. Like his two older brothers, he is not above diving head first into bad behavior if it’s for a good cause. This is ultimately the message that undergirds Shameless: as long as you have a heart of gold, even if only sometimes, we’re rooting for you.
Gallagher patriarch Frank (William H. Macy) is the poster child for this cause. Arguably the most morally bankrupt member of the Gallagher family, Frank is on what feels like his millionth glow-up in the series. Frank has always put the pursuit of money and alcohol over his responsibility to his family. He was a liar and a cheat. He has swindled a new liver after a life of drugs and alcohol, and to show his appreciation, he has continued to indulge in those substances. He came back from near death after his family threw him into a river for ruining Fiona’s wedding. And now, after going on a meth binge to mourn the death of Monica, he has committed himself to being a productive member of society. This includes becoming a PTA dad at his youngest son’s school and snagging a management position at the hardware store where he works. He has even caught the lustful eye of several of the wealthy moms at the school.
Frank's turn of events speak as much to his abilities as a hustler as they do to the white privilege upon which we have built our culture. The inclination to trust white men and give them opportunities for redemption that are not so freely extended to other groups has made life easy for Frank. It is also what has made Shameless so easy to digest all these years later. The situations that the white Gallaghers and their (suspiciously and inaccurately) white community find themselves in work for shock value, but never lend themselves to these individuals being bad people because their racial privilege means they can always bounce back.
This idea that white people can do whatever they want as long as their intentions are pure is dangerous in the real world as it becomes the excuse for any number of inexcusable offenses. But on some subconscious level that we’ve all subscribed to, it makes for damn good TV that’s dark, but fun to watch.