High-stakes, dark comedy inspires conflicting emotions

I was looking forward to seeing the new Power Rangers movie this weekend, and had planned to be writing a review of that, but instead I stayed in all weekend doing homework and binge watching Netflix.

During spring break, I made the mistake of convincing myself that it would be a good idea to start watching a new television show on Netflix. I thought I had the time, and so why not? The problem with that plan was that I chose to watch “Shameless”—and my binge-watching skills were not ready for this endeavor.

I had two reasons for watching this show. One being the fact that spoilers for it were all over my Twitter feed and it felt like a worthwhile clickhole, and two being that my mother actually recommended it to me over winter break. In hindsight, the second reason is a cause for a bit of concern because there is a lot of nudity and sex, emotional and physical violence, and a ton of drugs in this show—all things that I wasn’t aware my mom knew about or approved of in television form.

I did not love “Shameless”—but I kept watching it anyway. One thing that I think Shameless does especially well is the way they have created and maintained so many good characters throughout the many seasons. That isn’t to say that these characters are portraying good people, but rather that the characters have been carefully written as individuals. When I first realized that this story followed a large nuclear family as well as their close friends and neighbors, I was expecting a single lens through which the storytelling would take place. Instead of using one character as the central storyteller, however, the writers of “Shameless” do a good job of presenting the Gallagher family as a group of full-bodied characters. Each of their separate stories are written in a way that allows them to be in conversation with the rest of the family, and constant shifts in point of view add to the show.

I feel like a show has done a quality job if I become irrationally attached to or influenced by the fictional characters of the world. One of the clearest examples of this effect in “Shameless” would have to be the father Frank Gallagher. I kind of hate this man. I hate this fictional man, and I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t. If the consistently reckless abandonment of his kids doesn’t drive you to cursing under your breath (even though you’re watching it alone in your own room), then his blatant narcissism and selfishness will at least have you wringing your hands in frustration.

Frank’s oldest daughter Fiona also had me cursing out loud at points. While I despised her father, I was constantly rooting for her, and she let me down often. At times I felt like I was watching a scary movie in that I wanted to yell at her: ‘Don’t go in there! Don’t do that!’—knowing she was likely to do it anyway. Fiona Gallagher has made some serious sacrifices for the sake of keeping her family together, and a lot of her quick thinking and decision-making was commendable. Alternatively, the disparity between the goodness and badness of the choices she’s made is often quite large, and this too was frustrating.

Generally, I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this show. On the one hand, I was impressed with the overall storytelling and accessibility of the characters. Whether I liked the content or not, I feel that it’d be hard to argue against the fact that this is a well written script. On the other hand, from time to time the writers completely alienated me by including extremely troubling themes and problematic story lines that just wouldn’t quit.

There is no denying just how problematic this show is. In a truly shameless manner, over the course of six seasons, the storylines have wavered between displaying the authentic trials and tribulations in the lives of this poor and loving family, and totally exploiting narratives that cannot contribute to a productive conversation in the context of the show. Again, in a brazen way this show gives a very casual treatment to some incredibly serious issues, and it often does so in a way that does not clarify whether or not the show is attempting to critique or make a statement out of the problem rather than a joke of it. The show takes care to create complexity and infuse deep emotions into many plot points, but completely trivializes others, and I think at minimum it does the show and its viewers a huge disservice.

The most obvious element that appears to carry the show through the creative high and low points is its undeniably strong cast. This group of talented actors ranges from more popular choices such as William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum to fresher faces like Ethan Cutkosky and Shanola Hampton. It is clear that these characters and the actors who portray them have grown into the series and into each other, and I loved that. A special shoutout is due to the relationship between Kevin (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton), even though it has been weathered and threatened time and again, it remains complex, high stakes and fun to watch.

The fact that Shameless oscillates between dark comedy and serious drama plays out as both a strength and a weakness for the show. I think refusing to tether itself to one genre (in all regards with the exception of awards ceremonies) leaves so many creative options on the table. At the same time, however, I think this attempt to cater to two distinct genres is one of the primary sources of the show’s mishandling of highly sensitive subjects.

I wouldn’t recommend this show, but at the same time, when the new season comes out in May of this year I will probably be watching it.

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