‘Shameless’ Becomes the Worst of What Its Detractors Said It Was in Fifth Season

Once a dysfunctional family that we rooted for, the Gallaghers have become the antithesis of funny.

There are many things you expect from the Gallagher clan, the fictional family behind the hit Showtime series Shameless, chief among those things: Sex, dysfunction, and a whole lotta love. This last, which was really the strength of the show’s first three seasons, is sorely lacking in this latest season, making for fewer laughs and a season that limps along like a show that has half the capabilities Shameless has when it’s operating at peak capacity. The family has become fragmented in ways that find the viewer reminding himself that there is a relationship between all these people named Gallagher, and that’s too bad.

Emmy Rossum, returning as Fiona Gallagher, wasn’t the most capable cast member during the show’s first season, but she quickly picked up steam and became an actor of significant power by the third season. But here she, like so much of the show, limps along, occasionally taking her shirt off, flirting or looking pretty before the camera but not always doing her best acting. And she has plenty of room to do that.

She’s the object of affection from Sean Pierce (the usually capable Dermot “Dirty Steve” Mulroney whose as weathered as 50-year-old flight jacket here), Gus (Steve Kazee; one to watch) and of course Steve/Jimmy (Justin Chatwin). Rossum’s chemistry with Chatwin in the past has been topnotch and it’s not bad here. It’s just that by the time he comes around, we’re kind of tired of the whole story, anyway.

Even the normally brilliant William H. Macy, who plays alcoholic patriarch Frank Gallagher, isn’t up to his usual shine. Recovering from a liver transplant and finding himself back in the arms of Sheila (the excellent Joan Cusack), Frank is still capable of making gargantuan mistakes. It’s just that this time the humor in the situations is lacking, as if the writers have run aground trying to think of ways to access Frank’s unique humanity. And that has always been the trick of this show, both in this American edition and in the much loved British iteration: that Frank Gallagher, at the most unexpected times, could reveal some redeemable qualities.

In season five, however, there’s not enough tethering Frank to anyone for us to see those redemptive qualities or care much about his schemes because they’re not as central to the survival of the family as they once were. When he does assert himself in the family, it’s too little, too late and too much, too predictable.

Lip (Jeremy Allen White) comes home from college and drifts this way and that, such that the screen time he’s afforded either seems immaterial or baffling. Debbie (Emma Kenney) is saddled with participating in a storyline that is both beneath her and, frankly, beneath the series. (Somehow, rape is funny if you discuss it in terms of male rape!) Then there’s Ian (Cameron Monaghan) whose promiscuity comes to light but whose inner core isn’t revealed with the same verve and skill as in previous seasons.

The only remaining strength in the show this season comes from the relationship between Kevin (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton), which is on rocky ground. Though, truth be told, it’s the one scintilla of believability to be found here as it has complexity and emotion tied to it, while the rest is a series of situations meant to result in comedy, but mostly resulting in blank stares. (The attempts to drive the new lesbian couple off the block and avoid gentrification? That gets half a ha. An h.)

Once there was danger in this show, a reason for the sex scenes, a reason for the perversions and kinks that were unique to the characters. Now there’s just sex and talk of sex that isn’t just frank but downright gratuitous. It’s as if Shameless has suddenly devolved into the very thing that its critics have derided it for, but which weren’t true in the past.

That’s where the love comes in. Somewhere in all the dysfunction and mess of a family that the Gallagher clan is, there was something that bonded them to one another. Now it’s become every Gallagher for him (or her)self and even the attempts at relationships outside the family have more to do with the writers advancing the plot than creating something that touches on deep human emotions, something that asks us to feel as moved as easily and often as we could in past seasons. Watching season five of what was probably this writer’s favorite show at one time, has become a chore, and a dreaded one at that.

Shameless will enter its sixth season in 2016 and here’s hoping that some of that fire from the early seasons comes back. If season six is to be the end of the Gallaghers, let’s that they go out with their own brand of dignity, the kind that they had when we met them way back when.

This Blu-ray and DVD release features two featurettes that almost have some zeal to them, audio commentary and deleted scenes, but nothing that raises an eyebrow.

RATING 5 / 10