Showtime's family dramedy Shameless, will be back next year for a fifth season, but it's the currently airing fourth season we should be talking about.
Both Shameless and House of Lies were renewed by Showtime today, which doesn't come as a huge surprise considering Shameless's ratings are up 8% over last season. All those 5.5 million viewers can't be in it for the LOLs, as the series has recently delved into some dark places. This isn't unusual for a series that has always seemed to revel in the muck of the lives of the Gallagher clan, dirt-poor Chicagoans breaking laws and any available moral taboo in order to scrape by. It's always been a schizophrenic show, one that takes some characters seriously and treats the others like grotesque comic relief. This season, and especially in the last few weeks, all those strands have come together quite affectingly. Not that you'll hear anyone talk about it.
Sunday nights are a battlefield for TV, always. And not just for viewership but for conversation. HBO has always been at the forefront of this; Girls and Looking and True Detective dominate critical and online discussion, regardless of viewership. AMC's The Walking Dead is there to rack up the Nielsen numbers. Downton Abbey isn't quite the talking point it once was, but it holds its own. The Good Wife has been off for a few weeks, but in its absence, we've had the Winter Olympics and Netflix's just-released House of Cards. There's only so much oxygen to go around on Sundays, and Shameless is pretty junky, so it's no surprise it's been tossed aside.
It's too bad, because there's something special happening this season. William H. Macy's wretched Frank, initially the show's centerpiece character and certainly the most outrageous for his willingness to debase himself and others for drugs/booze/money, was always incredibly hard to take. It's always felt like the audience was being egged on to laugh and gasp at Frank's antics, but the strain always showed. The stories of Gallagher siblings Fiona (Emmy Rossum), Lip (Jeremy Allen White), and Ian (Cameron Monaghan) have always been far more compelling, not least because they're not presented like complete cartoons. The performances of Rossum and White in particular have been award-worthy since the first season, and with the events of the last episode—Fiona going to jail for letting toddler Liam get into her coke (I know!); Lip's barely constrained rage and guilt over same—it's only more clear than ever that these are two of TV's most unsung performances.
With another full season ahead, one could hope that the dead weight of the show gets pruned. It's probably a pipe dream—Macy's the star and the face of the show, and Frank's been marginally more tolerable this season, mostly because the show had decided to be a good bit less flip about how he's, you know, dying of a lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse. The rub there, of course, is that keeping Frank alive for Macy's sake negates much of the good that's been done with him this season. He should die, narratively speaking, but he won't. At the very least, the show could cut ties with Sheila, who hasn't had a sensible place on the show in over a year and instead just intrudes with ludicrous, offensive side plots that only steal time from the characters who matter. But, again, Joan Cusack is a name actress (and to date represents the only Emmy attention the show's gotten), so don't hold your breath.
But for Fiona and Lip, for Ian and the burgeoning storyline where he's out of the closet and navigating the clubs in Boys Town, for Debbie bruising her way into adolescence, Shameless is more than worth the grimy unpleasantness. Even if it operates in the shadow of Sunday nights.