‘Shameless’ Season 6 Confronts Our Desire to See Characters “Escape” the Ghetto

Shameless is a show that should not exist in 2016. It flies in the face of all the things that the blogosphere would have you believe about the PC/trigger-warning culture that supposedly surrounds us.In the premiere of the show’s sixth season, which airs Sunday, tertiary characters offhandedly mention raping other tertiary characters, the word “dyke” is used liberally, the family’s awful patriarch Frank (William H. Macy) stars in an extended montage mocking all of the world’s major religions, and Bollywood films are unapologetically described as “curry muncher flicks.” Needless to say, the characters on Shameless do not police themselves. But they do police each other, and that’s why, after so many unheralded years on television, the show remains one of the best.

A quick checkup on our characters: Lip (Jeremy Allen White) is in college and still banging a professor whose husband watches gleefully from the shadows; Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is struggling with his schizophrenia and the fact that his ex-boyfriend Mickey (Noel Fisher) is in jail for attempting to murder a Gallagher; Frank, heartbroken by the suicide of his rich young plaything, Bianca, is still an ever-present, drunk shadow on the streets of the ghetto; Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) hit puberty, has cornrows, and is cheered as “white boy Carl!” when making his exit from juvie. Oh, and Deb (Emma Kenney) is pregnant in high school. And happy about it.

There are plenty of problems within the family, but for the first time the show has introduced an outsize, outside danger to the family: gentrification. It’s been creeping in the corners of the narrative for a few seasons now, but it lands at the Gallaghers’ front door when “rich lesbos” come knocking with a noise complaint against racist, sexist, homophobic Yannis, a Greek man played by MADtv alum Will Sasso. There are also “urban explorers” in the neighborhood bar. Thankfully, the godforsaken H-word is never uttered. (It would just be redundant, anyway, given the beards, plaid, and Red Wing boots they’re all sporting.)

It was a smart move for the writers to bring gentrification to the forefront of the show for two reasons: first, it’s completely realistic that the Gallaghers’ South Side Chicago suburb could be gentrified in the coming years; second, and more importantly, it addresses the audience’s well-intentioned desire for the characters to emerge from their self-described ghetto and become the gentrifiers who endanger that very same ghetto.

Our desire to watch the Gallaghers move on up is no fault of our own. Since the beginning, the writers have agonizingly held the jewel-encrusted carrot of wealth and comfort just out of reach. Fiona has held and lost so many jobs and wealthy boyfriends, Frank has drained the family dry of cash so many times, Lip has betrayed the kindness of countless strangers, and Ian has ignored his medication so often that the quality of “hope” has been erased from the viewing experience. If you’ve been watching since the beginning, you’re now on guard: each season, episode, or opportunity is seen through skeptical eyes, just waiting for one of the Gallaghers to blow it up. And yet now, with the magnification of the gentrifiers, you kind of have to wonder: is this what we’ve wanted for the Gallaghers all this time? And if so, why?

The easy answer is that we’ve wanted them to reach their full potential, because they’re kind, loving people. It’s in this way that you could say that the easiest, perhaps most demented analogue for the show’s fictional Gallagher family is, bizarrely, the Kardashians, whose flagship Keeping Up With series showcases the power of a family’s self-love, even if that family acts, without fail, in complete self-interest when roaming from the homestead. But maybe, like the Kardashians, the Gallaghers don’t exactly have bucketfuls of potential beyond the talents they exercise within their self-made world.

Lip is the only character that has managed to escape from the raunchy grip of the Gallagher household, harnessing his absurd, unexplainable intellect to become the college campus lothario genius he’d always dreamed of being. He’s constantly threatening the longevity of his success, because of either his obligation to his family or his obligation to his dick. Both evoke a “Christ, not again” reaction, but it’s the obligation to his family is the most infuriating, especially because we’ve been trained to see them as fuck-ups.

Ethan Cutkosky as Carl Gallagher in Shameless Photo: Patrick Wymore/SHOWTIME
Ethan Cutkosky as Carl Gallagher in Shameless Photo: Patrick Wymore/SHOWTIME

And so Shameless plays up a dichotomy that echoes the internal conflict many of us experience: honor your family, or honor your own potential? The writers of the show might argue that, if Lip were to become some rich scientist — and how many of those exist, really? — he could support his family. But the writers have also created such an absurdly crestfallen backstory for the Gallagher clan that, if somehow the series were to end with the lot of them in high-paying jobs, big houses, and happy marriages, just wouldn’t be believable. It wouldn’t be believable because it’s not realistic, but it also wouldn’t be believable because, well, the Gallaghers don’t seem to really want that.

The story of the Gallaghers has, all along, been a subtle stab at the American Dream, and the lengths we’ll go to pursue it. Through a kind of societal mind-meld/brainwashing, we’ve all mostly been taught to pursue higher education and better jobs within an established system and hierarchy. But, as the show goes on, this doesn’t seem possible for the Gallaghers, because it doesn’t work for them, just as it doesn’t work for most Americans. Logic denies universal success, and once you realize that, why not just try to be happy? It’s what Carl’s doing, and it’s why he can’t really be blamed for his quick dive into dealing. It’s nice to have Lip shining as a beacon of success, but it’s also nice to have Carl giving in to what might be his best possible life. And meanwhile there’s Fiona, existing between the two. She sums up the Gallagher ethos with her own preamble, which begins, “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and hating the fucking asshole you have to work for.” That might not be what we want for ourselves, but it might be all the Gallaghers want for themselves. And that’s fine.