Standing in her bra and underwear, staring at an unclothed Tinder match, Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum, “You’re Not You”) shakes her head and proclaims “I can’t do this anymore.” It is a moment of self-determination and realization; in a single sentence, this woman who has struggled through hell and high water decides that she’s had enough — enough with random hookups and enough with the way life tosses her around. As she smiles at the blurred lights of Chicago’s skyline while the chorus of PrettyDeep’s “SugarCane” synths in the background, one thing becomes glaringly clear: these are not the Gallaghers we have seen before.
In its eighth season, “Shameless” looks to transform its lovable, degenerate characters in a way that keeps them true to their disposition while remaining pertinent in 2017. Gone are the Gallaghers of 2011, dancing on the edge of poverty on the southside of Chicago. These are the Gallaghers of the Trump years, and they’ve got newfound money in their pockets to spend (albeit as a result of pushing their dead mom’s meth) and mended futures to pursue. And while the Trumpian effect is evident in the show it is nowhere near centerstage — at least not yet. Newly militarized Carl (Ethan Cutkowsky, “Law & Order: SVU”) laments over the ungrateful elite. An ICE agent responds, “Do you really have to ask?” when asked why he only cares about illegal Mexican immigrants over Russian ones. Perhaps these ideas will be explored further as the season progresses, but right now, those lines serve the same purpose as the use of a fidget spinner in various scenes: “Shameless” is well-aware of the trends and tirades of 2017, it’s just not ready to tackle them head-on quite yet.
But for once, that’s not a bad thing. The season premiere is filled to the brim with new plotlines that poignantly tackle very real and very relevant issues. Fiona exploits the benefits of gentrification with her latest tenant status. Debbie (Emma Kenney, “Epic”) looks directly into the face of collapsing trade industries when talking to her new welding classmates. Kevin (Steve Howey, “Blue & Green”) faces the stigma and uncertainty of male breast cancer. Only Frank (William H. Macy, “Room”) seems to be stuck in his old ways, continuing to blame his deceased wife and enabler for pretty much everything wrong in his life. Still, it seems that smoking a half-pound of meth has allowed him to reach some level of enlightenment. Every scene with Frank shows him apologizing to people he’s wronged over the past forty or so years (which, by the way, leads to the best line of the episode, in which he kneels at a tombstone and declares, “Wow, when you’re right, you’re right. I should’ve let you drive.”)
“Shameless” has finally freed its characters, allowing them to take control of their own lives rather than having to work with the continuous blows that life has delivered them. Of course, the show would not be the drama it is without conflict, and the fact that the Gallaghers and Co. are doing so well right now only means that their inevitable fall will hurt that much more. Eradicating the looming shadows of addiction and poverty let the characters look deeper into themselves and decide what kind of people they are going to be. Will they reverse back to their old, destructive ways? Or will they take the the high road out? These are the difficult questions driving the show as it teeters on the edge of becoming Showtime classic or just another series overstaying their welcome. I, for one, can't wait to come along for the ride.