Sunday, December 31, 2017

REVIEW: 'Shameless' - Fiona Sees Chicago in a New Way as Lip Gets a New Sponsor in 'Frank's Northern Southern Express'

Showtime's Shameless - Episode 8.08 "Frank's Northern Southern Express"

Frank starts a booming import-export business. Fiona considers moving into her own place after Ford shows her a side of Chicago she's never seen. Lip interviews new sponsors. Ian confronts a pastor trying to "pray the gay away." Debbie deals with being unemployed while looking for a way to afford school and raise Franny.

"Frank's Northern Southern Express" marks the second time Emmy Rossum has gone behind-the-camera as director for Shameless. The first time was just last season in an episode that proved incredibly pivotal to Fiona's character arc. It was an hour where she really needed to step up and prove herself as a businesswoman who could turn Patsy's around. That was indicative of her overall arc for the season in becoming a success story for this family. Rossum did an excellent job helming that episode. It led to another opportunity on TNT's Animal Kingdom as well as a second chance to do it on Shameless. However, this season has gotten really frustrating as of late. I wouldn't call it bad just yet. But it has been pretty aimless and chaotic. This season has embraced broad storytelling in a very over-the-top way. Yes, that has always been apparent with this show. The basic premise has always been about the ridiculous and shameless things these characters will do in order to make it in this world. But there's always been a clear sense of motivation and heart to the narrative as well. Right now, the show is just in a weird transition period. It remains one of the great success stories for Showtime. It's a veteran series that still does remarkably well with viewers. But the creative team doesn't really know what it wants to be doing with any of the characters right now. So, that leads to an episode that still mostly feels like transition and exposition. It could all become incredible important by the end of the season. But this also isn't the episode that puts things into sharper focus. That's a bit disappointing and makes this seem like a wasted opportunity for Rossum - even though she still has a couple of great shots in this episode.

Everything just seems so incredibly uneven as well. It's grown increasingly difficult to tell if any particular episodic story will have ongoing consequences to it. This season has had more self-contained stories for various characters. That's been the majority of Debbie stories this season. As such, it's hard to make sense of what's going on with her other than she's a young adult paranoid about getting pregnant after knowing all of the responsibilities that come from being a parent. That can be compelling. But the execution mostly makes it seem like a madcap approach to comedy without anything truly consistent for an overall season. The same is also true of Carl. In the episodes leading up to this, he's been so focused on his new military life. He's eager to return to school and be the upperclassman. He had to put in the work to earn the money to pay for it. But now, he just seems to be coasting by in life with a crazy new girlfriend. Seriously, this new girl in his life is so immediately annoying and problematic. She seems to be crazy and off-putting just to create a sense of chaos for the Gallaghers and comedy for the audience. Again, that's nothing new for this show. The execution is just off without any of it actually meaning something of value to Carl. He has become a great character on the show. But now, the writers just have no clue what to do with him other than being in this crazy and sexual relationship.

Even the great and interesting stories that started this season have made way for confusion and chaos. Frank had such a fascinating story at the top of this year's episodes. He was trying to make a genuine go of it in society. He wanted to be a normal human being who contributed to society. He got a job and was trying to do things the right way. Things became chaotic and complicated once more once he started seducing the fellow parents at Liam's school. And now, all sense of him being rational and a person who plays by the rules are gone. That could be a profound statement. He wanted to be better as a way to say Monica was his problem all along. But now, he should be forced to look deep within and see his own personal responsibility for the crazy situations he has gotten in over the years. Now, he is a part of this new scheme that involves smuggling people across the Canadian border while bringing medicine back to the states. That's a transition that hasn't been all that smooth. But again, it's hard to be complacent because this is the direction Frank stories have always tended to go. He's not a character who would turn inward and reflect on the choices that he's made. He would just casually enter into these ridiculous situations to earn some money. He's willing to do anything with anyone. That could be endearing. He is helping these people after all. He could be seen as heroic. But the show mostly just wants to enjoy the humor of Frank mostly enjoying the money from some good hard work while also singing some Celine Dion and Justin Bieber. And if that's what musters as Canadian jokes, then the writers just really aren't inspired at the moment.

And then, the show just seems to be completely avoiding or ignoring all of the mystery it seemingly set up regarding what is going on with Ian. The past few episodes have made him a really difficult character to watch. He was holding this grudge with Fiona long past when he should. And now, he is still upset with her. There is simply no rational reason for him to still be this way. The show teased that something more may be going on with his mental state. That's a twist that was introduced that could reframe this entire story. But instead of putting more pressure on that, the show decides to take a weird turn with Ian confronting a gay conversion priest. Both Frank and Ian's stories are the show's attempt to be timely by highlighting the bigotry in the country at the moment. But again, there's just nothing inspired or new about the way Ian confronts the pastor by quoting scripture. Yes, it's painful sitting in that moment with Ian and Trevor as they are listening to this guy while being unable to help the girl he is traumatizing with his oppressive take on what women should do and look like. But the story also just has the sense of someone cramming for a big test the night before and getting lucky with a good grade. Ian isn't religious. But he is miraculously able to go toe-to-toe with the priest with scripture verses. All it took was one night of studying the Bible. That's enough for him to now be more famous because it leads to a video that gets posted online. It doesn't instantly go viral. But the kids at the shelter see it and appreciate it. But it never provides a feeling of long time success or interest. It mostly feels like momentary satisfying to distract from the fact that no one really knows anything about what they are talking about.

As is the case with the show as a whole, the effectiveness of any stretch of episodes ultimately rests on how well the audience is invested in whatever is going on with Lip and Fiona. And yes, their stories here are the most engaging and the most promising for the future. However, they are also incredibly erratic. It was particularly inevitable that Lip would go back to the first potential sponsor he met with - played by Lea DeLaria. The show offers some misdirection by having one of the other options played by a recognizable actor in Jack McGee. But it was always going to be that first one whom he returns to. She was the one saying what he needed to hear right now. It's unfortunate to say this but Lip has been lucky in his sobriety. He's had so much going on in his life that he hasn't felt the need to look within and reflect on the behavior that leads to him drinking. And now, she is calling him out for focusing on other people's problems instead of his own. That's not to say that the chaos in Brad, Sierra, Charlie and Youens' lives isn't important. The show has made them important characters over the years. But it's also important for Lip to have some distance from all of that and understand how he can better himself so that he can go the distance with sobriety. That's the purpose of Fiona's story as well. It's mostly tied up in her developing this romantic interest with Ford. That too was inevitable the moment he was introduced in the previous episode. This season is seemingly building to Fiona moving out on her for the rest time in her life. That has the feeling of being big and important even though she has lived away from the family before. All those previous times was for a boyfriend though. This time has the feeling of being different even though it isn't. The story is forcing her to be furious with her family because of all the chaos they bring to the house. That's one way for her to see the value in this new apartment. The smarter way probably would have been her just seeing it as the next logical step in a life that no longer needs to be looking after all of her siblings - even though she's still technically Carl and Liam's guardian. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Frank's Northern Southern Express" was written by Nancy M. Pimental and directed by Emmy Rossum.
  • It's just so false and frustrating that Fiona has absolutely no awareness of how complicated her life has always been. That's just such a weird moment that mostly exists to make her and Ford seem compatible in the end. He complains about it just so she can be surprised and fire it right back at him after she learns he's a sperm donor for several lesbian couples throughout the city - including Nessa and Mel.
  • It really is just casually assumed by everyone that Ian and Trevor are going to be a completely healthy and sexually active couple very soon. They still aren't technically dating. But they basically only interact with each other now. Ian is a little bit more compassionate and genuinely acting in the best interest of these teens. But that energy needs to be channeled in the right direction. Plus, it's completely a false coping mechanism for whatever he's actually struggling with at the moment.
  • Liam has been a kid and an afterthought on this show for so long that it's still so horrifying to see him be an interacting member of this family. But now, he's drinking a beer with Frank and taking sensual pictures of Debbie. Those are horrible moments that prove just how awful this family truly is. They don't have awareness of that whatsoever. They are all struggling to make it in the world having no clue just how destructive their actions are to each other.
  • It's a little problematic that Frank toasts his newfound financial success to "false fear." The fear that people of color feel in this world isn't false. It is absolutely real and terrifying. Frank can't relate to that even though he doesn't have any prejudices whatsoever. He is caring to others but is mostly interested in a good time or earning some money. He does form a connection with this group he takes over the border. But it's still mostly a job where he doesn't truly sympathize with the people he's helping against the many corrupt systems of this world.
  • The Kev and V story is basically just there. Those two frequently operate outside of the Gallaghers. That's been highlighted even more in the later seasons of the show. They don't interact with them as much anymore. But their subplots barely muster any kind of interest whatsoever. It was problematic that Kev could figure out how to dominate V without being interrupted by Svetlana last week. And now, Kev is just exerting that power to take back control of the Alibi. That's empowering here. But it should maybe have some consequences later on.