When I look back at the year past, I see fear, sadness and frustration in the lives of so many around us. At the same time, I also see a zealous leap at life taken by everyone to make things right, to set the world back on its original path. The American TV series Shameless, which is in the final season of its run, is an attempt to distil the year 2020 and present to the audience its essence – showing both the frustration and the fight to overcome it.
The first two episodes are out, and it is crystal clear that the showrunners want to make a mark as Shameless ends its 11-year long journey. Ostensibly, the season was to go on air in summer 2020, but the pandemic pushed back the shooting and airing schedule. The writers of the show seem to have used the lockdown period well to make this season all about what the world is going through, what Chicago – where the show is based – is going through. Indeed, at times, it feels as if the writers are really taking out their frustration at the pandemic and the way in which it was dealt with in the US (this is especially clear when the first episode ends with a sincere “fuck 2020” graffiti!). Shameless season 11 makes the pandemic a plot point, perhaps even a villainous character in itself. Therefore, even though the past storylines of Shameless have been somewhat distant from reality – at least my reality – the way these first two episodes have been written and shot makes you feel like you are in the real world. The characters are braving the pandemic, as are the actors and crew members shooting the show, as are the people watching it now. It is refreshing to see most, if not all, characters unapologetically (and responsibly) appear on the screen with their masks on (except in indoor scenes). It is worth noting that a lot of the show is shot on location in Chicago, and this particular season began shooting in September this year. So, roping in COVID-19 to play the villain was probably not a choice but a necessity for the showrunners. Regardless, the show’s depiction of the pandemic is laudable, particularly given the recent new upsurge in COVID-19 cases in Chicago and elsewhere in the US.
In a way, one could say that the writers of Shameless owed this sensitivity to the working class and the sections of the society to which their characters belong, for they have been among the most badly affected by the pandemic – Carl, a police officer; Debbie, a handyman; Kevin and Veronica, bar owners; Lip, a mechanic; Ian, who is working at a grocery warehouse; and Frank, who is practically homeless and mostly living on the streets. No wonder the first two episodes are replete with references to police officers who lost their lives to corona; to stores, restaurants and bars being shut due to a series of government shutdowns; to people being forced to take up odd jobs to earn a living; to mothers reminding their kids not to forget to wear their masks at school; to classes being disrupted every week due to shutdowns; to kids adapting to online classes; to socially distant weddings in which the “bride and groom kissed each other with their masks on” and so on. The characters also show an age-old familiarity with the coronavirus situation. Kevin is already colloquialising “corona” as “’rona” in one scene while in another, Tami is talking about how she has already had the infection and does not want to catch “that shit again”.
Shameless has always been ‘real’ in a weird way. It has never been cosmetic. That some things may not look ‘good’ on screen has never deterred the showrunners from doing their own thing and coming up with crazier plotlines every season. In being real, Shameless has also been the torchbearer for many socio-political issues, making strong, well-reasoned statements about race, poverty, class differences, pay parity, gender equality, gender identity, LGBTQ+ rights, marijuana legalisation, gentrification, convict re-employment and so on. So, it is only fitting that this season has also started on the same note, with each episode becoming more of a didactic social commentary than ever before. Many characters, even primary school kids (Liam), can be seen stating facts – political or social – successfully shaming those who choose to ignore the issues faced by the grassroots every single day. What is different is that this time, as Shameless characters continue to discuss relevant social issues, is that they have also accepted the COVID-19 situation for what it is and are now teaching us how to behave in public amid the raging pandemic. These characters, who have always been (and still are) too far from being able to be called ‘responsible’ in their individual lives, are surprisingly and delightfully responsible in the COVID-19 situation, which just makes you love their quirks even more.
The pandemic is so organically woven into this season that the writers managed to keep the character trajectories from last season pretty much intact. Even the minor changes that have taken place are quite easily justified. For instance, since the show’s release got pushed back by six months, so did the timeline in the characters’ world – this season’s story begins six months after the last one ended. Plus, since the world has gotten so used to seeing masks and face shields on everyone’s faces, it is not distracting to see the show’s characters wear masks. Rather, masked actors in Shameless season 11 show us that the world created in this series has readily accepted the new normal when most other content creators in the world are still trying to push a fantasy that the audience is hopefully too sharp to accept. Yet, you do get to see all kinds of people in the pandemic, and the characters in the show are no different. There are people who can only wear a mask below the nose (Mickey), those who simply never wear a mask (and even call corona “a hoax” – Frank) and those who almost always wear a mask (Carl). The first two episodes show that masks can be so much more than shields against the coronavirus – they can also be sharp arrows against injustice. We see this as a young Liam sports a ‘Black Lives Matter’ mask while sincerely asking a classmate to “back up, keep your distance” to maintain social distancing. On a lighter note, the masks even serve up some comedy, such as in a courtroom scene in which Carl is testifying under oath and has to lie but he cannot manage to keep a straight face underneath his mask. Of course, the genre and overarching themes of Shameless allow the writers to delve deep into reality and ‘let’ their characters wear masks all the time. But seeing as many TV shows shot post-COVID-19 (including ‘reality’ TV shows being shot on the streets with crowds around) are still pretending that nothing happened, this season of Shameless is a breath of fresh air.
I would confess though that while I have always liked Shameless, I have never been able to relate to it. In this season, however, for the first time in the run of this show, I see my own world – parts of it, at least. And perhaps many others may see that too. This season is set to give you the truth and nothing but the truth, which makes it quite the essence of 2020. It is a panoramic exemplar of what we as a species have suffered through this past year, and how we are now leading our lives on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an audacious, funny and thought-provoking testament to our adaptability and strength. More than anything, it is a reminder that sometimes you do not need a fantasy to help you escape the troubled world around you, sometimes, you need to pull up your socks and dive into it all by being real. And it certainly gives you strength to see that your favourite characters – characters you have been following for over a decade – are also coming to terms with this pandemic with you, like you, as you. This is what makes Shameless season 11 the best show of 2020 for me.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.