Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the high-quality shows being produced in recent years that raised our expectations considerably; maybe it’s just that some of the shows I normally look forward to have jumped the shark (or should have wrapped up sooner). Whatever it is, I am somehow finding a few of them a bit lackluster since they returned for their new seasons.

Shameless

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It’s no secret I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the most dysfunctional family on television stumble through life for the past few years. As we approach the end of its 7th season, the Gallaghers are still entertaining, but it feels like the magic has worn off.

On one hand, it’s understandable; there’s only so many things a character can do (or go through) before the entire plot is thrown off-balance. As creative as the writers are when it comes to devising new, impossible situations for the (sometimes) lovable white trash Gallagher clan, at some point it just becomes so over the top that it just stops being fun and crosses over to the ludicrous.

I don’t pretend to know the hardships of the South-Side-Chicago natives who basically had to raise themselves and received zero parental guidance and very little education along the way; nor can I identify with the realities of teenage pregnancy, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, drug addiction, juvenile detention or homelessness, to name but a few of the running themes of the show. What I definitely expect after 7 seasons (and several years) of watching these people make one disastrous mistake after another, however, is some character development that involves more than just becoming more and more unlikable with every decision they make. Is it too much to ask that they’ve actually learned something by their experiences?

Apparently, it is when it comes to Fiona, Lip and Debbie (and, of course, Frank), not to mention Kevin and Veronica, although there’s a case to be made for Carl and Ian.

With his stint in juvie behind him and his persistent wooing of Dominique finally paying off, Carl looked to be in a good place. Well, except rushing to get a circumcision at an age where boners are a dime and dozen and trying not to rip off your freshly sewn-up penis is torture. Even after finding out that the girl he mutilated himself for was cheating on him, Carl doesn’t revert to his old ways, but decides to heed her father’s advice and enrolls in military school. Although completely out of character, I can maybe buy that development as part of his quest to “become a man” (however, do military academies accept juvenile delinquents? Just asking). Hell, anything that keeps him away from his family home is a good thing.

Meanwhile, Ian, the one Gallagher kid who has a legitimate reason for being unstable, seems to be doing really well for himself. He’s got respectable, steady employment and, at least for a while, a couple of boyfriends who seem to genuinely care about him. I understand that, being the only gay male character on the show, he’s got the burden of dealing with various issues of the LGBT community, but the entire storyline with Trevor seems a bit too on the nose given the whole gender identity uproar that’s been in the spotlight lately. Did we really need Shameless to educate us on the confusing matter of transgender people picking one’s pronoun? Still, anything that might make close-minded viewers less bigoted is a good thing, so I’ll give that a pass.

The one person completely undeserving of one, however, is Debbie. The stupidity of insisting on becoming a teenage single mother notwithstanding (especially when the character in question has no maternal figure to emulate and is completely inexperienced and immature), she’s probably the one person in this entire family who makes one moronic decision after another. Last season’s hippie-compound-stint fiasco was nothing compared to the fact that she not only seeks advice from Frank, of all people, and completely disregards the only semi-normal surrogate mother she’s ever had, but also continues to find herself in increasingly difficult situations that are all of her own doing. Begging in the street, getting into fights with homeless people and shacking up with a brain-damaged 20something with impulse control issues was one thing, but involving her baby-daddy’s family in Frannie’s life was obviously a disaster waiting to happen, and yet she still reacts as though none of it could be helped. Man, I feel sorry for that kid.

Lip isn’t too high up the likability scale, either. Not only is he probably the most obnoxious character on the show, but something about the guy’s face makes me want to punch him in the nose. He returns from rehab only to resume drinking (in “moderation”, at least initially); he, once again, hooks up with the first girl he meets, assuming it is going to be a strictly casual thing that, of course, evolves into an actual relationship. (This pattern alone has been incredibly frustrating from the beginning, as there’s nothing about Lip’s character that makes him a catch – or is even objectively attractive in the first place – yet he somehow ends up with a number of partners who practically throw themselves at him. Someone please explain what it is about this guy, because I fail to see it.). He has to be persuaded to give college another shot when his professor manages to secure a hearing for his expulsion to be revoked, he does a lousy job at taking care of the family, and, when things don’t go his way, he once again lashes out in a violent outburst. If you can explain to me what makes Lip such a chick magnet, maybe you could also tell me why everyone is so adamant that he’s brilliant and a college education would be so beneficial when he obviously lacks the basic reasoning skills to make a single admirable decision.

Perhaps the one thing he’s right about – but goes about it in his usual arrogant, obnoxious way – is his disapproval of Fiona’s latest business venture (unsurprisingly, the only one who seems to think this is a good idea is her deadbeat father). The two older Gallagher children seem to have at least one thing in common: their incredibly flawed decision making process (or lack thereof). Although I can definitely get behind Fiona’s frustrated reaction to being the sole caretaker of her troubled siblings for years on end, I’m having a very hard time finding the merit of leaving Lip and Ian in charge. Her assumed indifference to Debbie’s woes only pushes her younger sister towards the wrong direction, and Lip is obviously not capable of looking after himself, let alone the entire family. With her love life in shambles and her friendship with Vee effectively ruined, Fiona finally decides to focus on work, and seems to make progress, which makes her impulsive purchase of the run-down laundromat even more puzzling. She discovers the one example of a rags-to-riches success story in her immediate environment and without any knowledge or experience of real estate or the business world, decides to follow in her boss’ footsteps. Even that I’ll buy. What I don’t get is why, given how she manages to turn the diner around, she doesn’t even attempt to buy the one business she already knows how to run and make profitable, and instead picks the first “opportunity” she comes across without even bothering to conduct even the most perfunctory research before diving in head first.

And then, of course, there’s Frank. One minute he’s kicked out on the curb, the next he’s the poster child for the DIY homeless shelter. His industrious journey from beggar to slavedriver was very short, but of course, even when his get-rich-quick scheme naturally backfires, he manages to pick himself up once again. His improbable resilience and cunning ways make him simultaneously immensely entertaining and the most unbelievable character on a TV comedy/drama, but it is ultimately his few shining moments of caring, amidst every self-serving act, that humanize and redeem him, even for a few minutes: his misguided attempt to help Debbie with the pregnancy last season and his equally tactless way of ruining his daughter’s wedding; his successful badgering of the private school principal that gets Liam enrolled; more recently, his rare tender moment with Fiona when he approves of her business venture at the laundromat. Although I understand that Frank needs these few instances in order to walk the line between being truly despicable (albeit hilarious) and somewhat likable, his entire story arc is not only completely unrealistic, but also conveniently shifting according to whichever plot line the show needs to advance. The show forces Frank’s “brilliant mind” down our throats; his supposed intelligence (which is really just ingenuity borne of extreme selfishness) might make him entertaining, but fails to explain how he can be utterly oblivious to the fact that his children hate him for very real, significant reasons.

Finally, there’s our favorite love triangle between Kevin, Vee and Svetlana. The unlikely arrangement is brought to whole new levels of weird this season, first with the ‘titty cleaning service‘ and the lewd and tacky van (anyone else get reminded of Phoebe’s catering van from Friends?), then with Svetlana’s russian father who turned out to be her husband, and generally with the inexplicable marriage situation between those three. Again, the most unlikely character, Kevin, is the one to get creeped out first, while Vee, who seemed to have a semi-firm grasp on reality during those first few seasons, is completely derailed now. Are we really supposed to believe that a former whore is a math savant or that Vee is so in love with her she’s willing to ignore the multiple red flags?

And let’s not forget the return of Monica this week – how many seasons has it been since we last saw the crazy absentee mom? No matter: she’s back and doing her best to turn every Gallagher family member’s world upside down. Aren’t these people in deep enough shit already?

Sigh. I guess it’s unfair to criticize such an outrageous show for not being realistic, but am I mistaken in remembering it being far more rooted in reality during its initial run? Or has it just lost its magic as the originality started to fade? Whatever it is, the show just doesn’t feel unique anymore, but, rather, a parody of its former self. Luckily, it’s still quite entertaining, so take my comments with a grain of salt.


The Affair

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You know a show is in trouble when it takes an extra-long “previously on…” sequence in its premiere to refresh the viewers’ memories of its previous season and you’re still having a hard time remembering what the hell happened. And yes, I was paying attention. I spent weeks recapping the damn thing, for Pete’s sake. And it still took me a few minutes to figure out where we left off and where we are now.

The Affair takes a page out of (almost) every show on TV and goes for the time jump, which is a bit confusing at first. Last we saw Noah et al, he was pleading guilty to Scotty’s murder; this season, he’s recently been released after serving a 3 year sentence. I’m a little disappointed that they went for the easy “look how much this character has changed” cliché of having Noah grow a beard to symbolize whatever character development we’re supposed to assume he has undergone during his stint in prison, but it does make him look a bit frightening – albeit far from a hardened criminal – so I’ll give it a pass.

The season premiere strays from its usual split-perspective motif and focuses on Noah – it’s always been about him anyway. He’s sullen and much less eloquent than we remember, but he still has no trouble being unnecessarily cruel – this time the object of his snark is a female student at the university where he now teaches part-time (and he briefly finds his former way with words as he berates her writing assignment). It isn’t explained why any reputable university would hire an ex-con straight after his release, nor do we find out what happened to the sizable chunk of money he made off his sensational novel that would require him to stay with his sister and her apparently douchey husband.

To compound his misery further, his father just died, his oldest son is giving him the silent treatment, he’s popping painkillers for some mysterious shoulder injury, and he’s constantly jittery and scared of some shadowy figure who keeps following him around. None of this stops him from jumping into bed with the charming french professor he meets at the school, of course, but every single scene with him and Juliette leaves me cold. Maybe it’s the fact that her class is held in a chapel; maybe it’s the entire dinner scene and the conversation about courtly love between a handful of her students. Do professors routinely invite students over to discuss consent or the plight of a female in a male-dominated world? Not in my experience, but I never went to whichever NJ college employs famour writers fresh out of prison.

Alison is AWOL in the season premiere, but Helen is there to receive the bulk of Noah’s ire. Not entirely undeservedly, mind you: he DID spend 3 years of his life in prison for a crime she committed, after all. From the flashbacks we can gather that her initial visits went a hell of a lot better than those later on, but what is certain is that his kids aren’t there to see him. As viewers, up until now the show had trained us to dislike Noah for his selfish behavior, for being a deadbeat husband and an absentee father, and for generally treating Helen like crap. The plot twist in last year’s finale, however, and the revelations that led to Noah’s decision to take the fall for both Helen and Alison, was substantial enough to tip the scales in his favor. Sure, he’s always been a dick, but serving three years in prison – at the peak of his career, no less – for a crime he didn’t commit instantly redeems him in my eyes. Homicide (accidental or not) trumps infidelity every single time.

But what about Helen? As the scorned wife and mother, she earned our sympathy in seasons past, but nothing about her was ever truly likable to begin with. She may have been the ‘victim’, but she was never sympathetic in her own right. In the season premiere, we see her visit Noah more out of a sense of duty than because of genuine concern. As guilty as he felt for what he put her through, she’s feeling just as guilty for allowing her innocent (of this crime, anyway) ex husband to go to jail in her place, especially when she sees the injuries he sustains while locked up. But does she feel guilty enough to bring her children along for a visit? No. Does she feel guilty enough to come clean to their kids about what really happened, and make them hate their father less? No – and that’s what I find truly horrible. She quickly gives up on her half-baked attempt at explaining the situation to Whitney when she realizes those half-truths don’t get her anywhere; she tries to force Martin to speak to his father, knowing full well he has no real reason to even want a relationship with Noah any more. Meanwhile, she’s in a new relationship, enjoying her freedom, making progress at work, and her only concession towards redeeming herself are the weekly visits to see her incarcerated ex, who doesn’t really want to see her in her first place.

Maybe it’s the fact that, like Lip Gallagher, Helen just has one of those faces I want to punch. Or maybe it’s the fact that she sits idly by while her husband does penance for both their sins, not only in the eyes of the law, but their children as well, and wants to talk about “us” when she shows up at his father’s funeral.

While Noah deals with the shadowy figure that may or may not be his prison guard (none other than Brendan Fraser, and boy has time been unkind to him!) and may or may not be the one stabbing him in the neck at the end of the episode, the second episode finds Alison returning to Montauk. Everyone seems surprised to see her after a 6-month absence, and we have to wait until she talks to Oscar, of all people, to find out where she’s been.

Cole is not terribly excited to see her return, especially since she seems to have vanished into thin air and never even bothered to pick up the phone and let him know she was ok. Totally understandable reaction, given that he was the one taking care of Joanie the entire time (along with his new wife Luisa, of course, who’s none too happy to see Alison, either). So where exactly was she? Alison doesn’t go into specifics, but she was apparently in therapy at some vague psychiatric institution. What’s interesting isn’t that she was in treatment or even that she was MIA for six months without even checking in with her daughter; that only makes her even less likable than she was before. The interesting part is what triggered this stint at the loony bin: Joanie got sick, she wasn’t getting better; it was around her 4th birthday, which is when her firstborn died. She became convinced her daughter would suffer the same fate if she were around and decided to get help.

Okay, two problems with that: First of all, did Joanie never get sick before? How did she handle every single illness common to babies and toddlers in the past? More importantly, it’s been years since her son died. It was a terribly traumatic experience that tore her up, ruined her marriage and generally left her completely broken. Why is this the first time she sought professional help? And if she WAS receiving help during these months, which means someone was supposedly doing their best to convince her that no, Joanie wouldn’t die if she gave some sign of life, why the hell did she not call her own daughter even once during the six months she was away? Much as I try to be sympathetic to what is obviously a very damaged individual, taking off like that and just believing she can just pick up where she left off not only justifiably makes Cole not trust her, but also makes it really hard for the viewer to warm up to her.

Secondly, the whole custody thing just makes no sense to me. Aside from the fact that the timing of her revelation to Cole that Joanie is, in fact, his baby suggests that it was a decision made merely of convenience now that Noah was gone, wouldn’t Cole want shared custody of his own kid, especially since Luisa couldn’t have any? Why didn’t they make such an arrangement before she fled, leaving sole custody to him?

Ah, who am I kidding? I’m never going to understand the way Alison operates, nor her motivation for half the things she does. I am curious, however, to find out where she and Noah left things off before he went to prison. Why the no-contact clause?

And one more gripe: I know Joanie is very young, but I’m pretty sure that if my mom just disappeared on me for several months, most of which I spent crying myself to sleep, I wouldn’t just rush to hug her when she finally decided to show up. The kid is definitely old enough to have known her mother was gone and to be upset about it, so isn’t she even slightly angry at her? I’ve seen kids her age throw tantrums for much more trivial reasons. Apparently, however, Alison has no such concerns, as we watch her decorate her daughter’s room in her new home and paint it her (new) favorite color.

Frankly, I don’t really care much about that plot line either way. The show was interesting because of, you know, THE AFFAIR, the relationship dynamic and its effects on the lives of everyone involved. The flashbacks were interesting because they gave us insight into the characters’ actions and motivations and back stories. With all of that behind us, I can’t help but see it as yet another downer of a story about people whose lives have come apart, and I’m not sure I want to invest in something like that any more. Especially since we spent the better part of a season on a murder mystery only to be introduced to what appears to be a new (attempted, I presume) murder mystery as we jump into the new season.

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