The Best (and Worst) of Showtime’s “Shameless”

Since premiering in January of 2011, the U.S. adaptation of Shameless (based on the successful British show) has made us laugh, cry, gasp, and fall deeply, irreversibly in love with the scrappy Gallagher family – warts and all. For all its over-the-top schemes and its obvious love for shocking its audience, the show brings some much-needed attention to the struggles faced by American families who are barely getting by. While deadbeat dad Frank (William H. Macy) may be the lynchpin of the family and the show, the true heroes are the kids, including noble step-in mother figure Fiona (Emmy Rossum), slacker genius Lip (Jeremy Allen White), and our personal favorite, gay aspiring soldier Ian (Cameron Monaghan).

Picking the top five episodes was pretty tough, because even mediocre Shameless is generally pretty awesome television. But here are five eps that were strongest in capturing the magical mayhem that is the Gallagher clan… as well as one that missed the mark.

Top 5

5. “Cascading Failures” – Season 3, Episode 6

Episode 306

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This episode may seem like an odd pick, but it managed to beautifully showcase two of the show’s strongest assets: the tension between Fiona and Frank and the ongoing story of Ian, the Gayest Little Ginger in South Side. Being Shameless, it is a rather nauseating turn of events on both fronts. First, Fiona – who has been barely evading forced workplace sexual servitude at the supermarket – has to quit her job because she was late for work dealing with Social Services, who just packed up and took away her siblings like a cardboard box filled with kittens. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) and Liam are placed with a couple of “gay robots,” which is rather amusing, and Debs (Emma Kenney) is placed into a foster home that is really a basement sweat shop. (Kev, meanwhile, starts having sex with V’s mom – with her in the room – to try to get pregnant. Let’s not forget that little gem.) In the end, a desperate Fiona visits Brittany from Social Services to try to get her siblings back or at least find out who ratted them out, and Brittany – bless! – lets Fiona listen to the recorded call that dropped the hammer on the Gallaghers… and it was placed by Frank himself. Ouch. The look on Fiona’s face is PRICELESS, and we know a whole new level of war has been waged.

Meanwhile, Ian and Mickey “Dirtiest White Boy in America” Milkovich (Noel Fisher) are taking every opportunity they have to consummate their alabaster teenage love together, with the help of some seriously alarming sex toys. But things get even dicier when Mickey’s dirtbag father walks in on them, beats the crap out of Ian, and hires a very sad-looking prostitute to “f*ck the f*ggot” out of his son, making Ian watch. It’s terrible. It’s brutal. And it’s so squarely in the corner of these two gay misfits that it breaks your heart into about a million pieces.

4. “Just Like the Pilgrims Intended” – Season 2, Episode 11


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The penultimate episode of Season 2 is the perfect example of the show’s penchant for a pre-finale sucker punch: in this cataclysmic ep, Monica (Chloe Webb) attempts suicide in the kitchen during Thanksgiving dinner, Ian meets and sleeps with hot daddy Lloyd (Harry Hamlin) for the first time (not realizing that he is Jimmy’s dad), Lip backs out of a robbery in the hopes of being a better father than his was, and Karen (Laura Slade Wiggins) has her baby… which is both Asian and has Down Syndrome. This means both that it is not Lip’s kid and that the adoptive parents who were arranged to take the baby no longer want it. And, being Karen, neither does Karen. OUCH. Thankfully, Karen’s floridly insane mom, Sheila (Joan Cusack) is waiting in the wings to steal the baby out of the hospital to keep for herself. The fact that all of this happened around a dead bald eagle is in no way meant to be a commentary on the American dream, nosiree.

3. “Nana Gallagher Had an Affair” – Season 1, Episode 10


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Otherwise known as “the one with the Purity Ball,” this late-Season-1 episode was strong on drama, thanks to: Monica’s trying to take away baby Liam after proving that Frank isn’t his father, which doesn’t go as planned; Frank’s using an injured Carl in an insurance scam and getting punched in the face by Lip; Sheila’s kicking Eddie out of the house only to discover that her agoraphobia is waning; and of course GI Ginger Ian’s breaking down and telling Lip that he’s gay and has been balling Mickey, who has just been shot by his boss and ex-lover. The scene of Ian visiting Mickey in juvie and getting snapped at for touching the bulletproof glass in between him and his boyfriend is pretty priceless. Oh, and Ian learns that Frank is not his biodad, which leads to a shift in theĀ  family dynamic. But the centerpiece of this Edible Arrangement of Pure Wrong is the Purity Ball scene, where Karen – having been bribed into attending by her father with the promise of a car – has to stand up in front of her friends and their dads and detail her sexual history in the name of father-daughter trust. It’s so hilarious and horrible at the same time, and the reaction it gets from her father – “WHORES DON’T GET CARS!” – is pretty much the launchpad for two seasons of one of the most damaged, infuriating, and masterfully manipulative characters on television (seriously, she’s a doozy). It also spells curtains for Eddie (who kills himself two episodes later), but let’s face it, he was on borrowed time anyway with these lunatics.


Up Next: The very best (and worst) of Shameless!

2. “Hurricane Monica” – Season 2, Episode 9


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While this episode may not have boasted any huuuuuge plot developments or shocking twists, it is a solid showcase for some of the show’s strongest featured performers. Sheila Jackson is in fine form, believing that her house is being haunted by Eddie’s ghost (when it’s really just Lip living in Karen’s room in secret), and it’s in this episode that she takes things to the “Kiss from a Rose” level with Jody (Zack McGowan), the beautiful idiot that he is. But mostly this episode is all about the intoxicating, chaotic force that is Monica, the kids’ mother. Whenever she arrives it’s like hitting the RESET button on everyone’s life – and this episode, with all its crazy all-night parties and revelry, gives us a shot of bittersweet good cheer right in the arm. That this is the second episode on this list to feature Mr. Milkovich beating up poor Ian (whom Monica amusingly and touchingly takes to his first gay bar) is entirely an accident, I swear.


1. “Survival of the Fittest” – Season 3, Episode 12

Episode 312

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This past season the show did the unthinkable: it followed up an expectedly excellent 11th episode with an even better finale. It was a great episode because it gave us a little closure and a whole lot of uncertainty for almost everyone, which of course was all wrapped up in the show’s standard mix of head-shaking wrongness and unbridled, manic glee. Fiona and Jimmy/Steve (Justin Chatwin) finally called it quits (well, because Jimmy got carted off and murdered by Estefania’s father, but don’t tell Fiona that – Beto didn’t!) and Fiona advanced in her new, legit job; Frank’s hard living reached a new plateau; Lip realized that crazy Mandy was really doing it all for his benefit as he decides to actually apply himself; Ian and Mickey had a restrained but tearful farewell (“… Don’t”) before Ian snuck into the Army using Lip’s identity; and Karen, Jody and Hymie rode off into the sunset like the perfectly insane little family that they are. It’s anyone’s guess where all this will lead for our fantastically fractured family in Season 4, and we can’t wait.

Bottom 1

1. “Can I Have a Mother” – Season 2, Episode 6


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Again, pretty much any Shameless is good Shameless, so it’s not like “Can I Have a Mother” was scraping the bottom of the barrel or anything. But the first half of Season 2 was a rather weak stretch, all things considered, and this serviceable but filler-ish ep was the least memorable of the bunch. While we love seeing Louise Fletcher in anything, the Gran storyline was low-hanging fruit (at least it was short) and focused on one of the show’s blind spots: the irredeemable Frank Gallagher. Mormon castaway Ethel’s departure was long overdue (especially considering she was just a plot device to get Kev and V thinking about having kids) and there wasn’t much else going on that wasn’t pretty basic housekeeping. Which, of course, is something the Gallagher house is always behind on.

Now it’s your turn – what were your Shameless faves and flops? Sound off in the comments!

Shameless returns Sunday, January 12th at 9pm ET/PT


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Writer-filmmaker Brian Juergens launched, the world's first website devoted to horror films from a gay perspective, in 2003.