This is no tea party.

After watching the third season of Showtime’s Shameless, I mostly enjoyed it, but it left me with this hollow feeling. The show delivered on its promise of lots of crazy stuff happening, but didn’t give any sense that the overall arc, if there is one, was going anywhere.

Life is surprisingly good for the outrageous Gallagher family. Responsible older sister Fiona (Emma Rossum, The Phantom of the Opera) has landed a great job with good pay and insurance, not to mention a handsome new boss. Teen genius Lip (Jeremy Allen White) has started his first year of college, getting adjusted to dorm life. Younger siblings Debbie (Emma Kenney) and Carl (Ethan Cutcosky) are riding the puberty roller coaster, with new romances and experiences. Neighbors Kevin (Steve Howey, Stan Helsing) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton, You Again) have a baby on the way.

That just leaves drunken patriarch Frank (William H. Macy, Fargo). Suffering from severe liver damage, Frank is on the verge of death. In seeking help, he reveals that there is another Gallagher.

After three seasons of crime, lewdness, and self-destructive behavior, life has finally caught up with the Gallagher family. We’ve seen them work the system to their advantage, we’ve seen them use their street smarts to get out of seemingly inescapable scrapes, and we’ve seen them solve problems in horrific ways that most of us normal folks wouldn’t dream of. Not even the over-the-top Gallagher clan can maintain such a lifestyle for long. There’s one biggie that even they can’t talk their way out of — everybody’s getting older.

A lot of TV shows that have kid characters never know what to do when the cast gets older. Shameless, however, makes that the theme of the entire season. With age comes change, and four years into the show, we finally see change entering these characters’ lives in a big way. Some have babies, some mature, some become frustrated adults, and at least one is on a deathbed. After all the crazy schemes and impossible romantic entanglements, the characters are now facing the harsh realities of who they are and everything they’ve done. Some might think that this makes the show too sad or downbeat, but the injection of some real humanity into these people is what Shameless needs.

Starting with the younger members of the cast, Debbie and Carl have gone from supporting characters to major players. Debbie chases after boys and it endlessly curious about sex, which leads to much awkwardness. Actress Emma Kenney successfully sells the teen heartache. It’s Ethan Cutcosky as Carl, though, who is the real revelation this season. Rather than be an unstoppable little rage monster, Carl now has some real depth to him. He develops connections to others, including an equally troubled girl and especially with Frank. Carl continually sticks by Frank’s side when the rest of the family has given up on him, and this, more than anything else, reveals Carl to be more than just a thug.

Although Shameless has always had one foot deep in the comedy genre, this season features a great amount of sadness, and that’s mostly thanks to Frank. He spends most of the season on the verge of death, with the feeling that he could go at any time. Nonetheless, Frank is still Frank, and his goal remains the unchanged — to keep the booze flowing while doing as little work as possible. This is what brings previously unheard-of Gallagher sibling Samantha (Emily Bergl, The Rage: Carrie 2) into the picture. Samantha grew up without a father and develops a strong attachment to Frank, which the near-dead Frank uses to his advantage. The threat of dying, and all the big emotion that comes with it, gives William H. Macy a lot to work with. Excellent that he is, he runs with it, crafting some of the series’ most powerful scenes to date.

Speaking of sadness, the writers really put Fiona through the wringer this season. She starts the season with a great new job and a “nice guy” boyfriend, only to make a bunch of bad decisions to have the whole come crashing down around her. This might frustrate longtime fans, who have gotten used to Fiona being the “good one.” It goes back to the idea of everyone getting older. Now that most of the family is old enough to be able to take care of themselves, Fiona is for the first time free to pursue her own interests. With that newfound freedom, Fiona almost immediately turns to self-destructive behavior, landing her deeper and deeper trouble. Is this in character? Is it out of character? It’s debatable. There’s a lot of talk this season about Fiona being an “addict,” whether in relation to recreational substances, or to the overall insane Gallagher lifestyle. Viewers are left with a big question mark over Fiona, reevaluating just who this character is. As of this writing, a fifth season is on its way, so we can only hope Fiona’s journey can continue.

This is a busy season, with a variety of other storylines to follow. Now at college, Lip has gone from being the smart one to being surround a bunch of other smart ones — something I think a lot of current and former college freshmen can relate to. Kevin and Veronica face financial and multiple baby-makin’ woes, but these make them almost normal compared to other characters. Also of note is Mickey (Noel Fisher, Battle: Los Angeles) who, separated from Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan, Vampire Academy), finds himself growing and changing, while still being the same source of furious anger he’s always been. Praise for Noel Fisher for finding the right balance so his character can move forward without destroying what made the character memorable to being with.

The entire fourth season is on this set on two Blu-rays and again on three DVDs, making for five discs total. Production values are high, and the lossless 5.1 audio and 1080p HD video are stellar, rich with detail and balance. The only extras are some short featurettes and some deleted scenes.

If you’ve stuck with Shameless for this long, you’ll be glad to know this season provides some of the big emotional turns you’ve been expecting since the beginning. You also know what to expect from the overall so-trashy-it’s-good vibe.

verdict

No shame in that. Not guilty.

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