‘Shameless’ Season 11: Not Even the Pandemic Can Make the Gallaghers Less Scrappy and Hilariously Flawed

Showtime’s “Shameless” is back for an 11th and final season by proving why we have always needed this show. It is American working class life with raw humor and zero sense of political correctness. The first shot of the season premiere is inside a rickety bathroom where Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) stands in front of a urinal, snickering at us for being dismissive of essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s right, the show makes no effort to ignore the events of the last year. The show instead dives right into them. We should have never expected anything less. The pandemic has exasperated those many realities of proletarian American life: Jobs are scarce, money is nonexistent and if hustling means having the kids roll joints to sell, so be it.

After Frank’s urinal opening recapping the events of last season, he goes into a monologue describing how the Gallaghers have been at the forefront of Chicago history. They arrived as Irish immigrants without a penny to their name and were somehow connected to every major historical event, ranging from Al Capone to the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. They used to own many businesses but that’s all gone, even more so with the rise of gentrification. But now everyone is taking a hit with the economic fallout from the pandemic. We then catch up with the South Side Gallagher clan. Debbie (Emma Kenney) is now a registered sex offender after her love triangles last season ended with the dumb mistake of falling into a fling with a girl who turned out to be 17. Making it worse, her mug shot looks weirdly provocative because of her cleavage. With the pandemic shutting down bars, Kev (Steve Howey) and V (Shanola Hampton) are taking advantage of marijuana legalization to start their own weed distribution business at home, without a license. Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and Tami (Kate Miner) are now living in the rundown house Lip found and are losing sleep with a teething baby keeping them awake most nights. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) is ready to graduate from the police academy but is soon introduced to the ways of police corruption by his superiors. And newly-wed Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and Mickey (Noel Fisher) start having fights over that most challenging of all marital issues, money.

No other show combines uncomfortable family dysfunction with endearing family ties like “Shameless.” Its crudeness and empathy give it a realism that makes the humor both genuinely funny but also challenging. The Gallaghers’ scrappy members are nowhere near perfect, and like Debbie last season, can make some truly stupid (in her case, gross) decisions. But that’s also life, imperfect, disappointing and sometimes hopeful. This season opener, entitled “This Is Chicago!” is both an update on the Gallaghers and a meditation on a community getting through the pandemic. Frank is never interacting with the other family members for the entire episode. Instead he wanders down Chicago streets, drink in hand, with an indie documentarian following him around with a camera, wondering if any of Frank’s yarns are fact. Frank laments the old stores are closing and “hipster” ones are coming in for people driving Priuses. Loveably cranky Frank joins characters from much different shows like “Vida” watching their old communities disappear. He also hilariously insists the Gallaghers single-handedly built the city.

The rest of the gang gets updates that range from dark comedy to simple sweetness. Lip and Tami seem to be handling family life well even if they’re getting no rest. Lip even finds a way for them to alternate sleeping at the Gallagher home while one parent stays at their new place with the baby. He’s greatest challenge in this episode is getting the right paint for the house. Lip is in a sense coming into his own as a model for the other Gallaghers, who have always acknowledged they didn’t have decent adult role models when growing up. Ian has to approach him soon for advice because he’s beginning to realize marriage comes with its own, delicate complications. He wants to save to buy a house, while Mickey prefers to splurge their savings. What makes it worse is that Mickey never consults with Ian and leaves their savings box stuffed with IOUs. They say you don’t really get to know someone until you live with them. This truth is doubled when it comes to having to share.

While the episode has some truly funny moments like bar patrons trying out V’s weed brownies and gummy bears, the writing really pushes it with the Debbie storyline. Out on probation for statutory rape, she nonetheless still puts together a plumbing business. Her slogan is a bit ill-conceived (“Debbie Does Everything!”) but she’s determined to succeed. Then, when she checks how she’s listed as a sex offender, it turns out the information is all wrong. Her accuser is even listed as a 7-year-old, not 17. This is the kind of dark humor you need to write extremely well or it can fall horribly flat. It comes across as another case of Gallagher bad luck resulting from previous, dumb choices. Yet somehow Debbie makes it work by turning her risqué mug shot into an online rallying cry against defamation.

The episode closes with the Gallaghers gathering for pizza and fried chicken at Lip and Tami’s place. As Frank explains, in the end this is what life in the South Side is all about, your family and clan. We’ve been following these scrappers for over a decade now through highs and lows, eternal lack of personal growth and surprising successes. We keep coming back because of how imperfect they are. Now they’re joining us in a world turned upside down by the pandemic for their final bow. Now typical Gallagher moments, like Lip buying paint or Tami at work feature face shields, masks and social distancing. It is more than fitting.  There are few TV families we would rather endure the ongoing crisis with than this unsavory bunch

.“Shameless” season eleven premieres Dec. 6 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.