Without its Jewish heart, Showtime’s ‘Shameless’ lost its greatness and overall purpose

Editor’s note: If you are planning to watch “Shameless” this story contains some mild spoilers.

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Chuck Hodes/SHOWTIME

Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher in Shameless (Season 8, episode 12) – Photo: Chuck Hodes/SHOWTIME – Photo ID: shameless_812_c4072

DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

Television shows rarely age well, especially after they turn eight or nine years old. What was once fresh turns stale and characters start to act like carousels, reverting back to the same behavior and gimmicks, which weakens the storylines. Showtime’s “Shameless” went on too long, but it really lost its luster when Jewish actress, Emmy Rossum, left the show after the ninth season.

Evidence of the show’s demise was clear as day when the 11th and final season came and went earlier this spring. Did you hear a single thing about the show — which was adapted from a British series, ala “The Office,” by “E.R.” creator John Wells — back in March and April? There wasn’t a peep. A show about the heavily dysfunctional yet lovable Gallaghers, a Southside Chicago family coming-of-age rapidly in a broken-down home with an alcoholic father (the incredible Bill Macy), one that took home Emmy awards and was critically acclaimed for a long time, basically disappeared without a trace. Without Rossum’s Fiona, the oldest in a family of several siblings and de facto mom of the house, the purpose and overall existence of the show lost a lot of weight in its swing.

You no longer cared as much about Macy’s Frank and all of his shenanigans, whether it be betraying or stabbing his family in the back for a load of cash or a free score of drugs. Jeremy Allen White, who stood out in a crowded cast, kept spinning in circles as “the young Frank,” even as he got his life together. Ethan Cutkosky’s Carl, the youngest felon in Chicago and a former drug dealer, became a cop in the final season — something the writers didn’t take seriously — which led to viewers not taking him seriously. In the end, even as the characters grew, the show ran in circles, especially without Rossum.

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One of the few cast members (along with Macy) who was semi-established when the show launched 10 years ago, Rossum always carried the most interesting storylines. The writers clearly tailored the show to her life and not just Frank’s adventures. If the series had a compass, it was Rossum, who came into her own in the movies, while giving Emmy-worthy performances each season as a young woman who had to skip a normal childhood to take care of her younger siblings. We see her go from a nightclub one-night stand with a guy named Steve (Justin Chatwin) in the pilot to a woman who blew through several jobs and opportunities, before finding a way out. Everything about Rossum was authentic. Everything that came after her departure felt like a forced sitcom parody of a previously great show. Even the comic relief of the show, Steve Howry and Shanola Hampton’s Gallagher neighbors Kevin and Veronica, couldn’t produce even a few laughs towards the end.

For close to nine seasons, “Shameless” was one of the few shows that could present a well-written comedic setup, but switch gears in a second and level you with a dramatic storyline. Denis Leary’s “Rescue Me” could do it equally as well, mixing laughs and hardcore emotions inside a handful of scenes, but that was about it. Wells’ show, which launched off Paul Abbott’s original concept, could make you laugh out loud before shocking you. When that left, along with its merst vertful (most valuable) cast member, “Shameless” became recycled goods, yanking out old plot threads to pump up an idea that had dried out.

Part of the final season’s miss of the mark was laid on COVID-19 and the pandemic that shut down Hollywood and just about every production. There was a rumor about Rossum returning briefly. Maybe they would have made the final few episodes carry some impact, but I have my doubts. I think she recognized that the car was driving a little differently, not running as smoothly, and decided to jump off the ship.

It’s harder for fans of a series to suddenly stop watching though. It’s not a contract and money to us. The bond between a viewer and a made-up series that really reminds one of his or her childhood can go on–just not here. And I will admit that I allowed the show to come and go before binging the final round. All of it wasn’t bad. The final 20 minutes of the series finale packed a punch in certain moments, especially during a scene with Lip and his younger brother, Ian (Cameron Monaghan). The show ends with Macy’s Frank talking to the audience, which is how it began. That’s fitting, if not a little fleeting as well.

Counter argument. The show was never meant to rely on one person or cast member. An ensemble show should run ahead of even its strongest element, right? Wrong. Would you have watched “Mad Men” if Jon Hamm had checked out early, or cared as much? Probably not. Every television show that does revolve around a group of actors still leans towards one of them with its stories and mission.

Without its Jewish heart, “Shameless” became just another television show in a sea of entertainment. The landscape sure looks different than it did on Jan. 9, 2011, when the show debuted. These days, if you can’t stand out, just get out of the make-believe kitchen altogether.