If you have never seen an episode of Showtime’s hit series Shameless, please be forewarned that you will see a lot of naked people if you decide to watch (which you should). Here’s some more important background information: The Gallagher family lives in the south side of Chicago. Frank Gallagher, a raging alcoholic and drug addict, is the father of six children—Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl and Liam—who are mainly raised by the eldest child, Fiona Gallagher. They are best friends with their neighbors, Kevin Ball and Veronica Fisher. The show also should be commended for sparking a conversation about mental health...
We’ll get deeper into each character's importance later, emphasizing how each character highlights different aspects of the mental health conversation.
But first, this. When I first started watching the show on Netflix at the beginning of this month, I wasn’t sure I could continue with all of the sex and violence in every episode. But then I realized, that’s the point. Shameless wants you to be uncomfortable; it wants you to feel and think beyond your comfort zone. I found myself laughing out loud one episode and feeling like I was going to cry the next. Most importantly, I learned that just because the Gallagher's reality seems a little warped doesn't mean it is any less meaningful of a reality than mine, yours, or anybody else's.
Since making this realization I have binge-watched the entire series up to this point. Season 7 is set to premiere on Showtime in October, and I'm counting down the days!
Shameless gives its audience an enormous amount of complexity to try and unpack through six seasons, so I’m just going to try my best here to highlight what I understand most clearly in hopes that you might watch and learn your own lessons on your own.
In Season 4 and Season 5, Shameless shifted its magnifying glass from physical nudity or physical violence to mental illness and emotional pain—a different type of naked. The magic is that Shameless isn't afraid to add humorous undertones—to make something feel like it isn't too absurd to happen to you—when taking on these serious issues. It's a delicate mixture of hilarity, ridiculousness, and empathetic vulnerability.
(Please keep in mind that I am not a doctor, and the only official diagnoses mentioned here are the ones written explicitly into the show. Everything else I write is based on my personal experiences or observation.)
Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan): Ian is the third-oldest of the Gallagher kids. He comes out as gay in the first episode, and he becomes more and more open about his sexuality as the series progresses. Ian always seems to be comfortable with who he is. He is the one who encourages his boyfriend, Mickey Milkovich, to come out and be comfortable in who they are together. It’s not until Season 4 when things get truly complicated and painful for Ian. In order to avoid more spoilers than are necessary, I’ll explain it like this: Ian’s behavior becomes erratic. He is manically hyper one scene and stoically distraught in bed the next. Mickey enlists the help of Fiona when Ian won’t get out of bed. Fiona immediately knows the problem: Ian has bipolar disorder, just like their mother, Monica. Ian refuses this, and any help his family and Mickey are trying to offer him.
Ian's actions become so reckless that even he can't justify or ignore them, but that doesn't mean he accepts his bipolar psychosis diagnosis or the medications that come with it. He becomes numb and dark. He vocalizes to Mickey and Lip that something is wrong with him. He deprecates himself. He pushes everyone away.
But he fails especially to realize that the only person he can't distance from is himself, and, until he comes to terms with the way he is, he will never find peace. Ian's world is chaotic, and Shameless's portrayal of it is brilliantly poignant.
Debbie Gallagher (Emma Kenney): As Debbie grows older throughout the series (she is 15 years old as of Season 6), she more outwardly displays her insecurities and body image issues. She is overtly eager to lose her virginity in order to prove she isn't a child anymore, to gain external validation, and to feel like she is as beautiful as the girls who get boys's attention. These are all things that, alone, are not medical conditions but instead potential symptoms often found in children or teenagers that could result in a diagnosis later in life. Even if there never is a diagnosis, these are the things that cause us pain inside, therefore making them extremely relevant to the mental health conversation. People don't often associate common mental or emotional turmoil like this with mental health, but labels don't matter as much as the conversations or personal realizations Debbie's character ignites.
Lip Gallagher (Jeremy Allen White): Lip is short for Philip, which automatically makes Lip an intriguing character from the jump. Have you ever met anybody named Lip? Me neither. But on a serious note, Lip's character explores what can be called "imposter syndrome," or feeling afraid of your own potential. Lip is by far the most intelligent of the Gallaghers. Family, friends, and others in the neighborhood remind him constantly that he is the one meant to get out of here—be somebody—and that he shouldn't risk that by getting into the same shenanigans as his fellow family members. Lip is resistant to accept that he is better than his environment. He tries repeatedly to self-sabotage. I have found myself in this position many times before, as I'm sure many of you have, too.
Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy): Oh, Frank. Supreme alcoholism, drug addiction, and, as stated by his children or anybody that comes into contact with him, narcissism. Addiction is a cruel disease, and addiction is scattered all across this series. There are many characters who struggle with some type of addiction, but Frank is the kingpin, he most extreme possible case. I cannot possibly begin to unpack Frank Gallagher right here—all I can do is say that he is the character that might seem like a caricature of a human until you remember that Frank is just like somebody you know, somebody you love, or somebody who somebody you know knows and loves, on some scale.
Sheila Jackson (Joan Cusack): Sheila lives about a block away from the Gallagher home. She asks all of her guests to please take off or cover their shoes before entering her house. She is terrified to leave her home—agoraphobia, a diagnosis that is impossibly torturing and misunderstood. Sheila is also afflicted by obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety, which are more common but equally misunderstood. Sheila's biggest role is in humanizing these diseases by showing audience that despite all of her other characteristics, she possesses a giant heart and longs to be connected with other people.
I myself have been in therapy rooms and doctor's offices because of my depression and anxiety. I've had some of the same internal confrontations and external conversations or relationship conflicts because of my condition, as Ian experiences with his bipolar psychosis in Shameless. I have felt extreme insecurity—still do, sometimes—and gone so far as eating disorders because of my negative body image, similar to Debbie. I have been terrified by my potential, and even the teensiest possibility that my life could actually become a dream.
Professional help and a solid support system is the backbone of living a purposeful life with mental illness. But sometimes, it just feels good to be understood and accurately portrayed on a larger stage—that's what Shameless provides us. Watch for yourself.