‘Shameless’ Tackles Social Issues As Only They Can
Until recently, Showtime’s Shameless had been dismissed by many as a guilty pleasure. Most likely distracted by the miserably hedonistic Gallagher patriarch, both viewers and critics missed some of the deeper moments that the show delivered in its first three seasons. However, with its fourth season, Shameless has made it nearly impossible not to notice the groundbreaking stories they are telling.
Arguably the most compelling arc has been the development of Mickey Milkovich. With Mickey the writers have created a gay character unlike any we’ve seen before. In doing so they have changed our collective understanding of the range of gay experience. They’ve explored the topic in the form of a tough guy criminal who doesn’t take shit from anyone in the context of poverty, abuse, and fear. Mickey is far from the typical portrayal of a young gay man, even a closeted one. This character has shattered the image of flamboyance and femininity and provided insight into the depths of self-loathing that can exist in boys who have been raised to hate themselves. Since Mickey’s coming out episode aired on March 30, there has been much praise for this remarkably enlightening portrayal of the journey to personal freedom.
Breaking down stereotypes and bringing truth to the human experience is one of the most important things a television show can do. For better or worse, Shameless has set a precedent of skillfully telling the kind of story that has the power to destroy stigmas. As season four wrapped up with Ian in the throes of a depressive episode, Shameless again finds itself in the position to shine some light on an oft-misrepresented group.
In the weeks since the finale aired I’ve been following the audience reaction to Ian’s probable diagnosis. What I’ve learned is that many people expect that the Ian and Mickey relationship is doomed. Reading through the fan response online has revealed that a large number of viewers assume that Ian’s bipolar disorder means he will need to be institutionalized. Monica, the Gallagher mother, also suffers from the disorder and has required hospitalization several times. As Fiona and Mickey discussed Ian’s symptoms she warned him that this was a real possibility. And while it is true that such measures are sometimes necessary for people with mental illness, it is far more common to receive outpatient care while continuing to lead a fulfilling life.
I recognize that this is television and it is necessary to create obstacles for characters to overcome. But I believe that throwing Ian in a hospital and using that as the basis for Ian and Mickey’s season 5 struggles would be a missed opportunity. People suffering from mental illness are among the most misunderstood and poorly represented. Creating this storyline and using it to reinforce the image of a crazy person on a psych ward would be an unfortunate turn for a show that has done such a tremendous job showing sensitivity and sophistication in their treatment of those who desperately need real understanding. Just as Mickey Milkovich has been lauded as the “anti-Kurt Hummel,” Ian Gallagher could come to be seen as the anti-Carrie Mathison: a character who dutifully takes his medicine without complaining how it makes him feel dull, and commits to keeping himself healthy with the same fervor and discipline that he once reserved for his ROTC training.
My sincere hope is that the Shameless writers are able to do here what they have proven they do best: strike a balance. Find a way to make Ian and Mickey’s story poignant and complex while also showing that mental illness can be managed without inpatient care. Allowing the viewing public to see a person with bipolar disorder successfully navigate his relationships and responsibilities would be an incredible way to influence the conversation surrounding mental illness.
Shameless took a turn in season four. It graduated from simply shocking to shockingly significant. With Ian, Season 5 has the potential to continue to grow with stories that break the mold. I look forward to seeing how the people who gave us the brave wonderfully nuanced Mickey Milkovich handle this next important chapter.
Written By Tamar Barbash, @writerTQB.