I wrote the bulk of this review half way through this series. Channel 4's decision to split the series in half and screen the rest of it in the late summer has been very frustrating. They did this suddenly and without a fanfare and I wonder what the reasoning behind it was. Maybe viewing figures were down? Screening the first five episodes on successive days of the first week was another experiment which may not have worked.
So is it as good as it ever was? Well, the best of it certainly is: Mimi's dismissal of Manchester United fans being misconstrued as racism was a piece of social satire on a par with Swift, Dickens, Chesterton and the rest; Micky's 'specialist website' with its Dragons' Den moment featured in one of the best episodes ever; Carl going to work for Jamie Maguire set up another cracking adventure. No other comedy-drama has such comedy and such drama and they never dilute one another.
That said, I can't in all honesty say I've enjoyed this one (so far, at least) as much as previous series - and I'm talking about my favourite programe here. So many of the original cast have left (in fact, I think Frank, Karen and Carl are the only ones who survive from the first episode). We lost Paddy and Ian at the end of the last one and these were giant losses. While there are some engaging new characters, 'absent friends' cast a long shadow.
Furthermore, what separates the terrific scripts in Shameless from the hack work of soaps like Eastenders is that the plots and situations appear to grow naturally from the personalities of the characters, as opposed to the characters doing unbelievable things to serve the needs of the plot. In this series, however, certain things felt unconvincing to me: the falling-out of Shane and Jamie; Liam's inexplicable decision to go with his mother (I guess the actor who played him wanted to move on, but the twisted logic was incomprehensible); Libby persisting with Frank for as long as she did. None of these things felt emotionally 'right' for the characters. Previously, major plot points which could have been difficult to sawllow (Paddy on heroin and his gradual estrangement from Mimi, Ian's relationship with Maxine etc) were written so well and happened so gradually that I believed them. Only Debbie's sudden decision to join the army felt wrong. In this series, though, quite a few things have felt incongruous.
In addition to this, the plot about Frank going missing on the eve of his wedding, with its Doctor Who references and its rather obvious re-working of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, just didn't do it for me. It's as though they have done all they can with Frank. There is simply nothing more left that they can possibly do. Frank featured little in the subsequent episodes and I didn't miss him.
I really, really hope that Shameless doesn't derail or go gradually stale. I love it so much!
Here's to a second half to this series that blows us all away!
Update: The second half of the series has now been screened and undeniably had some very strong episodes with insense drama and great comedy. This included an extended hundredth episode. There is still something of a feeling that the plots are beginning to repeat themselves though, and the constant references to characters who have disappeared - indeed the return of some of them - inevitably invites comparison with the past. At the end of the series it is clear that more well-loved characters are likely to depart and it will be hard to imagine a new series without them. With some regret, then, because it is still superior to most TV series, I'm sticking with four stars.