Shameless fans know that the Gallaghers are at their best when they’re united, and that their time to shine always comes when they’re plowing through adversity. They’re survivors, and the act of surviving is the driving force of this series. So what happens when they’re actually somewhat on their feet but separated, either literally or figuratively? Season 4 seems determined to explore that scenario as we see the characters dealing with their issues apart, rather than together.

Developed by John Wells, based on a British series by the same name, Shameless centers mainly on the Gallaghers, a working-class family living in Chicago. As mentioned, the characters are more or less separated with the issues they're dealing with at the start of Season 4, so I thought it best to approach this breakdown accordingly. The information ahead comes from the first two episodes of Season 4 and includes some updates, but no major spoilers.

”Fiona”
Fiona (Emmy Rossum)
Fiona’s on the rise. Jimmy may have dropped off the face of the earth, but that hasn’t stopped Fiona from pushing forward. Not only is she making decent money at her cup-selling job, but she and Mike have made some steady progress in their relationship. And yet, as I watched the first two episodes, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will be before this relationship completely implodes. As into Fiona as Mike seems to be, Fiona seems determined to shield Mike from the rough edges of her background and home life. It feels like she's cast herself in a role and she's determined not to break the illusion, lest she scare Mike off. The fact that she isn’t ready or willing to show him the real her causes me to doubt the longevity of their relationship.

”Frank
Frank (William H. Macy) and Carl (Ethan Cutkosky)
We’ll put Frank and Carl together because the first two episodes have their stories pretty closely intertwined, as Frank returns home in desperate need of medical care and Carl is the only one who cares enough to try to help him. Yes, even Debbie, who has adored her father unconditionally in the past, has turned her back on him. We’ll get to her in a minute. While Carl attempts to help his father get alcohol into his body by whatever means possible, the young lad has also discovered the pubescent obsession with self-love. Between his determination to care for his father and his new masturbatory hobby, Carl’s pretty busy. Frank, meanwhile, is on a downward spiral, health-wise and he’s in desperate need of his family’s help. When he doesn’t get it, he decides to take matters into his own hands, which leads to an interesting reveal at the end of the second episode.
”Debbie”
Debbie (Emma Kenney)
We know Debbie’s been desperate to start puberty, and at thirteen, she’s due any second, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. That hasn’t stopped her from growing up in other ways. And that’s not looking like such a good thing, as the first two episodes of the season have her hanging around two very sexually experienced young girls. And not the kind of girls who claim to be experienced but aren’t. One of them is actually pregnant. Debbie’s efforts to keep up with her new friends have resulted in some questionable fashion choices and a real attitude problem, which includes indifference toward her father and irritation toward everyone in her family. Added to that, she finds a guy that could be her first real boyfriend, but as you’ll see in Episode 2, he’s probably not the right guy for her… to put it mildly and as vaguely as possible.

”Lip”
Lip (Jeremy Allen White)
I think out of all of the Gallaghers, I might be most (or almost most) anxious about Lip’s situation. Lip usually has everything wired. He’s always been sort of the charmer and smooth-talker, getting what he wants however he needs to get it, breezing through school without having to put much effort into it. College is a completely new environment for him and being smart and confident isn’t quite enough to get by anymore. Whether it’s making friends, keeping up with his studying and work-study schedule, his romantic life and his academic responsibilities, nothing seems to be coming together for this guy. With that said, I can’t picture — or I refuse to picture — Lip struggling for long without results. So I’m not sure if it’s just a matter of time before he figures it all out or before he flips college the bird and goes home.
”Ian”
Ian (Cameron Monaghan)
There’s no update about Ian because he’s completely absent from the first two episodes. He took off at the end of Season 3 and he remains missing at the start of Season 4. We do get a glimpse of his face, but it comes in picture form. Maybe Cameron Monaghan’s too busy at Vampire Academy, but hopefully Ian will surface soon. In the meantime, his absence is felt. While his family might be a bit too busy with their own problems to pine over him, there are more than a couple of hints that Mickey (Noel Fisher) hasn’t forgotten Ian. And since we’re on the subject of Milkoviches, Mandy (Emma Greenwell) has also given off a hint or two that she misses Lip.

”Sheila”
Sheila (Joan Cusack)
Then there’s Sheila, who’s filling her hours cleaning up after the Gallaghers on a completely voluntary basis. That should give you some indication as to the state of her life now, as Jody (Zach McGowan) and Karen (Laura Slade Wiggins) and the baby are still presumably somewhere out in the desert or wherever they went when they left last season. Given that she’s on her own right now, Sheila’s story seems sort of tacked on to the first few episodes. But I’m hopeful that there’s some intended direction for Cusack’s character, as she’s one of my favorite things about this series.
”Veronica
Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and Kev (Steve Howey)
Speaking of friends and neighbors, that leaves us with Veronica and Kev. Their story took a twisted turn last season when Veronica learned she couldn’t have children, which led her to encourage Kev to have sex with her mother repeatedly, in an effort to produce a child. It worked, and Veronica’s mother is still pregnant in Season 4. But some unexpected circumstances throw some very interesting curveballs into Veronica and Kev’s life in the first couple episodes of Season 4. To say things are about to get really challenging for them would be a major understatement.

”Gallaghers”
The Gallaghers and Co.
As I said, the Gallaghers united are a force, but divided, I’m not so sure and so far, Season 4 has everyone split up and trying to manage their own issues. The tone in general hints at impending doom. Or maybe that’s just my pessimism at work, but watching these first two episodes, I kept experiencing the sinking sensation that the floor was about to drop out at any given moment. It doesn’t, but it still might and a part of me kind of hopes it does because these characters really are at their best — and Shameless is at its most entertaining — when they’re scrambling to get back on their feet. That’s this series’ comfort zone. Season 4 may be setting itself up to get back to that point, but as it stands, things feel unfamiliar. With that said, unfamiliar is ok. I’ll take unfamiliar if it’s part of a build-up to something bigger. In its fourth season, the series really can’t afford to continue circling the block and expecting to remain fresh. What we’re seeing here may be the start of the next stage for this twisted, occasionally heartwarming, darkly funny, often dramatic and truly underrated Showtime dramedy.

You can watch the full (but edited) first episode of Shameless Season 4 online early here or catch it unedited when it airs on Showtime on Sunday, January 12 at 9:00 p.m. on Showtime.

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