I’ve been watching Shameless on Netflix lately (as of this writing I’ve just watched the season four premiere). It’s a show that premiered on Showtime in 2011 and is currently heading into its seventh season; it was adapted from a UK show of the same name, hence the “US” in this post’s title. And it’s pretty good; a lot better than I expected, actually, although I mostly half-watch it while reading Tumblr or whatever.
Anyway, I mostly just want to talk about one narrative device the show’s writers utilize, where plot threads develop in the space between episodes. It sounds kind of plain when I write it like that, but it’s something that’s really interesting to me; because the show isn’t on a case-of-the-week, reset-button model, plotlines develop across episodes, but because those plotlines are mostly grounded in real-life situations and mostly involve character relationships or living situations, there’s room for these plotlines to exist and further themselves offscreen and the writers use that room.
This has both positive and negative side-effects. The positive is that there’s a sense that the show’s world exists outside of what we’re seeing onscreen. The lack of this was a problem I had with season two of Downton Abbey, where there would be a six-month timeskip and none of the plotlines would have progressed. Shameless sometimes has similar issues with larger timeskips, but when a week passes from one episode to the next and the world has actually changed, it improves my immersion as a viewer. The characters feel more real and the world better realized.
And because the audience knows that not everything happens onscreen, there’s more wiggle room for plot holes and unexplained character motivations; these things can be easily rationalized as “there was a good reason for it that happened offscreen and wouldn’t reasonably be stated by the characters.” This is both a positive for the writers, as they can get away with more, and as a viewer, as inevitable inconsistencies are more easily ignored.
The negative, however, is that sometimes those rationalizations don’t really cut it. When a character ends an episode angry at another character, and in the next episode they’re totally fine, it feels like a break in the storytelling even if it’s justified in-universe. In a procedural that makes use of a reset-button, this wouldn’t be a problem, but because many plotlines in Shameless progress over the course of multiple episodes and the timejump between episodes is inconsistent, it feels weird when a particular thread is seemingly dropped.
It can also make it confusing as to how the viewer is meant to interpret what they’re seeing. For instance, over the course of season three (and maybe season two a bit?), it’s shown pretty clearly that the character Ian cares a lot about the character Mickey. The problem is, pretty much the only scenes between them are of them hooking up or of Mickey being emotionally distant. Thus, the question arises: is there actually anything to their relationship, and the audience just isn’t seeing it; or is the relationship pretty much just physical, meaning that Ian’s feelings might be explained by this being his first relationship with someone his age? Because I can’t safely assume whether I’m being shown all there is to see about the characters onscreen, I can’t determine what I’m supposed to be getting from what the show is, well, showing me.
I think this narrative device is a net positive, however. It was employed very similarly in Gilmore Girls, which I think handled it better because that show was lighter on its serialized elements and had more consistent timejumps between episodes, but it works in Shameless too.