The Showtime series Shameless wrapped up its critically acclaimed fourth season amid much buzz this past Sunday. Not only had the show grown by leaps and bounds this year, but the Shameless show-runners managed to pull of something that's nearly impossible in the age of spoilers, social media, and breathless Internet coverage. They surprised us. They surprised everybody. In a twist that not even the cast saw coming, Justin Chatwin's character, the presumed dead Steve/Jimmy, showed up just after the credits rolled. It's unclear what this shocking twist will mean for next season—Chatwin and his post-credits cohort, Dichen Lachman, are not committed to return next season. But it certainly has everyone talking about a show that has long been overlooked. Between that twist, a recent awards-show genre shift, some stereotype-busting characters, and its best season yet, Shameless is finally getting some of the attention it deserves. We spoke to executive producer John Wells (Southland, ER, China Beach) about everybody’s favorite screw-ups, the Gallaghers.
VF Hollywood: First things first, I can't believe you kept that Justin Chatwin reveal a secret from the cast. Was anyone mad about being kept in the dark?
John Wells: Their reaction was like anyone's who has had a really good prank pulled on them. You know, you're mad and surprised but then you appreciate it. Everyone was really excited. They're a chatty bunch, that cast. They have blogs and Twitter. I knew if we let them know, there was no way they would be able to keep it quiet.
You've said part of the reason why you brought Chatwin back was because of popular fan demand. Have fan favorites like Ian and Mickey received increased attention because of demand too?
No I don't want it to sound like we trawl message boards looking for plot ideas. With Mickey and Ian it was just time to tell that story. It's a really universal struggle that we wanted to show.
As far as gay characters go, Ian and Mickey defy the stereotypes of what we usually see on TV. This was also true of the John Cooper character on your show Southland. Has this been a specific mission for you? To portray this kind of character?
I wouldn't say it's an agenda or anything. But in my work I've always tried to show the side of an issue other people aren't necessarily covering. On ER we wrote about the H.I.V./AIDS crisis very early on and how it affected heterosexual women, not just gay men. To show that conflict from another perspective really drives home how universal it is. I came out of the theater, my father was a closeted gay man, and it's the struggle of a lot of people I grew up around. They say do what you know. That's what I know. The difficulties and the joys of finding someone you're attracted to, no matter what your sexual orientation, and dealing with societal pressure and your own desire to be happy.
You say "do what you know." Shameless has been praised for its singularly accurate depiction of what it's like to live below the poverty line in America. Does that come from your personal experience or the experience of the writers on your staff?
We have a very diverse group of writers from all kinds of economic backgrounds, but the majority come from more difficult circumstances. And we all still have family and people we know grappling with the recent changes in the economy. A lot of people who considered themselves working class or middle class found themselves dropped down to a level where they really have to struggle. I came from a background that was modest, but not impoverished. But I did have some times in my life where I had no money at all. You don't forget those lessons or those struggles.
Which Gallagher do you identify with most?
You know, I'd like to think I'm a Lip! But the truth is this is [creator of the U.K. version of Shameless] Paul Abbott's family. But when we were first looking at them together I said, "That's not your family, that's my family." I think we all recognize this entire cast of characters as people from our own lives.
The actor who plays Lip, Jeremy Allen White, had a really juicy plotline this year. Was that always the plan or has Jeremy's performance shown you something in the past few years that made you want to challenge him?
I call that "Writer Darwinism." In every television show, writers will naturally write toward an actor who can deliver. Jeremy is very, very talented. [damn right]
Frank Gallagher (played by William H. Macy) isn't really the star of the show anymore, it's become more of an ensemble cast. Though he came close to death this year, you've said elsewhere that you could never get rid of Frank. Is he a bulletproof character?
We refer to Frank as a narcissistic cockroach. He will survive because he perceives himself to be immortal. Some of that is denial, but I have known several people in my life, maybe they just have too much alcohol floating in them, but they can't be knocked over.
After all the tragedy of this season, a lot of near-deaths, some prison time, and gay-bashing, Shameless is now being considered a "comedy" in next year's Emmy race. Is that to avoid competition from something like True Detective? Or do you feel it's just a more accurate description of the show?
I feel it's just a more accurate description. Awards show gaming is something I've never been able to figure out. We always approached the show as a comedy with some dramatic elements and, thankfully, some of the rules changed in the academy so I could make that switch. According to a statement from the TV Academy, this isn't a unilateral rule change, but more of a special dispensation. There are some shows that are absolutely dramas. There's nothing comedic about True Detective. But our show reflects the world we actually live in day today. We all laugh and make light in order to get through life.
I do think the categories are archaic, but I have no alternative suggestions. We have some wonderful comedic performances on our show from people like Bill [Macy] and Emmy [Rossum]. I would love to see a few of them get more notice.
Shameless is enjoying the highest ratings of it's four-year run and seems to be picking up more notice. How much longer do you see the show running? How much longer can the Gallaghers go on?
I'd like another three or four years. We're all really having a wonderful time doing it, Bill is extraordinary and as all the kids grow up, we're really having a great time enjoying writing for them.