I don't want to write this story. Can I start by saying that?
Shameless, Showtime's highest-rated drama, is a television gem. Its brutally honest look at life below the poverty line for one south side of Chicago family expertly balances heart-wrenching drama with smart humor. It has tackled the politics of interracial dating, taken a deep dive into bipolar disorder and mental illness, shown you the ugly side of addiction and all of its facets. To this day, Mickey Gallavich's (Noel Fisher) coming out was one of the most well executed LGBT storylines on all of television.
Shameless does great work in depicting the gritty side of life without getting preachy. It does so by pushing boundaries and not being afraid to say things in a way that aren't politically correct, but honest at the same time. That's why it feels weird when the show takes a misstep and feels like it's beating up on a marginalized group instead of giving them the space to tell their story, however unpolished that might be.
Yet, here we are. In the second episode of Shameless' eighth season, the series goes fat shaming with no real purpose except to expose Ian's (Cameron Monaghan) deep grief over his mother dying and to make him feel better -- and that's not good enough.
It starts when Ian reveals to Trevor (Elliot Fletcher) that he's feeling bummed out about saying goodbye to his meth inheritance from Monica (Chloe Webb). Trevor decides that the best way to cheer Ian up is to take him to a "chub bar." Ian is shocked and appalled that the dude he's trying to reunite with could have a sexual attraction to larger men. It's obviously gross in Ian's eyes, but Ian has been problematic before. It gets disturbing when Trevor also shares some problematic views about frequenting this particular bar when he's sad. When the two almost-boyfriends show up at bar, the following exchange takes place.
Ian: What's the attraction?
Trevor: I like to please. They're tender.
Ian: These guys?
Trevor: It's not like I go for them all the time, it's just when I need someone really nice in my life. Like, let's say there was this guy that I really loved, and he deserted me for three days to go to Mexico with his escaped convict ex, I would come here to find a chub to worship me.
Let's break that down. When Trevor feels rejected by the guy he really likes (Ian), he hooks up with fat men to make himself feel better because he knows they'll worship him for his more conventionally attractive figure. Trevor, the trans man who works at a non-profit that advocates for the rights of displaced trans youth (and who is played by a trans actor), enjoys fetishizing fat gay men to uplift his own self-esteem. Does the sick irony not strike anyone else here?
Together, Ian and Trevor find a pair of men to hook up with. Ian gets a pick-me-up blow job and prepares to leave before his one-night-only paramour demands he stay and cuddle. The intimate gesture pushes Ian to break down in tears, likely because it was a touching moment he would never experience with his mother again. Trevor's trick worked, but it was still tainted.
Ian's next scene is him in the Gallagher hot tub baring his soul to Fiona (Emmy Rossum), who is concerned about his emo choice in music. He confides that he cried in the arms of a "fat furry" because he's so messed up about Monica being dead.
"I don't think you're a freak for being sad about Monica," Fiona says in comfort. "I think you're a freak for crying in a fat man's arms."
It's supposed to be a joke to lift the serious banter that just occurred between the two siblings, as is the show's way. There's no objection to humor here, but it also just feels like another stab at a marginalized group who doesn't deserve it.
Before the chorus of, "Don't be so sensitive. That's just how they talk, haven't you seen this show before?" starts -- this instance is different. Last season, Ian had a very frank discussion with Trevor about being trans that was far from what would be considered the politically correct guidelines. Shameless knew that Ian doesn't spend his time watchingI Am Cait or reading GLAAD guidelines for talking to and about transgender people though.
So the show scripted the bold, unapologetic line of questioning that someone like Trevor would experience from a high school drop-out from the hood of Chicago. However, Trevor still maintained the power in that conversation. He was able to guide Ian away from the invasive questions about his genitals and teach him what the accepted conversation points were. The exchange was crass, but educational instead of insulting.
The same goes for homophobic slurs used on the show. Mickey was the most famous user of the taboo f-word, but it was used to symbolized his own internal hatred. It was an important story tool. When his father Terry (Dennis Cockrum) used them, it was obvious that he was the villain of the scene. His words and actions obviously hurt Ian and Mickey, demonstrating to an audience at home that this was unacceptable behavior.
Ian isn't the villain of these scenes on Shameless, he's our protagonist. At no point that these men are being discussed are they actually part of the conversation to speak for themselves or to reframe Ian's derogatory points into a more inclusive mindset. They are objects used for Ian and Trevor's own emotional gain and then insulted as less than human when they are out of earshot.
It's easy to make jokes about someone you perceive to be lower than you. That's why the best humor is about elevating the usual discourse. "Don't punch down," is the golden rule of intelligent comedians. Shameless has demonstrated the ability to punch up, to make fun of itself and call its own characters out for their shortcomings on countless occasions. It just dropped the ball here, and it sucks to see it do it because it's so obvious that they can do better.
Shameless continues Sundays at 9/8c on Showtime.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, Showtime's parent company)