Jen Krueger: Who Is The Most Intersting Character on “Shameless”?
While certain aspects of Showtime’s [[[Shameless]]] have been hit or miss, there’s a character on it who’s had such a remarkable arc over the show’s four seasons that he’s become one of my favorite characters on TV. With a father who’s barely a father, and a poverty-stricken upbringing in a bad neighborhood in Chicago, he’s had to resort to violence and scheming to make ends meet. His romantic relationships are fraught with conflict because he’s never learned how to communicate well enough to tell someone he really cares, yet even if he could find the words to say how he feels, they’d still catch in his throat because showing vulnerability to anyone is so antithetical to what his life experiences have taught him it means to be a man. And while all of these things could probably also be said about one of the show’s protagonists, Lip Gallagher, I’m actually talking about Mickey Milkovich, who started off as one of the show’s tertiary characters.
While the actor who portrays Mickey, Noel Fisher, was upped to a cast regular in season three, his introduction in the first season gave no hint that Mickey might ever become more than an occasional background figure in the lives of the Gallagher clan, on whom the show centers. For them, Mickey was the neighborhood guy always used as an example of what you don’t want to grow up to be. His sister Mandy knew the two oldest Gallagher sons, Lip and Ian, and was seen more often than Mickey even though she herself was a peripheral character. And even when he first began a sexual relationship with Ian, Mickey’s extremely thuggish persona and refusal to admit (even to himself) that he’s gay made it seem like his role in the narrative was limited, at best.
Yet in the space of four seasons, Mickey has gone from a guy who threatens to beat Ian unconscious for even suggesting there’s affection between them, to a guy who’s so in love with Ian that he’s lost all power in their relationship. He’s grown up so much that most of his actions, though aggressive and curse-laden as always, now come from a selfless place, which makes me root for him. And because his struggle to accept that he’s gay has been rife with compelling heartbreak and huge ramifications within his family, he’s now the character whose appearance often makes or breaks an episode for me. Of course, complex characterization like this isn’t unusual on TV, but it is unusual for a character whose total screen time in a season probably amounts to less than the running time of a single episode (series regular credit or not).
So how does Shameless have the room for such a substantial arc for a character who’s always squarely on the sidelines? Apparently by sidelining the initial protagonist instead. While the first season introduced Fiona Gallagher as a complex girl struggling to figure out if it’s possible to do anything for herself while in the role of de facto head of the family for her five younger siblings, each season further collapsed the dimension Fiona was introduced with, leaving her little more than a self-absorbed screw-up who likes to tell herself she’s the family martyr despite her actions loudly saying otherwise. And even though Lip’s character has been a solid and consistent second lead in the show from the start, the caricature of herself that Fiona has become is for some reason still the center of the show.
Usually this kind of de-evolution of a protagonist is enough to make me stop watching. But for as much as I detest Fiona, Mickey has been more than enough of a surprise to keep me hooked. And maybe the surprise itself is a part of it too; this character crept up on me through several seasons until I found him commanding my attention and sympathies so strongly that it was as if he’d been doing so from episode one. It also makes me wonder how many other tertiary TV characters would have lives this rich if their shows had the time and inclination to develop them further. After all, since most characters that appear in more than a few episodes of a show have a breakdown of their personality and history written (even if only for the writers), it seems like time constraints and the strength of the writers’ desire to share a character’s story with the audience are the biggest deciding factors in whether or not a tertiary role becomes something more. For the lucky few that evolve like Mickey, I invest wholeheartedly. For all the rest? I guess I’m starting to see where fan fiction comes from.