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‘Shameless’ Boss on Season 8’s Family Drama, Lip’s Sobriety and Kevin’s Health Scare

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the Nov. 5 premiere of season 8 of “Shameless,” entitled “We Become What We… Frank!”

The Gallagher kids of Showtime’s “Shameless” are all grown up. Whereas early seasons of the show focused on how they would survive despite their drunk father Frank (William H. Macy), now the focus is much more how they can survive all the family demands constantly pulling at them.

Fiona (Emmy Rossum) has disconnected the most from the rest of the Gallagher clan as she works to fix up an apartment building she purchased, while Lip (Jeremy Allen White) is back living at home, trying to get sober after getting kicked out of college. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is still working as an EMT, grieving his mother and trying to win back Trevor (Elliot Fletcher), while Debbie (Emma Kenney) is in welding school to build a better life for herself and her young daughter. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), who’s back from military school, is on the streets slinging the meth the Gallagher matriarch bequeathed to her family after her death.

“The theme of the season for the family is: at what point is trying to branch out on your own possible – possible for you, because you still may want to be involved in some things, but also possible for the others who want you to no longer be trying to run their lives but also may need to depend on you for certain things?” executive producer John Wells tells Variety.

While the eighth season started with all of the Gallagher kids on separate paths, Wells says there will be “several different instances” in which they do have to come back together to work through a problem — often one caused by their parents, of course.

“You want to grow up, and you want to be completely on your own, as an individual, doing what you want, but part of that maturation is that you do still need those around you,” Wells says. “So they do have to understand that the love and concern they have for each other is essential to what they need to survive.”

Here, Wells talks with Variety about what to expect for the Gallagher clan – immediate and extended – this season.

How long can Fiona stay out of the Gallagher family business this season without changing the fabric of the show?

That’s really what her maturation is this season: how will she move on from having taken care of everybody and feeling responsible for everyone? Can she have it both ways where she gets involved when she wants to but then not be involved in other times? I think it’s her saying “I absolutely don’t want this anymore” and “Why didn’t you ask me to help?” It’s this sort of yo-yo contrast where she wants to be done, but it’s too much part of her identity. Debbie and Fiona are very much back together again through quite a bit of this season, trying to figure some things out. These family bonds – these ways in which we need each other – for these kids, they needed each other simply to survive. It wasn’t a casual thing. They actually required each other to simply make it. And so, that’s who they are. I think the bigger difficulty for all of them is increasingly going to be how do they have the relationships separate from the family that they’d like to have when they’re so interconnected and dependent upon each other within the family? All of them, with the exception of Ian, actually become more dependent on those family bonds.

So let’s talk about some of those relationships. First, how much is Lip’s journey to get sober right now simply so that he can try to get back together with Sierra (Ruby Modine)?

He thinks that he’s doing it for the immediate reasons for wanting to get back together with Sierra, but what he’s discovering is this other family he’s creating in Brad, his sponsor, and Youens, his old professor, which he’s expecting to support him [but] will end up requiring that he support them. Part of becoming sober is realizing you have to come face-to-face with your own limitations and see what you can do for others, which is very difficult for him because it’s something he’s only had to do within the confines of his own family and assumed everyone else was in a much better situation than he was. What if it’s all about simply staying sober so that you can experience the ups and downs of life in a conscious fashion? Does that bring him back more to his immediate, biological family?

Is he really ready for that — and to truly get sober? What are some of the obstacles in his way?

In many ways that’s the major throughline for the season. If you’re a Lip fan, this is a very good season for you. When you start drinking and doing drugs, you tend to stop maturing at the level at which you become addicted. Lip is someone who has tried to present himself as someone who’s an adult and can make decisions for himself, but his adult maturation really stopped when he was 13 or 14 years old. So what he has to accept is he has a lot to learn and thinks he knows so much and is so worldly, but while he’s worldly in certain things, he’s never seen a relationship that works. He doesn’t know what friendship looks like when he’s not drunk or stoned. “Who am I? Who am I going to be?” That’s what his whole character journey is throughout the season. The sobriety becomes the event that you use to learn these things about yourself, but the challenge is to accept the limitations and difficulties of life sober.

And then you have Ian, who is chasing Trevor even though he might not be truly over Mickey (Noel Fisher), but Trevor seems to want Ian to get himself together.

I’m with Trevor on that one! We like the relationship, and we like the actors, but it’s not an easy thing. We’re intentionally trying to not downplay the severity of the challenges that Ian has in his life and the sense of how unfair he feels it all is. The difficulties of bipolar disease is maintaining, and there’s a great deal of the disease that’s really fun for the person that’s experiencing it, and then there are dire consequences that come with it. Ian is still at the beginning of dealing with his disease and trying to figure out who he’s going to be and accept something that’s not fair – it’s not fair that he has this disease. So he’s trying to figure it out and see how it can be valuable to others.

Were you concerned about trying to put Ian in a new relationship so soon after Mickey, not only because of how deep their connection was but also because of how strong audience response has been to that couple?

We oftentimes do not end up with our first love – that’s a reality of life. And while certainly members of the audience are attached to Mickey and Ian, is that even a relationship that was really in Ian’s best interest? I would argue maybe not for somebody with his circumstances in life.

Debbie is still technically with Neil (Zack Pearlman), though she seems to be more concerned with balancing motherhood and her job than making them work as a couple. What’s her biggest struggle this season?

She’s trying to pretend that she’s all grown up in that way that teenagers often do, and I think her challenge is to accept that she doesn’t know as much as she thinks she does. She still has a lot to learn. What’s she going to do that’s the best thing for her life and the responsibilities she’s taking on, I would argue, rather petulantly. We’re kind of in a pattern with all of the characters where they’re growing up, and who they’re going to become and how they overcome their personal demons is a big part of it.

Carl seems to be a great example of that because he cleaned himself up to go to military school last season, yet here he is selling drugs again, even if this time it’s for a good cause.

He is, by far, the most confused character about who he’s supposed to be, and there’s a wonderful storyline in the second half of the storyline that deals with that. He is here all season this year. It timed out right for him to do it. Ethan’s a real high school kid from Chicago trying to finish school, but this time we had him all season.

Something really interesting this season, too, is Kevin’s (Steve Howey) breast cancer scare. How did that come up, and how serious will things get for him?

A friend of mine actually had breast cancer a couple of years ago, and the hardest part for him was that he thought it was a joke that men can get breast cancer. So that’s where it came from, and we thought it would be funny, but it’s quite moving as it goes on. And it leads to all different kinds of other discoveries with him. I’m just interested in how human beings surprise us and do things that we’re not expecting, so we’re always looking for those things to do.

Frank finally cleaning himself up is definitely surprising as well and seems to imply he’s not actually an addict since he can stop.

Everything with Frank is one step forward, two steps back. He actually likes being a drunk. He’s a complete and utter narcissist who’s only interested in himself and his own pleasures.

“Shameless” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

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