When executive producer John Wells was working on the final season of “The West Wing” in 2006 he recalls having a very “easy” end point because the show began with the first year of Jed Bartlet’s presidential administration and, seven years later, it would be poetic to end with him leaving the office and a new president (Matt Santos) sworn in. Now that Wells is saying goodbye to another long-running, beloved series in Showtime’s “Shameless,” though, things are far more complicated.
“With this, we’re just following people’s lives,” Wells tells Variety of the Gallagher family on the Showtime dramedy. “We just have to walk away from them at some point.”
The premium cable network announced in January that “Shameless'” run would come to an end with its 11th season — a season that was supposed to begin shooting just two months later in March. But when production should have started rolling, the industry experienced a shutdown instead, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the team “had a lot of scripts” already done, Wells shares, writing continued remotely via Zoom and the room ended up rewriting “all of the scripts” in order to “stay topical.”
“Those living barely above the poverty line or below the poverty line have been the most impacted by the pandemic, and we just felt it was something that we really had to do — to show the impact it’s having on our characters,” he explains. “It would have felt criminal not to.”
This means that the Gallaghers, who had been struggling not only with poverty, but addiction and a gentrifying neighborhood for years and may deserve a few wins before the end of their run, are now facing the major setback of the pandemic in the world of the show. Kevin (Steve Howey) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton), for example, have to find ways to keep their loyal customers drinking at the Alibi, despite city ordinances about restaurant and bar closures, while Lip (Jeremy Allen White) finds creative ways to cut the costs of fixing up his new house while Tami’s (Kate Milner) salon work is in flux for similar reasons, Ian (Cameron Monaghan) begins working in a factory, and Debbie (Emma Kenney) picks the worst time in her lifetime to try to launch a new business.
Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) is the one Gallagher who may benefit a bit from recent circumstances, in that the police force finds themselves needing more new recruits than usual. But in having him continue to pursue a career on the force, “Shameless” will also stay topical by depicting corruption, as well as “issues about funding the police and what is good policing” head-on, Wells says.
“A lot of these issues we’ve dealt with throughout throughout the series, but it really has come to the come to the fore now, and Carl has to decide who he wants to be as a police officer,” he continues. “There’s an individual choice that police officers have to make about who they want to be and how they want to interact with the community and how they want to apply the law and their behavior in the community. That’s what he’s wrestling with throughout the season.”
The Gallaghers’ personal lives are also strained by their new circumstances. Ian and Mickey (Noel Fisher), especially, have to get used to married life — especially married life while still living with other Gallaghers.
“When you get together with someone else, I think, truthfully, that most of us think that what we want is what they’re going to want too,” says Wells. “And a big part of the adjustment is, a successful relationship is one in which I move towards you and you move towards me and we talk and communicate, and it’s not about you winning or me winning; it’s about being able to better figure out what our priorities are. And that’s a huge part of what the season’s about for Mickey and Ian.”
The tension around being in a pod with family members, changing health protocols and police reform have ebbed and flowed over the last 10 months and Wells admits that “Shameless” is still “adjusting” certain things in its story on a daily basis in production. “Literally at the time we are shooting, we try to conform to what’s going on in the country and mask-wearing,” he shares. “I think there’s a social responsibility to show that people are outside of their pods and they’re concerned about who have children things are actually wearing their masks and so you’ll see a lot of that — and then there are other people who think they’re immortal, like Frank, who are far less compliant.”
While the writers “identify for each character how serious would they be” about health guidelines, everyone on the production side of “Shameless” is vigilant about the rigorous new protocols, Wells says. In addition to social distancing and wearing protective gear such as masks on set, there are “hand-washing stations everywhere and [COVID] testing three times a week,” he shares. But the biggest difference is that they are shooting only in Los Angeles for this final season, whereas seasons past saw them shooting partially in Chicago, using local crew there.
Keeping all of filming in L.A. has been the biggest challenge, says Wells. The production had to recreate the exteriors of the houses they would normally visit on location in Chicago. Since many industry professionals have been working remotely since March, “Shameless” was able to take over an executive parking lot on the Warner Bros. lot for this build. But it also requires more visual effects work on the post-production end to really “place us into Chicago,” Wells notes.
“It’s a real shame because we love going Chicago — love the city and the people, the crews that we use there. But it just didn’t really seem possible to transport the whole company there in the midst of this,” he says.
When it comes to wrapping up the 11-season run of “Shameless” once and for all, Wells admits that there is “no perfect ending for everybody,” so he endeavored to work with his team to craft final moments that would make them feel good about where they left these characters that they — along with millions of audience members — had gotten so attached to over the years.
“There are about 30 different endings and you have to start whittling them down to the one that feels right. And there’s no formula that I know of for it,” he says. “From my point of view, I want us to just feel as if we walk away from them — that we move to another neighborhood — but then if you turn back down the street, or you run onto the L platform or you are in a bar, you might run into somebody. We really tried to leave it like that.”
When it comes to whether or not a central character will see a moment of success, such as when Fiona (Emmy Rossum) moved out of the South Side for warmer pastures in the ninth season, before the end of the series, Wells notes that any “win” they have has to be commensurate with economy. “For tens of millions of people the win is surviving and having a roof over their head,” he says.
“My sense of it is that the show really works because it’s a family that’s struggling but that really loves each other [and] pulls together to support each other. And I think a lot of the happiness comes from the fact that they are going to care for each other. And so it’s really about that — the happy ending is the fact that they’re survivors, that they love each other and that they step up for each other when they need to, no matter what the conflicts are.”
“Shameless” premieres its 11th and final season Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.