'Shameless': How COVID Upended the Final Season of the Showtime Hit

SHAMELESS - William H. Macy
Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

The first half of the 11th season of Showtime's Shameless was already written and the John Wells dramedy was three days away from shooting its final season when the world changed in March.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic forced film and TV productions to shut down around the world, many showrunners — including Wells — used the time as an opportunity to imagine how COVID-19 would impact their characters. For Wells, it meant turning a lens on the working-class Gallagher family and their friends as they struggle to get by. It also meant rewriting the first six or seven episodes and changing things on the fly to keep the Chicago-set series as timely as possible when it came to the impact of the pandemic.

Below, Wells talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how COVID-19 changed the final season (onscreen and off-), exploring racial injustice and how Frank (William H. Macy) "can't have survived forever without any consequences."

We've talked over the past few years about how, for the last couple seasons, you crafted a season finale that could have doubled as a series ender because you weren't sure if Shameless was coming back. How did the knowledge that this is the final season impact the type of series finale you crafted — and how did the pandemic change that?

We were three days away from shooting when everything went to hell in March. We rewrote the entire season over Zoom. To be honest, I haven't written the finale yet because we have been adjusting the show as we go along to events on the ground because we thought it was important that Shameless deal with the issues of the pandemic and the economic and health consequences for a community like Shameless takes place in.

We rewrote all of the first six or seven episodes, all of which were already written. We try and make it as specific to the time when we're shooting it, even though we know we are going to be a couple of months off. But the impacts on all of us — particularly on working-class and poor communities — have been significant and we're trying to deal with those issues in a satirical way but also taking an honest, dry-eyed look at what has actually happened to these communities and specifically to our characters.

Were there storylines from last season that you did away with? How did you go about redoing those? I mean, you rewrote half the season.

On the practical side, we weren't going to be able to, under the COVID work protocols, do some of the larger scenes that we wanted to do — particularly storylines with Liam [Christian Isaiah], Debbie [Emma Kenney] and her daughter, Franny, which were going to have a lot of child extras. We had to move more of the show back onto our existing sets [in L.A.] and we weren't certain that we'd be able to shoot anything in Chicago.

We didn't end up completely scrapping any storylines, but we did adjust them to what's going on. The biggest one that really changed was Kevin [Steve Howey] and Veronica [Shanola Hampton] and the financial plight of small business people, like bar owners, through the pandemic. That has had to continue to change — the openings and the closings and the question of how are you going to survive and trying to get federal or state assistance and how almost impossible that has been for most small businesses. Then it impacted the edges of everything. Tami [Kate Miner] and Lip [Jeremy Allen White] and their precarious financial state because they have lost a lot of work. They're one of the groups of people that was so widely publicized last year in that 40 percent of the population doesn't have $400 to deal with any kind of crisis, and the pandemic has certainly been a crisis. Ian [Cameron Monaghan] and Mickey's [Noel Fisher] story about trying to get a job and stay employed was impacted as well. Does it force you back into criminality if you're trying to stay away from it?

Were there people you wanted to bring back — like Elizabeth Rodriguez, who played Frank's frenemy last season — that you weren't able to?

No, it really hasn't been what we've been doing. Part of that is because we didn't abandon stories, but we didn't pursue them once we realized just how difficult it was going to be to get people from other parts of the country to Los Angeles to work and with all the quarantine protocols. It made the focus of the final season much more on our characters and how they related to each other as they grow up, move on with their lives, move out of their family home and have to craft their relationships with their new families because they're getting married and having kids of their own. As a family that's been so dependent on each other for survival, how do they navigate now needing to have separate lives? I would say the show is more specifically about the family for those reasons, and that was driven by the realities of shooting during the pandemic.

It forces your hand to go back to your core cast — which should be the focus of a final season anyway.

Yeah, I think so! (Laughs.) The longer you're on the air, the more temptation is to move the stories out to include other characters and enlarge that world that you're dealing with. And you really have to resist that, particularly in a final season. You want to tell the stories about the people that you've been with all this time and that is also what the audience is looking forward to because we're going to say goodbye to some people we've made part of our lives for a long time.

Knowing you had to focus on the nucleus, how has that changed the way that you envision the ending, as you gear up to write it? Pre-pandemic, you've always maintained that Shameless was a show where the camera pans down the street and the audience gets a sense that life goes on for this family. Is that still the case, given how much our world has changed this year?

You want to feel that you've just walked away from it and that if you actually turned down that street accidentally two years from now you'd still find some of the same people there. This isn't about a lot of characters dying or some major, dramatic event like that. It's about how we move from a family which depends upon each other day to day, living in the same space, to having relationships. How do you shift that as you become adults and move on with your own lives but don't want to give that up? It's the core of the show: this family that loves each other and who is dependent upon each other and always shows up for each other. So, we want to maintain that theme at the end. I think that's where we'll end up.

What's been the hardest part of shooting during the pandemic?

We'll film until February. The hardest part has been doing this in the midst of a time of very high anxiety, whether that be about your health, fears about going back to work and being around other people in these dangerous times, or changes how we actually shoot the show. The hope is when you watch the show that you don't notice any of it.

Having seen the premiere episode, there's definitely a sense that COVID-19 has impacted these characters. Tami mentions she's had it; Debbie in one scene wears her mask under her nose. You don't get the anxiety from the cast; it feels very Shameless that there's not universal mask wearing.

(Laughing.) I'm glad you noticed that! This show is about people who are having to figure out how to survive in the best of times, much less in these times. We're trying. I think we are mostly pulling it off, but until we get done it's hard to say.

When we spoke in January, you noted that Frank needs to have some comeuppance for his years … of just being an all-around Frank. Is that still the case?

Frank absolutely can't have survived forever without any consequences to all of this bad behavior, particularly that behavior has been allowed in many ways by the fact that his family has stuck around. For all their complaints, there is still a roof over his head and food that he can steal. And as everybody is moving on, what is going to happen to Frank? Who is going to look after Frank? Who is going to take care of Frank? People are ready to go and have their own lives. Carl's [Ethan Cutkosky] a police officer, has a check and wants his own apartment; he's not taking Frank with him. Tami and Lip, Tami's not going to put up with that and Lip wouldn't want to either. Ian and Mickey don't want Frank. Debbie is default but is that just gender expectations that the daughter will take care of him —

Especially considering Debbie saw what taking care of Frank did to Fiona.

Yes! So, part of it is like, "Uh oh, who's going to take care of Dad? Oh, he's still around? Why isn't he dead? Why can't he just die and help everybody out?" But then you don't want that to really happen if it's your father. All of that is part of what happens toward the end of the season.  

You mentioned Carl being a cop now. How has the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the story you're looking to tell with that character?

We're trying to use Carl to deal with issues of what should policing be. My personal opinion is that nobody really believes that we should defund the police; nobody wants there to be absolutely no one to respond to things that happen. But we have to re-look at what the function of police is: What are we depending upon the police to do? What should their function be and how should they react within the community? Carl, who is very gung-ho, has to deal with the different kinds of policing that he comes into contact with from his training officers, who all have very different attitudes about how to be police officers. The whole sense of racial injustice and what has happened, we continue to play those stories with Liam and with Veronica, [and explore the] frustrations about how little progress there is and the conversations about it. I want to say this without it getting controversial because I don't really want to be a controversial figure in any of this, but there is a big difference between how in conversations with people who live in these more challenged and racially mixed communities where there is a lot of poverty and everything, the whole conversation about safety is very different than the one in a wealthy community or a fully white community. If you go into neighborhoods like the South Side and ask people if they want to defund the police, [the answer is] no. But what they want is no racial profiling; They want there to be responsiveness and they want it to not look like every time anybody shows up it's like a SWAT team showing up. They want compassion, understanding and a realization of what the community actually needs. We are trying to deal with those issues through Carl but also through Veronica and some of what Liam is going through.

With the finale still to be written, will Emmy Rossum's Fiona return?

We have no idea. I would love for her to come back. We have talked and she would love to try and be able to do it. The reality is that they had to stop production on Angelyne and don't know when they're going back. As we get closer to it, if they have not gone back into production and if she is on the West Coast, there is a good chance that we'll be able to get her in to do something. It won't be a big thing because of all of her other obligations. There is so much up in the air trying to schedule things during the pandemic. As I write it, I'm going to talk to her about it again, hoping we can work something out, but it may not happen. And it won't be because she doesn't want to do it. It would be because logistically we can't figure out how to do it. Everything is a bit of a nightmare from the logistical scheduling point to keep people safe. It's all being done for the right reasons, but it can make what used to be easy — fly out here Saturday, shoot Monday and leave Monday night — none of that's happening anymore.

Shameless returns Sunday on Showtime. Interview edited for length and clarity.