It’s not the first time the show has botched a portrayal of diabetes.
When it comes to type 1 diabetes, television and movie scriptwriters are notorious for getting basic facts wrong. It’s not often that a show earns the dubious distinction of botching a portrayal of diabetes more than once. Leave it to the screenwriters of a show named Shameless to not learn its lesson the first time.
In a recent Shameless episode entitled “Occupy Fiona,” we learn that one of the show’s secondary characters, Kermit, has insulin-dependent diabetes; he doesn’t specify which kind. This medical tidbit might come as a surprise to longtime viewers of the show, as for the past seven seasons Kermit has been seen drinking at a bar and his diabetes hasn’t come up once. This plot-twist could very well have been overlooked by forgiving viewers; after all, Kermit just pops in now and then to serve as a sounding board for the show’s main misanthrope, Frank Gallagher. Unfortunately, when Kermit discusses his diabetes, he displays a profound ignorance for the basics of his condition.
In the scene in question, Kermit overhears Frank discussing how to smuggle an Iraqi man named Akram out of the United States before Akram is deported. When Kermit hears that Frank is taking Akram to Canada, he interjects:
Kermit: Hey Frank, if you’re going to Canada, can you do me a favor and bring me back some Canadian insulin? It’s 50 percent cheaper up there.
Frank: Sorry, going across on foot. No time to hit a pharmacy. Unless you’re willing to make time?
Kermit: You’re a rat bastard, you know that, Frank? It’s my insulin, literally keeps me alive.
Frank: Hey, it’s your diabetes, not mine.
Kermit: Fine, I’ll pay you $20 to get me a case of Canadian insulin.
Okay, at this point, the show is standing on relatively strong ground. The script hasn’t made any factual errors and it even has called attention to the price disparity between drugs in the U.S. and Canada.
But the scene quickly goes off the rails as someone else enters the conversation and asks Frank to pick up some EpiPens in Canada. Kermit doesn’t want to lose his place in the conversation, so he then says this:
Kermit: I was first! Frank, it’s Invokana. I-N-V-O-K-A-N-A.
Oops, see the problem? Kermit isn’t asking for insulin; he’s asking for a type 2 drug that is a SGLT2 inhibitor. A simple Google search would have told the screenwriters the difference between the two drugs.
So for about half a minute of the 54-minute episode, Kermit describes how he needs insulin and then spells out Invokana. It’s a puzzling that such a screwup is given so much screentime, and you wonder why the spelling out of the drug survived the final cut of the show.
One possible answer? In an age when everyone fast-forwards or mutes a show’s ads, the budgets of many television shows are dependent on in-show product placement. It’s possible that this was a product placement for Janssen Pharmaceuticals (the makers of Invokana) that went horribly wrong.
As previously noted, this isn’t the first time that the writers of Shameless included diabetes in a questionable way. In Season 5 of the show, the show’s other main protagonist, Fiona Gallagher, is dating a man named Gus, who she regularly meets over plates of high-carb foods while she’s working as a waitress/manager at a diner. Despite the fact the two eventually get married, Fiona doesn’t learn Gus has (presumably) type 1 diabetes until she witnesses him injecting insulin one morning. Just as strange, Gus’ diabetes is never mentioned again; it was just a device to show how little the two knew about each other before they got married.
Of course, the type 1 diabetes community have gotten used to seeing screenwriters screw up portrayals of the condition. In fact, they’ve come to expect it. A 2014 MyGlu survey found that more than 70 percent of respondents answered they had never found an accurate portrayal of a character with type 1 diabetes in fiction:
All this is to say that the first show that does a stand-out job of portraying type 1 diabetes is going to win a devoted fanbase among the Diabetes Online Community. In the era of niche programming, screenwriters should take note.