Screen Time: Shamelessly Fond of Shameless

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Showtime has taken British TV and effectively translated it for an American audience with Shameless, but they’ve done something far more important – they’ve give a rare voice to the urban poor on prime time television.

I can’t let Fred watch it, because he just sniggers at the nude scenes and crudity, but for us grownups, it’s darkly funny, brutally honest, and unexpectedly, devastatingly touching at times.  In fact, let me put it out there.  Unless you have an unusually mature and insightful child, clear the room before watching this.

The show airs on Sunday nights, but between TIVO, DVR, and the magic of the internet, you can watch it whenever you like.  I am writing this as someone who generally likes British television but has not actually seen the British version of the show for comparison (it’s on my to-do list, though).

Set in Chicago, the series has a sprawling cast of characters headed by William H. Macy as Frank, the sodden father of the Gallagher clan, perpetually in debt to shadowy bad guys and chasing the next get-rich-quick scheme.  Macy wears Frank like a second skin, so deeply that sometimes I swear that the alcoholic stench of the character is oozing right through my television screen.

Frank is the father of six children: Fiona (Emmy Rossum) serves as mother in absence of their real mother, who walked out nearly two years ago. Phillip (‘Lip), played by Jeremy Allen White makes extra money taking the SAT for other kids and is scary smart. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) reveals in the first episode that he’s gay and shortly thereafter that he’s having an “affair” with his married, Muslim boss [there are serious age of consent issues here, and I have no doubt they’ll be addressed eventually]. Debbie (Emma Kenney) is an odd, solitary little girl who craves “normality” above all else and tries very hard to be the family peacemaker.

Ethan Cutosky plays Carl, a disturbing child who shows serious signs of developing into a sociopath, and the baby, Liam, played by twins Blake and Brennan Johnson, is a suspiciously dark skinned child that is accepted wholeheartedly by the whole family as their primary responsibility, even (to the extent he is capable) by Frank.

The Gallaghers have a young couple living next door, Veronica and Kevin, (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey) who are best friends with Fiona but often grow tired of being relied on by the Gallaghers.  Early in the first episode, Fiona meets a mysterious young man, ‘Steve’, played by Justin Chatwin, who rapidly becomes her primary love interest, much to the dismay of a local police officer, Tony, played by Tyler Jacob Moore.

Two other families begin to be sketched in as the series progresses.  The Muslim boss, Kash, (Pej Vahdat) and his wife Linda (Marguerite Moreau) start to be developed mid season, giving promise that they will eventually be as richly layered as the Gallagher clan.

The standout supporting cast member, though, is Joan Cusack, as Sheila Jackson, an agoraphobic housewife who likes baking, sex, and Frank, often in that order.  We are introduced to her when Lip Gallagher is tutoring her equally sexually assertive daughter, Karen (Laura Wiggins), and just before her fundamentalist police officer husband, Eddie (Joel Murray) leaves the Jackson household.

Cusack is transcendent in the role, capturing the agonizing frustration of agoraphobia elegantly while still playing the character as just a bit of a self-caricature,  funny, but laugh-at-myself funny, not laugh-at-her funny, which must have been agonizingly difficult to do.

Now that I’ve introduced the cast of characters, (whew, that was long), I can sum up the main storyline pretty quickly:  Shameless is about survival as best as one can, in situations over which most of the characters have little or no control, using sometimes extra-legal means.  In other words, it’s about life in abject poverty that appears to have no escape route.

At first glance, Shameless appears to be an amoral serio-comedy, but it’s much, much more than that.  It is an almost painfully honest glimpse into the stratification of our society and the painful choices between equally bad options that those at the bottom are given.  I say “almost painfully” because this well done series leaves us laughing as much as it leaves us crying.

For all their troubles, the Gallaghers are a lively clan, and they love each other and life enough that the show never becomes maudlin.  They accept their lot, for the most part, and that makes us both sad for them, and hopeful that one or more of them will find a way out.

I can’t think of another show on American television anything like it.  You will find yourself rooting for the characters, while at the same time cringing at the choices they make and hoping against hope things will get better for them, just this once.  As someone who has worked in social services for years, I have to tell you, this is reality, but it is reality put on so well that it never feels preachy.

Record this.  Watch this. Make sure it says on American television for a long, long time.

  • ‘Shameless’ Season 3: Everything You Need to Know Before the Gallaghers’ Return (
  • Duff to return for Shameless finale (
  • shameless anne-marie duff fiona gallagher (
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