Friday, July 20, 2012

Shameless [television review]

Premise: The large Gallagher family, led by alcoholic father Frank (played by William H. Macy) and his overburdened-with-responsibility daughter Fiona (played by Emmy Rossum) try not to suffocate from the poverty and extreme dysfunction that dominates their lives in the South Side of Chicago.
Shameless, an American remake of the British series of the same name, debuted in January of last year and wrapped its second season in April. Contradictory (and ironically) to what I wrote in the introductory post to this and my Californication and The Big C reviews about the normally brief runs of British shows, the UK Shameless has actually now aired nine seasons and 115 episodes. I only watched the seven episode first season of the original Manchester, England-set version and never got engaged enough to stick with it. When the hour-long U.S. version debuted, I was surprised at how faithfully they adhered to some of the source material's plots, particularly the episode where the Frank character has a drunken blackout and wakes up far from home (Toronto replaces the original's setting of France). The exaggerated dysfunctional dynamic from the British version also remains intact.
The U.S. version benefits from a much better cast, highlighted by Rossum as the 21-year-old saddled with the role of the Gallagher's matriarch who must run a household of five kids in the absence of her mother (who left the family) and the notorious unreliability of her derelict father. Rossum brings a tough, world-weary sexiness to her character and Macy runs with the wealth of deficiencies Frank allows him to portray, such as supreme narcissism and a caustic bitterness. Frank Gallagher may well be the most unlikeable character ever created for television. This is a man who is not above romancing both a dying woman and an agoraphobic woman (played by Joan Cusack) for financial gain, he illegally collects disability cheques, he's a terrible father who has no qualms about screwing over any of his kids to benefit himself, and he's literally the neighbourhood drunk whose drunken behaviour has thoroughly alienated all of his friends, acquaintances, and family.
The supporting cast is solid, highlighted by Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey as an interracial couple and neighbours of the Gallaghers. Cameron Monaghan and Jeremy Allen White as the elder Gallagher brothers believably portray the combative relationship between Irish Catholic siblings, while Emma Kenney as their eleven-year-old sister is good, even if the writers go to the comedy well a little too often with the wise-beyond-her-years nature of the character. Ethan Cutcosky as the second youngest of the Gallagher brood is pretty much a non-factor, as he's given little more to do than demonstrate one-dimensional sociopath-in-the-making tendencies. The youngest Gallagher is a baby that's black...which neither of the parents obviously are. The novelty from that joke wears off fairly quickly and the issue is virtually dismissed after coming up in the first episode. Cusack's housebound June Cleaver-crossed-with-a-sexual-deviant character is eccentric beyond the point of believability and doesn't deliver much entertainment value. My least favourite supporting player on the show has been Justin Chatwin as Fiona's not-who-he-appears-to-be suitor. He's a fine enough actor, but his character is slick and arrogant to the point of abrasion for me and the couple's messy relationship has been one of the series' weakest points so far.
I'm still on the fence about sticking with Shameless, just because it can be a slog getting through episodes of a series where so many of the characters are as morally bankrupt as this lot, who are constantly conning one another and stabbing each other in the back. Even though their duplicitous behaviour is played for dark laughs, too often the "dark" wearyingly overwhelms the "laughs" part of that formula - truly, this is a show that lives up to its title. No act or subject matter too risque seems to be off the table, as demonstrated in scenes like the one where a character literally pisses on the grave of her recently deceased father, who she'd been estranged from. An excess of "only on TV could all these things happen to someone" writing also hampers the likeability of the show, as does Shameless' sky-high quotient of quirkiness.
Rating: C

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