Judge Josh Rode is now seriously considering getting cable so he doesn't have to wait a year for Season Two.
"Nobody's saying our neighborhood's the Garden of Eden. Hell, some people say God avoids this place all together. But it's been a good home to us, to me and my kids, who I'm proud of, because every single one of them reminds me a little bit of me."—Frank
Shameless: The Complete First Season is the umpteenth Americanized conversion of a popular British show. Sometimes these conversions work (The Office), sometimes they don't (Coupling), and then there are the very rare cases wherein the new version exceeds the original. At the risk of getting hate mail from the original's faithful, this is one of those rare cases.
Facts of the Case
Shameless has a vibrant energy akin to Malcom in the Middle and shares some of the same themes, while adding rampant profanity, drug use, and sex. Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy, Fargo) is a drunken lout on permanent disability who spends more time at his favorite bar than he does at his house. His behavior drove away his wife, so the job of raising their six children is taken up by eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum, The Phantom of the Opera), who keeps the younger kids fed and in school while working dozens of odd jobs to keep the bills paid. The others chip in as much as they can. Philip (Jeremy Allen White, Twelve)—or "Lip," as he is known—tutors and takes the SAT for classmates at $300 a pop; Ian (Cameron Monaghan, Click) works at a convenience store; Deb (Emma Kenney, Day Camp) skims from her perpetual UNICEF collections. Only 10-year-old terror Carl (Ethan Cutkosky, The Unborn) and baby Liam are non-contributors to the family income. Frank's disability checks, needless to say, go towards alcohol.
Don't get me wrong. The British version of Shameless is an excellent program. But there are a number of reasons why the American version exceeds its predecessor, beginning with the fact that it was done by Showtime, which brought the full force of its resources to bear on the project. That translates to excellent production values, unhurried casting (they weren't subject to the normal casting period, so had plenty of time to pick and choose just the right actors), and an extra twelve minutes of footage per episode, allowing room to add intimate details or even extra scenes. The two versions share a handful of episodes, including a nearly scene-by-scene remake of the pilot, but diverge wildly after that, and the tone of the American version changes rapidly because of it. Shameless begins as a comedy with dramatic elements but, by the end of the season, morphs into a drama with comedic elements.
Shows featuring lower class families struggling to get by are not new, so it takes something special to set one apart. Shameless' secret weapon is its inspired cast. Emmy Rossum's Fiona is the glue, not only for the Gallagher family, but for the entire show. Rossum has an incredibly expressive face, which is needed because Fiona goes through just about every emotion you can think of in an episode. When she smiles, it brightens the room; when she's sad, her dark eyes convey caverns of pain. She also has the necessary charisma and energy to make her role as unquestioned leader of the house believable.
William H. Macy brings a surprising amount of subtlety to a character whose main emotion is "bombast." In his masterful hands, Frank becomes a cunning figure, able to capitalize on opportunities—such as when he moves in with Sheila (the always delightful Joan Cusack) upon hearing her husband left her—and, sometimes, becomes nearly empathetic…although every time he gets close to bringing out sympathy, he finds a way to negate it.
Jeremy Allen White's Lip steals nearly every scene he's in, which is amazing simply because through him you can see Frank at sixteen; intelligent and caring, with that same craftiness. The world is at his fingertips, should he choose to take it. On the other hand, he also shows signs of Frank's weaknesses, as several brushes with the law attest. Cameron Monaghan's Ian is a tad on the wooden side, which might be because he is an ROTC-enrolled Marine-in-training, whose storyline the least entwined with everyone else's. This makes him somewhat less engaging, but the character still feels quite real.
For obvious reasons, the younger children tend to be poor actors, but Emma Kenney (who you will likely remember best for a commercial wherein she gave Santa some cheese) is pretty good as Deb, filling the "precocious child acting like someone twice her age" archetype. Ethan Cutkosky's Carl doesn't get to do a lot in Season One, other than melt action figures in toasters and microwaves, and baby Liam (twins Blake Alexander and Brennan Kane Johnson) is just an adorable-toddler prop, so judgment on these performances are suspended until further evidence can be presented.
Neighbors Veronica (Shanola Hampton, Miami Medical) and Kev (Steve Howey, Reba), along with Fiona's boyfriend Steve (Justin Chatwin, Dragonball: Evolution) and Lip's girlfriend Karen (Laura Wiggins, Hit List), round out the main cast, and are just as engaging as the Gallaghers. Hampton gives the "best friend" role a fresh take; a rare feat in itself. Both Howey and Chatwin have charisma to spare, but their characters use it in opposite ways. Kev is open and friendly, a natural for his bartending job. Steve is smooth and mysterious, never talking about his past but always willing to help, in his own way. Karen has a rather broad story arc, and is able to pull off innocent daddy's girl and hardcore rebellious teen with equal panache.
Of course, the best cast in the world is meaningless without good chemistry, which is something this show has in abundance. Perhaps it's due to the unique way the producers built the cast. According to the "Shameless: Bringing the FUN to Dysfunctional" featurette, when the cast was brought together for the first time, they didn't read scripts, act, or do anything character related. They spent their first days together playing mini-golf, bowling, and just hanging out on the set, where the show's actual kitchen served as the concierge, and they were expected to make their own food. Whatever the cause, the chemistry is extraordinary.
Shameless was broadcast on Showtime in HD and makes for a beautiful 1.78:1/1080p transfer to Blu-ray. The picture is sharp, with bright colors, decent black levels, and excellent balance. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is reasonably strong; the soundtrack is mixed well and never intrudes, and the surrounds get a pretty good ambient workout. The bass response is low, though, so your subwoofer will feel a little left out.
The show also has a nice array of extras, including several episode commentaries; truly interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes detailing everything from casting and pre-production to the sex scenes; deleted scenes; a small handful of bloopers; and a sneak-peek at Season Two. There are also downloadable and streaming versions on a digital copy, which will presumably become available upon the release date; neither was available as of this review.
Shameless: The Complete First Season is not for everyone. If you are opposed in any way to nudity, sex, language, or alcohol and drug use—all of which apply in some cases to characters who are legally under-aged—this isn't the show for you. Otherwise, Shameless is a show well worth your investment; you will love most of the characters and, just like the Gallagher kids, you will learn to deal with the others. If you're uncertain, you will likely know which camp you fit into, as soon as you witness the first scene.
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