Human misery: Judge Joel Pearce can't get enough of it!
"Now, nobody's sayin' the Chatsworth Estate is the Garden of Eden, but it's been a good home to us, to me—Frank Gallagher—and me kids, who I'm proud of! 'Cause every single one of them reminds me a little…of me. They can all think for themselves! Which they've me to thank for."
Sitting somewhere between situation comedy and social worker's nightmare, Shameless is unlike any other show ever made. As it turns out, that's a good thing, if you are as unflappable as a British castle guard and don't mind slumming it a little. Just don't blame me when you start cursing people with British insults after you've watched it.
Facts of the Case
Shameless follows a troubled family living in the distinctly unclassy council estate in Manchester. Abandoned years ago by their mother, the siblings have long ago given up on the support of their father, Frank (David Threlfall, Hot Fuzz). He is often brought home after passing out in the pub. There are six siblings in the Gallagher family:
The Gallaghers are often aided (or deterred) by next-door neighbors Veronica (Maxine Peake) and Kevin (Dean Lennox Kelly, Deathwatch). It's a complex group of characters, and their adventures are never any less complex. This season contains the first seven episodes, each 45 minutes long.
Think of Shameless as a British Full House, except that Kimmy is popping uncle Joey, Danny gets brought home by the police nightly, and D.J. is secretly but actively gay. The remarkable thing about Shameless is the way it continually shocks us with its content and amoral approach, but still stays true to the structure and tone of a family sitcom. Even though the kids steal babies, get blow jobs at friends' homes, and have sex with married store managers, the same values are ultimately taught. The important things for the Gallagher family is to look out for one another, remain loyal, and stick together through challenging times. The only real difference is the challenge level involved: The Tanners never got themselves into messes like this.
At first, we feel sorry for the Gallagher family, struggling in such poverty, in such a crappy neighborhood. If only their situation had been different, it might be a relatively normal family. Of course, it only takes a quick glance around to realize that there really aren't many normal families, no matter what neighborhood is involved. Soon, this pity is transformed into acceptance, which gradually gives way to amusement. The children of the Gallagher family do the best they can with what they have, and they ultimately lack nothing. It doesn't matter that they do horrible things to live comfortably, but they do make out pretty well considering. It would still be nice to see them escape this neighborhood, but we begin to get the sense that this is the only world that they will ever belong or be comfortable. If they can thrive here, they can thrive anywhere. Shameless is a good name for the show, because it does a good job of describing its subject. The family is not ashamed to be what they are, or live where they do. They are interesting, resourceful people.
Fortunately, the depth of writing supports this interesting cast of characters. It would have been easy to fall into stereotypes while writing these episodes. Fiona is the responsible one. Lip is the troublemaker. Ian is gay. As the episodes unfold, though, each one of these characters is brought to brilliant, complicated life. Debbie is a good example of this. As the younger daughter, Debbie helps around the house quite a bit, and takes care of the two younger boys. She is responsible and kind. A bad writer would have coasted with that, allowing her to become part of the scenery. The best episode in the season, though, focuses on Debbie's emotional troubles that stem from her part in the family. She decides to steal a baby, and must learn to lie effectively to keep the family out of trouble. By the time we are done this episode, we see her in a completely different light. The same thing happens to each of the other family members, and it's clear that we will never be able to settle into a comfortable routine with these characters. This is a wildly creative and unpredictable show, and we never know for sure what is just around the corner. It's often stagnant writing that kills sitcoms, because we learn all there is to know about the characters, and watching a sitcom can often become simply waiting to see the same reactions to new situations. That isn't going to happen with Shameless anytime soon.
It also helps that a healthy dose of drama has been injected into each episode. Like Six Feet Under, the comedy comes mostly from real family interactions, and the sincere humanity of each character. We begin to feel for these characters as we get to know them, and that comes with the realization that everything won't be magically solved at the end of the episode. This suspense comes along with the knowledge that Shameless is willing to go down any road, no matter how dangerous or offensive. There are some truly shocking moments in this series, moments in which taboos are broken with a gleeful wink.
Unfortunately, the discs are nothing to write home about. The video transfer isn't progressively flagged, so there are ugly combing artifacts, even on a standard television. The colors tend to be a tad garish as well. Detail levels are good, but it all goes out the window as soon as there is movement on the screen. The stereo sound transfer is sometimes fuzzy, which makes some of the dialogue virtually incomprehensible (for North Americans especially). Fortunately, there are subtitles, which I often turned on so that I wouldn't miss any of the brilliant lines. There aren't many extras, but we do get a set of interviews with the cast and director Paul Abbott. They are entertaining, though. Of course, how could this crew not have fun during production?
If you like to laugh and be shocked at the same time, it would be hard to do better than Shameless. It's fun, funny, exciting, shocking, offensive and touching, often at the same time. The best news of all? This is just the first season of at least four, so we will get to spend lots more time with the Gallaghers on the Chatsworth Estate.
The Gallagher children are guilty of many things, but not of starring in a bad show.
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Studio: BBC Video
• Meet the Cast
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