SHAMELESS Series Premiere Review

     January 9, 2011

We’ve seen the comedic exploits of middle class families like The Connors on Roseanne and The Bundy’s on Married with Children, But if the network sitcoms made great strides in depicting the more realistic, down-home families of America then Shameless runs a full-speed marathon in its focus on a struggling lower-to-middle class family. The Gallagher clan certainly isn’t living in luxury, but they make no effort to apologize for the way they live, and aim to do whatever they can just to keep the status quo. Well, at least the six kids in the family struggle to keep the family afloat while the patriarch, a perpetually drunk deadbeat, does about everything he can to make that near impossible. That may sound like the depressing premise for an indie drama on a festival run, but in this case it’s just the beginning of one of the most promising family dramas on television. Find out why after the jump:

Though he’s not a strong presence in the premiere pilot episode of the series remake of the British TV series with the same name, William H. Macy (as perpetually drunk patriarch Frank Gallager) quickly introduces us to his six kids who, at various ages from toddler to early 20’s seem to have more sense, sobriety and responsibility than he’s had in his entire life.

There’s Fiona (Phantom of the Opera star Emmy Rossum) who has all the charming qualities of the family’s absent mother “except she’s not a raging psycho bitch.” Then Jeremy Allen White’s character Lip (short for Phillip) is the next oldest in line who has enough smarts to get paid to tutor, do taxes and take SAT’s for other kids just to bring in some cash for the family. Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is next in line who’s ambitious, but hides a difficult life-altering secret for any teenager. Then there’s the tweens in the family. The mischievous Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) is always sneaking drinks of beer and doing questionable activities with animals and action figures (no, nothing sexual) while Debbie (Emma Kenney) is one sweet little girl sometimes has difficultly dealing with the difficult decisions and times the family encounters. Finally, there’s Liam, the toddler in the family who is quite literally a brother from another father, but his different skin color doesn’t make him any less loved in the household.

As we see each one of these character’s partying it up alongside their narrating father around a fire in a downtrodden neighborhood just outside of Chicago, it’s clear that while Frank (Macy) loves his kids, he’s certainly not involved enough with their lives and isn’t the one who provides for them (even if he calls himself the captain and teacher of this little unit). As a matter of fact, we next join the Gallagher family at breakfast as they each pitch in their own money (gathered through various, deceptive yet resourceful means) to pay the electric bill. Fiona is the makeshift mother of the house as she gathers money, helps send the kids off the school, and quickly runs through a checklist of morning activities. This is a daily event and Fiona’s tired eyes show that it’s not always easy. But despite the difficulty, she’s not angry and seems to see some of the brighter side.

But no matter how much they struggle to pay their own bills, their financial woes take a backseat to each family member’s personal problems. That’s because these kids have been through it all (some more than others) and would do anything for one another, even their deadbeat Dad who seems to pass out everywhere except his own bed. One singular shot of a floormat in the second episode of the series spells out the strong will of these kids as it simply says, “Fuck the dog. Watch out for the kids.” A sound warning for a batch of kids who seem to have learned how to take care of themselves since birth. The bills are one problem, but one brother dealing with homosexual tendencies while the other attempts to change his mind is one of the more important plot points in the series pilot.

But the family isn’t alone in their struggles. While Frank drifts around to various bars, passing out on the floor or in the bathroom, family friend Veronica (Shanola Hampton) is always willing to let them borrow anything they need, even if she doesn’t ask her boyfriend and the family’s landlord Kevin (Steve Howey) before doing so (but they always have freaky make-up sex somewhere to compensate for their aarguing. And while this block isn’t afraid of getting wild, real life always seems to be around the corner.

A character outside of the family sets out to be a light of hope in the family’s life as he finally makes a bold move at a club to buy a drink for Fiona after attempting to thwart her being mugged. Though she may be made to look more ordinary without a scrap of make-up, there’s no hiding Emmy Rossum’s natural beauty, and it’s that feature along with her charisma and grounded attitued that draws in Steve (Justin Chatwin of War of the Worlds), who seems like an upscale, pampered hot shot, but may have his own sneaky ways of getting by as well.

Steve fits right in with this peculiar but strong family unit as he makes a genuine pass at Fiona, but his pure intentions and real feelings for Fiona inspire some sweet but misguided efforts to make an impact on this struggling family. What seems like a new pillar of stability for the family doesn’t have the easy happy ending you would expect to allow the Gallaghers to move on up to the Eastside to a deluxe apartment in the sky. Yes, good times are had, but a confrontation with the difficult patriarch Frank shows that no matter how much of a fuck-up he might be, these kids will always come to his defense. No matter how drunk or irresponsible Frank might, be his kids seem to love him unconditionally, even if it’s not in the most obvious of ways. But Steve’s dedicated, fast-talking antics will keep him around to keep trying to win over Fiona again and again.

It’s the ensemble nature of this family that makes this family drama so intriguing. Hell, William H. Macy, the biggest name on the show, only stumbles around briefly in the pilot. Viewers will have to wait until the second and third episodes for his arc to truly take off and to see what a bumbling fool he really is. Meanwhile, Joan Cusack appears to plant the seed of an eventually integral character who has as many problems with the outside world as the Gallagher family has inside their own house (and Frank will use that to his advantage). Emmy Rossum steps up to lead the pilot and though she’s never really had a real breakthrough role (despite a decent turn in Phantom of the Opera), this might be her finest hour, and I could definitely see some Emmy love (as in the TV award, not her name) coming her way later this year.

While the status of this family and their struggles may sound wholly depressing, there’s plenty of comedy in between the drama (which can be quite racy at times). And while you’re meant to root for the kids, you’ll find yourself loving to watch Frank fuck up at every turn simply because William H. Macy is so good at it. And while he does nothing to show that there’s any hope for him to become an adult down the road, there’s some part of me that hopes it will come sometime down the line of this first season.

A working class family has never been painted in such a realistic light where you’re not made to feel sorry for them, and root for their every triumph, no matter how morally questionable their efforts to reach that point may be. You’ll feel the the brief pain that Fiona show’s as she pretends that Frank gives her credit for keeping the family standing while he lies down passed out on the floor. But you’ll also laugh as Ian and Lip run frantically out of Joan Cusack’s character’s house after her husband discovers their daughter giving one of the siblings a secret blowjob under the table during a tutoring session.

THE FINAL WORD: Shameless may be full of antics worthy of the title, but the Gallaghers are a wholly engaging, and interesting family to watch proving that there are British imports other than The Office that can be successful series remakes. William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum lead an ensemble pack of talent that delivers perhaps the best ethics blurring family on TV family since The Griffins. My only complaint is since I don’t have Showtime, I won’t be able to watch the rest of the season play out until it hits DVD. But you should make sure to tune in tonight.

Shameless premieres on Showtime tonight at 10/9c.

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