Shameless debuts tonight on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Can a TV series run entirely on bluster and energy? The American remake of Shameless is certainly going to try. A more Xeroxed-than-usual copy of the original (seriously, there are places in the pilot that are all but shot-for-shot carbon copies of the original, just with different actors and accents), the series is going to run out of gas sooner than usual if it doesn’t find some of its own power before long, simply because the original series’ first batch of episodes only ran to eight. Like most U.S. cable series, the remake’s going to run a dozen episodes in its first season. (Fortunately, the best episode of the batch Showtime sent out is the third, which has the least relationship to the original material, perhaps showing that the American show will get its legs under it as soon as it abandons the source material, much like the Office remake.)
That said, the bluster and energy here IS a lot of fun. The actors are all very good. The writing definitely apes the original, but it doesn’t do too bad of a job of updating the references and colloquialisms to make the show feel as if it’s taking place in Chicago (though an episode two plot about someone disappearing will probably seem more preposterous to American viewers when that person turns up in an unexpected place than the British original did to UK viewers). Most of all, the series has a firm sense of place and class, a sense of people who are fighting just to keep from slipping down the drain. After watching three episodes, I’m still not entirely sure what the show is supposed to be about, on a more far-reaching basis (assuming it eventually branches off from the British original, as it probably must), but the almost improvisational nature of how the family at the show’s center survives day to day remains compelling throughout.
The Gallaghers live in an ethnically diverse, impoverished neighborhood in Chicago, crammed in a tiny little house that’s stuffed to the gills with kids. There are six Gallagher children, and while we get only the barest of hints about, say, the departed mother of most of the kids, it’s also obvious how things came to be this way without too much exposition. See, family patriarch Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) is a total, complete mess of a human being. He’s a drunk. He lives off of government checks, rather than having a job (though the fact that one government check is a disability check suggests possible reasons beyond his drunkenness for why he doesn’t have work). He doesn’t hold the kids together, so much as the kids hold him together. It’s an interesting tack to take that Frank is barely in the pilot, as Macy is easily the show’s most marketable star, but it works. Frank is better as almost an antagonist, a guy these kids can’t help but put up with but one no one would blame them for cutting loose.
The person holding these tenuous bonds together is Fiona (Emmy Rossum), the eldest of Frank’s children. She keeps everything on track, making sure the kids are cared for and fed and keeping all of the bills paid, and she works a series of odd jobs to keep the money flowing in. She occasionally finds time for herself, dancing at a club in a dress she purchased at a local store and left the tag on, at least until her friend says she can just reattach it with the tag gun she stole at the T.J. Maxx she used to work for. While out dancing, Fiona meets a new guy named Steve (Justin Chatwin), who at least seems to come from a much higher economic class. Is his interest in Fiona just a sort of class-based sex tourism? Or are his feelings genuine? You probably don’t have to ask.
Rossum’s never been a terribly strong actress. Her work on film consists mainly of staring hard at things, her lip trembling ever so slightly. Her line deliveries tended to be flat, and her ability to inhabit characters was practically non-existent. Every character she played seemed to just be a variation on the same old Emmy Rossum. However, in Shameless, she’s borderline fantastic. I hate to get into “compare the versions” games, but the biggest advantage the U.S. version has over the U.K. version is in its Fiona. Rossum has her problems with some of the show’s clunkier dialogue, but she’s legitimately a revelation here, and she seems to inhabit this character and the reality of trying to hold together this family in this particular place and time better than any of the other actors in the show, including Macy, who’s sometimes tempted to make Frank far too broad.
The biggest problem here stems from the show’s other big “name,” Joan Cusack, who plays Sheila, a local housewife who’s got one or two screws loose, to say the least. It’s a Joan Cusack part, if ever there were a Joan Cusack part, but it feels so disconnected from the rest of the series, even if the other characters are aware of Sheila and involved with her in a variety of ways. For the most part, Shameless has such a firm sense of what it is and what it wants to be, such a good sense of how gritty and grimy its general milieu is, that the character of Sheila, who seems like your garden-variety messed-up housewife, particularly as played by Cusack, always runs counter to that. It’s like she’s a character from Desperate Housewives who’s randomly popped up in the midst of this minutely detailed family comedy. (And, yes, the Sheila character was in the original, but the American version seems to have heightened her just a little too much, though that may come from Cusack’s performance as much as anything else.)
Finally, there’s Chatwin, who’s just not in the same league as the other actors. While it’s fairly easy to buy the Gallaghers as a family, to buy the way all of the many siblings interact with each other and their father, it’s much more difficult to buy Steve and Fiona’s romance, and almost all of that stems from Chatwin, who plays the guy as someone who’s a deadly combination of smug and boring. It’s never immediately clear what Fiona sees in him, beyond the fact that he can buy her shit, and the connection between the two, which should be raw and real, feels more scripted and forced than anything else in the series not related to Sheila.
The big question for plenty of people is going to be whether or not there’s any point to watch Shameless, since the original still exists and is so easily findable for residents of all countries. Why didn’t Showtime just import the original, if executive producer John Wells (the man who was behind much of ER) loved the show so much? And while the show doesn’t do a great deal to distinguish itself as a completely separate beast in the first three episodes (though some of the plotting is different), there are senses that this is a clone that’s just been born and is getting its legs under it. In Wells’ scripts (written with original series mastermind Paul Abbott), one can sense a clear affection for the material and characters but particularly an affection for the series’ world. There’s not a clear indication of what this show is going to be beyond a series of slices of life, but Wells is really good at those slices of life, and he’s clearly expressing something he finds moving about both the original series and his beloved Chicago. Maybe Shameless hasn’t found its feet just yet, but the foundation it stands on is solid, and the individual components are mostly good. I’m giving Wells at least a half-season to see if he can make this thing take flight on its own.
- My experience with the original series consists mostly of watching much of series one here and there over the past few months (since I heard of the remake), mostly on YouTube. This is why I’d hesitate to compare the two too much, though resident Brit TV expert David Sims says the American pilot is quite derivative. I’d say it gets better from there, but if you’ve seen the original and aren’t curious about Macy and Rossum’s work, you can probably wait until episode three, when the show starts to diverge somewhat.
- The grade’s for the pilot alone.
- I'm sure some will be curious about the other Gallagher kids. The first three episodes have some good material for all of them, but the overwhelming sense is that the show is Rossum and Macy's, then Chatwin's, then everybody else's. Still, I'm impressed by the casting of the kids.
- The title sequence, which first pops up in episode two, is really terrific. Here's hoping it wins the Emmy.
- Starting next week, Josh Alston will take you through the rest of the season, in hopes that this will gel into something cohesive and compelling, rather than remaining a series of really fascinating parts.