Dad took on the role of both our parents… he did sod all, twice over.
—Fiona Gallagher (Anne-Marie Duff)
Not many of us could feel affection for a father who is regularly delivered home by the police, passed out and covered in piss. But then again, a few years ago, not many would have imagined that a rock star best known for snorting ants and biting the heads off bats would become an internationally beloved family man. Thanks to Ozzy Osbourne and MTV, we’ve developed a new tolerance for paternal dysfunction. So, when, in Shameless, single father of six Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall) arrives in the aforementioned state, his kids don’t throw him out. They accept him, and so do we.
Writer-creator Paul Abbott’s latest series for Channel 4 challenges expectations of what is right and wrong, but is balanced by the exhibition of some old-fashioned values. This humor-infused drama tells the story of the Gallaghers, living on a crime-ridden Manchester housing estate. During the opening titles, Frank’s voice-over tells us that his wife ran off several years ago, leaving him with 20-year-old Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff), teenage brothers Lip (Jody Latham) and Ian (Gerard Kearns), younger siblings Carl (Elliott and Luke Tittensor), Debbie (Rebecca Ryan), and three-year-old, “gonna be a rock star” Liam (Joseph Furnace). (While this reference to the lead singer of Oasis is comically tacky, it is also believable that a family might choose the name for serious luck.)
The voiceover is coupled with close-ups of the kids in action, recalling the “Lust For Life” chase scene in Trainspotting. Like Danny Boyle’s movie, Shameless’ appeal is largely premised on the actors’ talents, as well as Abbott’s excellent writing. Though the dialogue is steeped in an often-incomprehensible Manchurian accent, it rivals the rhythm and wit of The West Wing.
While the Gallaghers’ situation is hardly ideal—the title sequence shows the family and their friends partying around a burning car against a backdrop of depressing tower blocks—the characters are complicated and engaging. So are their relationships. Fiona, for example, meets Steve (James McVoy) after his failed attempt at retrieving her purse from a mugger. A posh, educated car dealer, Steve romances Fiona with a new washer/dryer. (His resemblance to Andrew McCarthy à la Pretty in Pink makes his charm irresistible.) While it seems an obviously “good” deed that Steve wants to help her family, it only becomes acceptable to the Gallaghers when Fiona learns he is actually a high-end car thief: his dodgy dealings are familiar to her, and so seem trustworthy.
Such reversal of conventional ideals structures Shameless. At first, the onslaught of blowjobs, punch-ups, foul language, and booze makes the title seem fitting, as the Gallaghers seem unfazed by any sort of excess. But its irony becomes clear when Fiona’s frantic first-date sex with Steve is interrupted by the cops delivering a drunken Frank at the doorstep. The officers’ familiarity with Fiona suggests the frequency of this sort of occurrence and her tears prove that she does feel shame. But she also feels pride in keeping her family together, and that means accepting Frank as is. And Fiona guides our responses: one moment we are disgusted by Frank head-butting his son, but a few scenes later, we can laugh at his less aggressive antics.
This shifting tone is made visible in the clever shooting style. Frank’s disorientation at waking up in a park in France is conveyed by a camera attached to his chest, so that the frame lurches as his body does. Or, we view the family having breakfast from a low angle on the floor, where Frank sleeps. In one cringe-worthy scene, the camera closely follows a rolling potato that leads a father to discover his teenaged daughter under the table, paying for her tutor in sexual favors.
Shameless has distinguished itself from other UK television series by meeting standards set by American imports, such as Six Feet Under and The Sopranos—standards that have to do with wide-ranging subject matter as well as language or sexual display. While some viewers may be drawn to the car-crash appeal of such explicit drama, and others may be offended, still others will appreciate the risks taken by Shameless.