Doing my job, unsuspecting, when out of nowhere, I am struck in the mid-section by a flying headless chicken. I was lucky. It almost missed me.
— Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy)
Collecting disability is just one of the scams Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) uses to support his alcoholism and drug habits. He also buried his Aunt Ginger in the backyard after she died doing cocaine with him, so that he could continue to live in her house and cash her Social Security checks. However, to hear it from Frank, he’s a victim, struggling to raise his six children as a single parent after his “psycho” wife left him. Still, and no matter how much he insists otherwise, Frank’s not a conventionally “good” parent.
Similarly, despite Frank’s prominence in the promotions for Showtime’s new series Shameless, he is not the show’s focus. That would be his oldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum). She anchors not only the series but the family as well, making sure that bills are paid (although all the kids chip), the laundry’s done, everyone eats and gets off to school. Frank shows up at home only to sleep off his latest drunk. In fact, it is 40 minutes into the premiere episode before he actually converses with any of his children.
Fiona’s life is complicated when she meets Steve (Justin Chatwin), who’s been watching her in nightclubs for months (she still has time to get out) and finally has a chance to impress her when someone snatches her purse. After a night of hot sex on the kitchen floor (interrupted when the cops bring her dad home, passed out again), Steve tries to work his way into her life by buying her a new washing machine. Fiona’s initial impression of Steve as a spoiled, rich boy changes when she learns the true source of his income.
Dealing with an alcoholic father and budding romance would be enough for any 20something woman, but Fiona must also deal with her siblings’ various turmoils. Oldest brother Lip (Jeremy Allan White), who works as a tutor as well as taking pre-college exams and writing papers for classmates, is getting “hummers” under the kitchen table from Karen (Laura Wiggins), one of his clients, while her oblivious mother Sheila (Joan Cusack) cooks within eyesight. Concerned his brother Ian (Cameron Monagham) is gay, Lip drags Ian along to enjoy Karen’s services, only to be found out by her father. In fact, Ian is gay and sleeping with his married boss.
All this confusion might explain why little brother Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) likes to melt his toys in appliances and Debbie (Emma Kenney) voices her desire for a stable household. That is, one not full of fights, drugs, and sex: it’s as if cameras have followed home some of Jerry Springer’s guests and recorded each white trash moment.
In some regards, watching Shameless is reminiscent of watching Springer’s show, in that we might be fascinated by the dysfunction and illogic. This is particularly true regarding Frank. It’s difficult to determine whether it’s his drinking or mental illness or a combination that brings on his abhorrent hygiene and frequent rants as he walks down the street. He resents it when he’s arrested for vagrancy, even though he appears to have nowhere to go and suffers from delusions. In his mythical world, Frank is a wounded warrior, perpetually raging against a system that is intent on denying him what he deserves.
All this worries Fiona, of course, and her compassion keeps Shameless — a remake of a hit British show — from being a glib mockery of poverty. She is the yin to Frank’s yang, organized, focused, and efficient. We can see why it’s been hard for her to establish a lasting romance, given her many responsibilities. And in this she resembles the increasing number of young adults who play parent both to younger siblings and parents. She keeps the family together, encouraging all members to protect one another and their home: they’re like a modern-day Waltons living in the slums of Chicago.
Another asset lifting Shameless is its humor, though it’s not as frequent as promos would indicate. Primarily, it’s situational, as when Frank woos the newly separated Sheila in hopes of gaining free room and board. Both an agoraphobic and a tiger in the bedroom, she’s the sort of eccentric supporting character who generates “situations,” for instance, leaving Frank shocked when she handcuffs him to the bed and pulls out a massive dildo. The following morning, she is back in June Clever mode, lovingly placing a pillow in the kitchen chair for the now limping Frank.
As you’d expect, his schemes rarely pan out, but they don’t always provide jokes either. In the opening segment of the premiere episode, Frank declares, “We may not have much, but all of us know the most important thing in this life… We know how to fucking party.” Yet, this is misleading: their life is anything but a party.