Adapted from the British series of the same name Shameless follows no-collar drunk Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) as he avoids responsibility, defrauds the government, neglects his children, drinks, leeches off a mentally ill woman, drinks, and causes general disharmony in his every waking moment––and even sometimes when he’s asleep. Frank’s no father, nor is he a dad, so the parenting duties fall squarely on the shoulders of his eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) who raises her brothers Phillip (“Lip”, as he’s called, played by Jeremy Allen White), Ian (Cameron Monaghan), Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), and Liam (Blake Alexander Johnson and Brennan Kane Johnson) as well as her younger sister, Debbie (Emma Kenney).
Word is that one network wanted to transform the Gallaghers into a group of bumpkins––thankfully, that didn’t happen. The Gallaghers are poor but they’re not caricatures. These are complex characters, with deep emotions and complex motivations. Lip has an enviable intellect but veers dangerously close to becoming a hoodlum who will never escape the neighborhood; Ian’s sexuality is a dangerous secret, especially in the rough and tumble Chicago neighborhood where he lives; Carl has deep emotional disturbances and there’s really something odd about Debbie (she’s also wise beyond her years). Fiona remains tethered to the family, the one member who, no matter what, may never realize her dreams. Her bad boy boyfriend Steve (Justin Chatwin) stands as a curious complication in her life: Is he freeing her or just setting an elaborate trap?
The real soul of Shameless rests in the wide-sweeping emotions the viewer experiences while watching this family survive. Frank’s alcoholism isn’t funny, but it is comedic and watching Macy, an actor who has played his share of losers before, dive into the lower depths with this character serves as testament to the Fargo star’s full powers as an actor. Frank’s relationship with Sheila (Joan Cusack) is a catastrophe disguised as a grain of redemption, complicated by Sheila’s husband Eddie (Joel Murray) and teenage daughter (Karen, played by Laura Slade Wiggins). Eddie, although not a hopeless alcoholic, is probably not as good a man as Frank––a fine distinction, to be sure. Karen watches her mother’s misdirected affections with anger and seemingly endless pain and her outrage leads to shocking actions and equally shocking consequences.
Cusack has long played misfit characters but her turn as Sheila may be her best performance yet––she brings an intelligence to the character that a lesser actor might have missed and her ability to unleash gawky physicality with such grace suits her well in this role. Her scenes with Macy are among the saddest in the series because, unlike the men in her life, she only wants love.
A similarly complex relationship exists between Ian and Kash (Pej Vahdat). Kash is married but deeply infatuated with Ian, whose affections are appropriately fleeting. (He is only 15, after all.) The relationship allows for some critical discoveries––Ian learns about being a man and we discover that Kash, despite his age, is much more of a boy than his young lover. For Ian it’s opportunity, for Kash the relationship may be the one thing in his life that carries truth. Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and Kev (Steve Howey), the Gallaghers’ neighbors, have perhaps the most transparent relationship and their scenes prove irresistibly fun to watch.
The younger cast members also deserve praise, in particular White, Monaghan, and Kenney. Rossum is a capable actor but, by the end of the first season, has not truly arrived and one suspects that she may not yet grasp the full depth of her character.
The first season moves viewers form the relative comfort of watching a family’s struggles to the undeniably uncomfortable place of identifying fully with people who at first seem nothing like us. It’s part of what makes Shameless both fun and gut-wrenching, a series with enough nuance that you truly don’t know what to expect next and whether an episode will leave you with a gaping mouth or aching sides.
Several episodes in the first season directly recreate those from the original British series, which is now in its ninth season. Although it’s tempting to consider the original superior––and many times the original British versions are––the two are really equal in their abilities with little if anything lost in translation. Comparing the first seasons of both versions is positively entertaining.
The two-disc Blu-ray release offers the three featurettes “Bring Shameless To America” with creator Paul Abbott and executive producer John Wells, “Shameless: Bringing the ‘Fun’ to Dysfunctional” about casting the show, and “A Shameless Discussion About Sex”, which examines the show’s frequent sex scenes. The pilot and “Frank Gallagher: Loving Husband, Devoted Father” also feature commentary tracks; deleted scenes and a glimpse of the second season round out the bonus features, all of which are worthwhile. Blu-ray owners also receive a digital copy.