It’s hard to be shocked by a television show when you live in a world where you feel as if you’ve seen everything—an impression that’s hard to shake when watching much of Showtime’s original programming. Sometimes the network’s shows can manage real human drama (Dexter and, sporadically, Weeds), but most of the time, Showtime seems like that kid who shows up at school wearing a shirt with “FUCK” written on it. “Yeah, Modern Family may get better grades, but does it have tits like these?” the network asks, holding up a Penthouse in the bathroom. So, considering its cabal of serial killers, sex addicts, and drug dealers, it’s not even the tiniest bit surprising that Showtime optioned an adaptation of Paul Abbott’s BAFTA-winning U.K. series Shameless, a show about an impoverished family who lies, cheats, and screws their way through their lives of misfortune.
Dolling up the show with a prettier cast, a bigger budget, and a more familiar American setting, Abbott returns to produce along with writer John Wells in what amounts to nearly a scene-for-scene remake of the original series. Shameless follows the Gallagher clan, a poor but resourceful Chicago family including six dysfunctional kids held together by industrious older sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum). Getting by through odd jobs and grift, they’re continually held back by their deadbeat father, Frank (William H. Macy), whose delusional entitlement, $700-a-week drinking habit, and tendency to spend the day laid out on the floor eats into most of the family’s earnings. Like its network, Shameless spends too much time fishing for shock value than for actual comedy or substance, layering each character’s decadence and edginess on top of one another, all set to eight-year-old indie-rock tracks, until the only thing that remains is a slurry of masturbation gags, nudity, and madcap pranks.
It’s obvious that Abbott and Wells want to avoid wholly concentrating on ribald window dressing, as each episode is bloated with weak character drama and saccharine romance. The budding relationship between Fiona and her car-thief beau, Steve (Justin Chatwin), is especially groan-inducing, littered with heartfelt speeches about self-improvement and understanding, and punctuated with scenes of them barely missing trains and kissing to soulful acoustic ballads. A lot of the problems with the Fiona/Steve relationship are Chatwin’s fault, who lacks the charm of a James McAvoy, his U.K. counterpart, which makes Steve come across as smarmy and unlikable.
Were it not for Macy, Shameless would suffer from a terminal lack of fun and poignancy. Macy, who’s no stranger to embodying unseemly but somehow likable jerks, plays Frank the Plank with such swagger and gusto that it’s hard not to be charmed by him. It’s a shame that his character gets so little screen time, as his presence offers levity to a show whose attempts at oddball humor don’t always work. Frank’s troubled, borderline unexplainable, relationship with his kids offers up the best bits from the season’s early episodes, with his family remaining clearly devoted to him in spite of him being a physically abusive, miserable crank.
The show’s narrative does start to improve as the season progresses, with characters like oldest son Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and agoraphobic neighbor Sheila (Joan Cusack) beginning to form into real characters rather than sentient globs of quirks and clichés. But while Frank’s high jinks are good for a chuckle, and his love/hate relationship with his kids speaks a lot about the complicated nature of having a down-and-out family, Shameless tries too hard to milk weighty drama from generally dull characters.