I should probably change my online moniker to “LateToTheParty.” [I checked: it’s already taken—go figure.]
I’ve never watched the British comedy Shameless, which this Showtime series was based upon. So, don’t expect much in the way of compare-and-contrast in this review. If you love the original and think the Yank version is utter excrement, then more power to you. Everything is subjective and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I do know that Paul Abbott, who created the British series, was involved in the adaptation of this show, which was developed by John Wells, who has been executive producer and showrunner for ER, The West Wing, and many other high-profile series. The pedigree seems good enough. Plus, the series just completed its tenth season in January 2020, and was renewed for its eleventh and final season to begin airing sometime in 2020 as well. By all accounts, it has been a successful cable series.
Eleven seasons is a lot of television. If the final season sticks with the 12-episodes-per-season average, we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 134 total episodes. (Season 9 had 14 episodes for some reason). I’m about to finish up watching all of Supernatural, and that’s 318 total episodes. 134 is, by comparison, a piece of cake.
Anyway, with ten seasons already in the can, I am definitely very late to this party. I was aware of the series, of course. I’ve also been a William H. Macy fan since the movie Fargo. I had filed the existence of this series somewhere in the back of my head (which is full of dust, spiders, pet rocks and, for some weird reason, those novelty drinking birds that are often mistaken for examples of perpetual motion machines). I promised myself that I would get around to watching it someday.
Someday finally came.
Watching the pilot episode of Shameless was a confusing, frenetic, and dizzying experience. A lot of things seemed to be happening and, most of the time, I wasn’t sure who was who or what exactly was going on. By the time I was three episodes or so into the season, I had a firm grasp of the characters and even knew their names.
The Gallaghers are a large, dysfunctional and morally-fluid Irish-American family that lives in the South Side of Chicago. Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) is a single parent with six children, who are left to fend for themselves as the alcoholic Frank works harder at scamming and grifting whatever money he can get than he would work at an actual job. I never once felt that the creative forces behind this series were trying to make Frank a sympathetic character in this season. While I had sympathy for the Gallagher children, whose mother Monica (Chloe Webb) abandoned them to run off with her lesbian truck-driving partner, I had none left over for Frank. I can’t even describe him, with a straight face, as an “antihero,” such as Don Draper or Walter White or even Tony Soprano. Those characters seemed to be trying to accomplish something at least. Frank is happy just getting his next drink, even if his children have to go without food or other necessities.
Which is not to say that William H. Macy does a bad job portraying Frank. No, not at all. In the hands of a lesser actor, Frank Gallagher would be just a caricature of a not-so-nice guy, like an Al Bundy perhaps. Macy makes me really hate Frank at times. Since I like Macy, that takes some talent.
Another standout character is Frank’s eldest child, daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum), who dropped out of high school and works several jobs to help support all of the Gallagher children. In the first season, she emerges as the series’ main protagonist, in my opinion. Her relationship with Steve/Jimmy (Justin Chatwin) is a seasonal story arc, with the perennial bad boy offering her a chance to escape her family circumstances in the finale (SPOILER: she doesn’t). Fiona is a character genuinely deserving of our sympathies.
The two eldest male Gallagher children are also interesting. Philip “Lip” Gallagher (Jeremy Allen White) is a verified genius who gives off strong young-Dustin Hoffman vibes. Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan) is revealed to be secretly gay in the pilot episode, and much of his character arc revolves around that fact. I’m familiar with Monaghan from his work as the not-Joker, Jerome (and Jeremiah) Valeska, on that ultimately disappointing series Gotham. He was a bright spot on that show, and his TV-star power was already apparent on this show as well before I ever saw him.
There are three other Gallagher children, who exist mostly as set dressing instead of plot-movers (at least in this season). I recognize the actress who plays the other Gallagher daughter, Debbie (Emma Kenney) from her current role in the revamped Roseanne/The Connors. Considering her solid acting performance at a much-younger age in this show, I think her talent is currently being wasted. Carl Gallagher (Ethan Cutkosky) is apparently a precocious serial killer-in-training. Liam Gallagher (played by twins Brennan and Blake Johnson) is a toddler that Frank suggests may have been fathered by his wife’s AA sponsor or a bouncer because of his obvious African-American heritage. No one ever mentions that Liam Gallagher is the name of that guy in the band Oasis, but I couldn’t help but think about it the first dozen or so times they used his name. Late in the season it turns out (again: SPOILER) that Liam is actually Frank’s biological son. But, it never really matters, because no one ever treats Liam as anything other than a member of the family, including Frank. Of course, in the case of Frank, that means he neglects Liam along with his other five children.
Neighborhood friends Veronica Fisher (Shanola Hampton) and Kevin Ball (Steve Howey) initially confused me because I thought they were somehow related to the Gallaghers. They’re not, but they certainly seem to be in their extended family and are a part of every episode.
Other important characters in this season include Lip’s friend-with-benefits Karen Jackson (Laura Slade Wiggins) and her mom Sheila (Joan Cusack). Karen is an unapologetically promiscuous girl, and her relationship with Lip is a strange one. Sheila is an agoraphobic who gets involved with Frank during the season after Eddie Jackson (Joel Murray) abandons his family. Frank pursues Sheila for a place to stay and to mooch on her disability check. This story arc follows some predictable and unpredictable paths.
Speaking of predictable: Monica, the Gallagher matriarch, naturally returns briefly to stir up the drama, and just as predictably leaves again. All of the emotions she evokes are well-acted, and, once again, you can’t help but feel for the Gallagher children (not Frank: never Frank).
I haven’t diagrammed everything that happens during the season, but I think I’ve given you an overview. There’s a lot of stuff always going on, and I discovered that I had to pay attention to keep up at times. This is not a show for casual viewing or background noise. While there are a lot of funny things that happen on the show, it is not a sitcom. Don’t begin watching it expecting a working-class sitcom like Roseanne or The Middle. But, this isn’t a docudrama either. This is Hollywood poverty with more clutter and disarray than squalidness. Plus, the Gallagher children are more industry slender than malnourished, in spite of having to scrounge for their meals.
Don’t watch this if you’re adverse to foul language, sexual situations, or generally bad behavior, including a lot of drug and alcohol abuse. Even your favorite characters on this show aren’t necessarily pillars of the community.
In spite of this caveat, the show has heart. I enjoyed this first season and will continue watching.
Firewater’s You-Can’t-Beat-Karate-When-it-Comes-to-Regulated-Sanctioned-Violence-for-Children Report Card: A
For naughty but entertaining fun, take a walk on the South Side with the Gallaghers.