Shameless: No Pity, Please
Its time to cast aside your bitterness over that psychologically tortured New Jersey Mob clans abrupt goodbye. Theres a new gang to obsess about on the Sundance Channel next week with an uncensored run of the memorable first season of Shameless, the award-winning British show about the delinquent craftiness of a large public-housing family called the Gallaghers brothers and sisters who dont have time to mope about their lot in life when there are problems to solve, clothes to wash, mouths to feed, laughs to be had and lagers that wont drink themselves.
This dazzling, embraceable yet fervently unsentimental black comedy is the brainchild of acclaimed British TV writer Paul Abbott (State of Play, Touching Evil), who based the series on his own regrettable but vivid upbringing. When he was a boy, Abbott watched both parents shockingly abandon their 10 children, leaving a still-claustrophobic household with his teenage sister as its head. Needless to say, when life deals that card, survival requires the necessity of banding together, with liberal doses of fuck-off-and-take-care-of-your-own-business, and Shameless which could just as easily have inspired a three-hanky melodrama or a Ken Loach social realism harangue is as far from a pity party as a series with this premise could conceivably get. In fact, theres more smiling, conviviality and cheeky enthusiasm in one crisis-averting episode than a years worth of your average sitcom. The Gallaghers are one tough, lively, motivated scrum, as strong in a pinch as any combat platoon.
In Abbotts scenario, set in a Manchester, England, council estate called Chatsworth, the dad is still around, but stringy-haired Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall) is actually a full-time souse whos more like an extra dependent, or a urine-stained piece of furniture, when passed out on the living room floor. (Although its certainly easier to get change from his pockets that way.) Plucky, big-eyed 20-year-old beauty Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff) has been left in charge of her five younger sibs, which include sharp-witted, horny teen Philip (Jody Latham); secretly gay 15-year-old Ian (Gerard Kearns), whos shagging his married Muslim boss at the convenience store; cherubic-looking but possibly bonkers 9-year-old Debbie (Rebecca Ryan); and runts Carl and Liam, who havent learned to upstage anybody yet in the mischief department.
Helping out matters are neighbors Veronica (Maxine Peake) and Kev (Dean Lennox Kelly), a brash, randy and exceedingly good-natured couple whose house is open for the Gallaghers at all times, although if you barge in for a question you might catch them mid-screw. (Theyll answer politely, anyway.) The commandingly sexy Fiona has also snagged an angelic charmer of a boyfriend in Steve (James McAvoy, of The Last King of Scotland), whose upper-middle-class background makes Fiona initially wary, until he proves his Gallagher bona fides.
You make me want to enjoy my life, he tells Fiona, then sums up his attraction to her in a way that also beautifully articulates the shows street-smart ebulliency: Youre not lost so you dont need finding, and youre not trapped so you dont need springing. Like a flower blooming in a maelstrom, Fiona and Steve are easily one of televisions most disarmingly winning couples.
That said, Shameless earns its title in its depiction of casual vice, and while the show is a temple to human will in the face of adversity, nobody in it is treating his or her body as such. The blowjobs (and whos giving and receiving them) in the pilot alone could make a dedicated HBO watcher blush, and sex between consenting characters is usually a wall-rattling, contortionist proposition. Even the sight of Veronica ironing topless while smoking has the frisson of something you just dont see that often on television. Then there are the thieving, beatings and general lawlessness that frequently dot the Gallaghers emotion-packed lives. Theyre never presented as lovable rogues or petty criminals, however. The hand that swipes and the head that butts are all connected to the same attitude toward life: If itll clock you when youre not looking, show you can give as good as you get.
Since the Gallaghers make a point of being able to function without their dad (referred to by Fiona as a waste of organs), it may seem odd to suggest that David Threlfalls performance as the lager-lined Frank is what grounds the shows loopy warmth. Everybody on the show is gripping and wonderful, but Threlfalls is the real tour de force, a pickled howl of a turn that both nods to the gloriously funny drunks of show-biz past and represents an original concoction of unusual depth and sympathy. Like a mad Shakespearean king still besotted with the subjects whove exiled him his slurry, impassioned character roll call over the opening credits is a small voice-over masterpiece Threlfalls Frank has an almost magically obtuse dignity about him, whether blathering on about how put-upon hes been as a single parent (!), merrily scheming for a drink, or resignedly accepting that fate has bizarre things in store for him, as in the episode when he succumbs to the temptations of Philips sex-crazed girlfriend. Breaking it off with the shocked teenager, he stammeringly pleads for her to understand that hes the boys father: I held him! Pause. The day after he was born!
Shameless | Sundance Channel | Thursdays, 11 p.m., beginning July 5
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