It’s time to cast aside your bitterness over that psychologically tortured New Jersey Mob clan’s abrupt goodbye. There’s 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 don’t 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 won’t 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, there’s more smiling, conviviality and cheeky enthusiasm in one crisis-averting episode than a year’s worth of your average sitcom. The Gallaghers are one tough, lively, motivated scrum, as strong in a pinch as any combat platoon.
In Abbott’s 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 who’s more like an extra dependent, or a urine-stained piece of furniture, when passed out on the living room floor. (Although it’s 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), who’s 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 haven’t 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. (They’ll 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 show’s street-smart ebulliency: “You’re not lost so you don’t need finding, and you’re not trapped so you don’t need springing.” Like a flower blooming in a maelstrom, Fiona and Steve are easily one of television’s 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 who’s 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 don’t see that often on television. Then there are the thieving, beatings and general lawlessness that frequently dot the Gallaghers’ emotion-packed lives. They’re 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 it’ll clock you when you’re 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 Threlfall’s performance as the lager-lined Frank is what grounds the show’s loopy warmth. Everybody on the show is gripping and wonderful, but Threlfall’s 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 who’ve exiled him — his slurry, impassioned character roll call over the opening credits is a small voice-over masterpiece — Threlfall’s Frank has an almost magically obtuse dignity about him, whether blathering on about how put-upon he’s 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 Philip’s sex-crazed girlfriend. Breaking it off with the shocked teenager, he stammeringly pleads for her to understand that he’s the boy’s father: “I held him!” Pause. “The day after he was born!”
Shameless | Sundance Channel | Thursdays, 11 p.m., beginning July 5