I’m still trying to understand what makes Shameless work, and why I’ve never convinced anyone to watch it.
My take on modern film comedies is that they always have enough good stuff to make for an excellent trailer, but too often, the trailer has all of the good stuff and the movie itself isn’t much. Shameless could fall into this category … it wouldn’t be hard to extract three minutes of funny material for a trailer. The problem is, Shameless is not a comedy.
The good stuff in modern comedies does more than bolster the trailer. The good stuff also becomes something you can talk about afterwards … long afterwards, years afterwards. Take this scene from Pineapple Express: https://youtu.be/_bmj5EYNVkU. If you check the comments section, you’ll see one person after another quoting favorite lines. They’ll still be doing that in 2023 … “maybe the anal bead!” When everything lame about a movie has blended into the background, you can still reminisce about (and quote from) those three funny scenes.
You can do this with Shameless, too. Usually, this comes when, as often happens, something occurs that is far beyond what we’re used to seeing on television. You tell your friends about it, and maybe they’ll even tune into an episode, hoping for more of the same. But those scenes aren’t the sole or even primary purpose of Shameless, and you’ll find your attention wandering until you eventually turn the channel, never to return.
This problem is magnified because most of the “did I just see that?” scenes feature William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher. When the series began, Macy was practically the only regular cast member anyone had heard of. Emmy Rossum had a burgeoning film career, having starred as Catherine in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera musical, and Joan Cusack had a secondary role. The rest of the cast was still building their resumes. I’m guessing this is why Macy/Frank features in so much of the promotion for the series. But it’s more than that. Frank is the character you can count on to do something so outrageous that people will talk about it at the virtual water cooler the next day.
But Frank is one of the least-interesting characters on the show, and his misdeeds are largely unimportant except as they impact on his family. Shameless is about families, not about drunks, about trying to get by, not about drunken scams, about building and maintaining relationships, not about fucking people over for drink money. If you tune into Shameless hoping to see a comedy about a drunk, you won’t be impressed.
The most recent episode demonstrates how this all works. There was a Frank story going on, which boils down to this: he is the one person who can calm a baby with Down’s syndrome (he rubs drugs on the kid’s mouth), he tries to use the baby to win a Make-a-Wish styled gift so he can sell it on eBay, and when that doesn’t work because the kid isn’t dying, he tells one of his younger sons that the son has cancer, shaves the kid’s head, and drags the kid back to the charity. There, I explained it in one run-on sentence, and if you didn’t know better, you might see the humor that could be milked from this.
But the episode is about relationships. One couple struggles when an ex-wife turns up. Another couple struggles when a former school-teacher pedophile turns up. Another couple starts up a pre-teen friendship. The gay Gallagher son walks the line between his sugar daddy and his real boyfriend. And Fiona, the main character played by Rossum, admits to her boyfriend that she trusts him, which she considers even more important than love … what we know, what she doesn’t know, is that her boyfriend is secretly married to a mobster’s daughter. When Rossum, who week after week delivers some of the best acting on TV, talks about trust as the emotion flows from her eyes, Shameless is heartbreaking. But that heartbreak comes, not because of the “good stuff” you talk about at the water cooler, but because of the care taken to show different kinds of relationships, because of the effort the show makes to present the Gallaghers as a real family facing up to real lower-class problems, because Emmy Rossum deserves an Emmy (pun not intended).
How do I get this across, though? I can’t suggest you just watch the next episode to see if you like it. Pretty much the only thing to do is watch it from the beginning, and that’s what I recommend. Because the best shows are more than their YouTube clips.
Having said all of that, of course I’ll close with a clip. I’ve posted this before. Fiona, who has raised her family in the absence of her mother and the anti-presence of her derelict father, confronts the mother, who has returned to retake her place in the family. (Chloe Webb is great here, but Rossum is even better.)