A Retrospective on Showtime’s Biggest Hit
As I have made clear repeatedly on my blog, I have been more partial to Showtime’s series than their rival HBO. Having almost been ranked a poor second to the pioneering pay cable network, it has often been willing to swing for the fences more than its rival. It has created a series of brilliant dramedies centered around flawed anti-heroines (Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, et al.), it has been more than willing to try ambition series looking into history (The Borgias, Masters of Sex), and has created some series that look into struggles in capitalism and espionage (Billions and Homeland). If at times, the series have had a scummy feel to them (House of Lies, Califonication) one gets the feeling Showtime was at least experimenting more
But its most successful series has been one I’ve had a bizarre relationship with almost since its premiere. Shameless, John Wells very loose adaptation of a British comedy series, has been a tricky series to pigeonhole. This has pertained to Emmy voters as well, who considered it a drama its first three years on the air, and have considered it a comedy ever since. And while I can’t say I really enjoy it, there has always been something about the Gallagher clans struggles that has resonated and grown on me with each successive season. So, as it reaches episode 100 and will very shortly become Showtime’s longest running series, I think its worth taking a look at the series.
I’ll be perfectly honest. Much of my repellence towards the series has dealt with the central protagonist. Frank Gallagher isn’t really an antihero, he’s just tremendously unlikable. Every single flaw that man can have seems to be filtering through him simultaneously. He has never worked an honest day in his life, he is an alcoholic, a con artist, and a borderline sociopath. He seems determined to fritter away every opportunity that his children might have, and demeans every accomplishment they make. Indeed, at one point he berated them so harshly at his eldest daughter’s wedding that they threw him off a bridge into Lake Michigan. It is to the immense credit of William H. Macy, one of the great actors of our time, that he manages to make Frank entertaining at all. And yet, with each successive season, he manages at least once, to do something almost redemptive. It doesn’t last much longer than its takes him to grab a beer at the Alibi, but occasionally, you see something in him.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that, unlike almost every other series on the air, the Gallaghers are among the white poor. Every year they have to struggle to make enough money to survive the winter, to just keep their house together, to try to move above their station in life. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that the Gallaghers are the people that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tried to reach in the last Presidential campaign. (There’s going to be at least one storyline this season that makes the direct connection between this.)
And maybe the reason the Gallagher clan tolerates their truly awful father is because there’s a fair amount of his self-destructiveness in every one of them. Fiona (Emmy Rossum, who is remarkable) has served as the surrogate mother for the clan, since their own mother abandoned them very early on. She is protective, affectionate, and determined to make something of herself. But she has the habit of choosing truly horrible men to be with — she was involved with a car thief who never told her his real name the first name they met, had a relationship with her boss that nearly got her sent to prison, and almost married a former drug addict, who revealed on their wedding day that he had relapsed. She is ambitious, and is rising to the level of an entrepeneur, but can be overly aggressive, and at one point, allowed her toddler brother to accidentally ingest cocaine that was in her possession. She was on house arrest for awhile, but its not clear she ever took responsibility for her actions.
Lip (William Allen White) has simultaneously the most potential and is the most determined to fritter it away. Clearly a supergenius, he at one point dropped out of high school because he believed he got his girlfriend pregnant, and finally got a scholarship to the University Of Chicago. Once there, he engaged in an affair with a married professor, and then spiraled into such a drunken debauchery that he was expelled. He has since owned up to being an alcoholic, but his future is in doubt.
Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is one of the most original characters on TV. A gay teenager, who initially had ambitions to go into West Point, he became involved with a very closeted delinquent that eventually caused him to drop out of school and become an exotic dancer. Later, it was revealed that he has the same bipolar disorder his mother has, and he spent two years trying to rebuild himself to the point of becoming a paramedic who helped other kids like him. Then, last season, he seemed to have another relapse, believed himself to be a ‘gay Jesus’, and blew up a gay conversion therapist’s van. He was last seen being led off to prison.
Debbie, who for awhile seemed like she was heading in the right direction, seems equally determined to be destructive. She was determined to lose her virginity before her younger brother Carl, and ended up doing so and getting pregnant, which caused Fiona to abandon her. After giving birth, she got married a disabled man for his pension, and has had custody issued. Since then, she has managed to get an online degree in welding, but its harder to tell where she’ll ended up.
But the most ambitious journey has been that of Carl.. For the first half of the series, he was an outright criminal, dealing in drugs and gun. By Season 5, he had been sent off to juvenile detention, and when he left he seemed on the verge of becoming an adult criminal. Then his best friend from the inside got shot over a bicycle, and he got scared straight. He applied to military school, and actually seems to have a better self-awareness. Of course, that doesn’t mean he isn’t prone to the same bad decisions that all the Gallaghers make — he ended up getting forced into a shotgun wedding to a really crazy woman.
Shameless clearly has more ambition and, like most of its characters, has a self-determination that’s hard not to like even when the characters are at their most self-destructive. It does, however, seem the series should start winding down soon. (Considering that Rossum, the heart of the series aside from Macy has announced that Season 9 will be her last, they may start heading in that direction.) The Gallagher clan goes out of its way to not be likeable, and yet they’re appealing nonetheless. It’s nowhere near being Showtime’s greatest accomplishment, but its still one of the most remarkable.