My Western collection is Shane-less.
Shameless, Showtime’s tribute to the dysfunctional, is back for a second season. The show boasts quality acting and production value, all to depict the lowest of the low.
Meet the Gallagher family. Dad Frank (William H. Macy, Fargo) is on workman’s comp, every cent of which he spends on booze. Oldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum, The Day After Tomorrow) tries to keep the rest of family safe and sane by working numerous jobs and acting as a de facto mom. The younger kids, ranging in age from high school to toddler, all engage in various illegal schemes and plots to help get by. This season, the family starts its own unlicensed day care, scores a small fortune in marijuana, deals with babynappers, plots to steal other people’s insurance money, and more. It’s all just another summer among the Shameless.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Shameless. The show defies expectation in many ways. The many stereotypes of this type of story are not seen. Although often described as “white trash,” the Gallaghers do not have the hillbilly accents and they do not dwell in a trailer park. There is some religious satire here and there, but the Gallaghers and their neighbors are not so-called “Bible-thumpers.” While this season makes the point that most (all?) of the family members are uneducated, the Gallaghers are in fact quite smart, able to problem-solve on their feet and work any situation to their advantage.
While these characters have little to no moral center, questions of whether their behavior is “good” or “bad” becomes irrelevant. This is who they are and this is what their lives are. While many viewers will call their decisions self-destructive or poorly thought out, the show doesn’t have such moralizing. When they’re stealing, scheming, or screwing each other over, it’s just that this is what they do to get by. They’re not truly evil, and they’re not heroically rebelling against the powers that be. Instead, they’re just doing what do, what they’ve always done. Also, Shameless appears to take place in some sort of alternate universe in which everyone is shameless to some degree. Often, we meet a “normal” person, only to see that normal person engage in similar behavior as the Gallaghers, but in his or her own way.
Is all this played up for shock value? You could make that case, but there’s a lot more going on in Shameless than just “Look, teenagers are drinking and having sex” for the sake of ratings. The characters, monstrous as they might be, are front and center.
Fiona, as the one who struggles and sacrifices so much to keep food on the table, is often pegged as the good one or the nice one. Nonetheless, when she sees a woman has left a purse behind on the train, Fiona’s first thought is to steal it. Also, just as every character on this show gets chased through a house at least once, this season is Fiona’s turn. After she parted ways with Steve (Justin Chatwin, Dragonball: Evolution) last season, this season has Fiona reevaluating her life in several ways. She experiments with a few other relationships, one of which results in the above-mentioned chase. She contemplates going back to school, and she fights to get a better job. After discussing how she once ran track in high school, we get several scenes of Fiona running, a nice visual representation of her facing both what might have been and the potential for what might be.
If Fiona fights to keep the family together, then Frank is the one whose actions are always driving it apart. For as much chaos as he causes, it’s important to remember Frank’s singular motivation. All he wants is to hang out at his neighborhood bar—hilariously named “The Alibi Room”—and drink all day long. Everything he does, every choice he makes, all the lies and schemes, it all point back to that one motivation, sit and drink all day. As Frank’s plots get more and more elaborate, it’s easy to forget this simple motivation. Here’s a guy who puts in an insane amount of effort into being lazy. If this guy put as much effort into a job as he did into avoiding working, he’d make a fortune. But, that’s not the world these characters live in. Some of the show’s funniest scenes are Frank’s angry rants, in which everyone and everything except for him is responsible for why the world is all messed up. The kids failing in school? It’s the school’s fault. Getting called out on cheating for his workman’s comp? It’s the government’s fault. It’s never him, he says, as he sits on a barstool spending every penny he has on booze. Again, that’s just the world he lives in.
Lip is the hardest character to get a read on. Of everyone in the Gallagher family, he seems the one most primed to be able to “get out” and lead something of a better life. It appears that Lip is resistant to change, and he wants things to stay as they are. While so many other characters are outrageous, actor Jeremy Allen White plays Lip close to the chest, more of a thinker than a doer. Brother Ian finds himself aimless this season, maintaining various hookups that aren’t really relationships, even as he’d want them to be. Younger siblings Debbie (Emma Kenney) and Carl (Ethan Kutkosky) fill comic relief duties, with her being sensible and wise, and him being brutish and borderline psychotic.
The various characters surrounding the Gallagher clan also get plenty of moments in the spotlight. Neighbors Kevin (Steve Howey, Stan Helsing) and Veronica (Shanola Hampton, You Again) find themselves caught up in whatever craziness the Gallaghers are into, while maintaining their own legally questionable get-rich-quick schemes on their own. Lip’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Karen (Laura Wiggins, Dance of the Dead), having shed her “nice girl” skin last season, is full-on evil this season, on a constant rampage of teen anger and self destruction.
Sheila (Joan Cusack, Addams Family Values), Karen’s mother, continues to have a relationship of sorts with Frank. Agoraphobic, Sheila is afraid to leave the house, and therefore is unable to learn just how much of a jerk Frank is. Sheila’s scenes are the show at its weirdest. She mostly seems innocent, and unaware of all the craziness around her, but at other times we also get to see her scheming and plotting and harming others to benefit herself, just like so many others on this show. Her agoraphobia is inconsistent. As she gets more and more courageous about leaving the house, she is frightened back inside by a nearly-literal deus ex machina, the randomness of which makes the writers look awfully lazy. From there, whether Sheila is able to leave the house or not is entirely dependent of that week’s plot, which is frustrating.
There are a lot of characters and a lot of plotlines to follow, but the real standout is guest star Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), who has a multi-episode run as Frank’s mother, the grand matriarch of the Gallaghers. Fletcher absolutely owns the role, making Grandma a truly vile creature amid a show about those who are vile. Seeing her interact with the rest of the cast as she shakes things up is great fun.
There’s a lot to like about Shameless. The actors are enthusiastic and up for anything, the dialogue is witty, and the many twists and surprises are often clever. With that said, I’m not sure, exactly, where the show has taken me. There are many twists and ups and downs, but there’s a lack of an overall arc. It’s more of a soap opera model, where stories are always ongoing, as opposed to traditional three-act structure storytelling that offers character growth and a definitive resolution. Throughout this season, we see a lot of crazy crap that happens to the Gallaghers and their extended family, but where did it all lead? What were the consequences? As episodes progress the ups and downs start to even out to a constant of awful behavior that never reaches a conclusion. All that’s really happened is merely setting the stage for more awful behavior to come.
This two-disc Blu-ray set doesn’t disappoint in the tech department. The video offers a ton of clarity and detail. Most of the season takes place during the summer, and you can really make out all the sweat and grime on the skin tones. Audio is good as well, especially when the occasional rock tune kicks in on the soundtrack. The bonus features mostly have to do with the acting side of the show, with three featurettes and actor interviews. There’s also a music video, some deleted scenes, and a short preview for the upcoming third season.
The prurient subject matter may be the big draw for Shameless, but it’s the excellent ensemble of actors that will keep you watching, and not just the lewd behavior.