TV Review: Shameless USA
Can the Americans repeat the success of The Office with Shameless asks Diarmuid Doyle
Since the start of the year, Sky Atlantic has secured such a major stranglehold on the best American television that viewers on this side of the world without satellite dishes have been starved of top class new shows to watch. The Big C was shown on E4 earlier in 2011, and has just started on RTE2, while The Killing, the American remake of an acclaimed Danish whodunit, kicks off a long run on Channel 4 over the next few weeks.
For the dishless amongst us, therefore, it’s been a bit of a barren desert television-wise, with only the release of a series of HBO box sets to look forward to.
Shameless USA, which has so far escaped the clutches of Sky, is one happy haven from the general trend. An almost exact remake of the Channel 4 series set on Chatsworth estate in Manchester, it moves events to a blue collar suburb of Chicago, retaining the same plotlines, most of the same characters (many of whom physically resemble their British counterparts) and the same sense of manic energy.
For people familiar with the British version, the effect is almost nostalgic. Since the first series, Shameless UK has lost almost all of its original characters and has become a lazily enjoyable tribute to its former self.
But its American cousin, which began on More 4 last night (it was shown on RTE 2 in the spring), hearkens back to the glory days. It is very funny, beautifully written (by, amongst others, Paul Abbott, who created the show for Channel 4), and graced by a cast of mostly unknown actors who seem to have realised that these are the roles of their young lives, and have embraced them accordingly.
As a result, and though many people thought Shameless would never take off in America, it’s been renewed for a second season.
Its best-known actor is William H Macy, who plays Frank Gallagher, the mostly wasted, drugged-up patriarch of the Gallagher clan, who range in age from two to 19, and who may or may not be his. He is used sparingly in Shameless USA, lest he unbalance or overshadow the many family dramas going on around him.
It took more than 20 minutes before he arrived in the first episode, being dumped on his kitchen floor by two cops who had found him unconscious outside. He doesn’t work –“too much insecurity…stress”, and his only means of income is a government cheque for a disability he picked up when he was “hit in the ribs by a headless flying chicken”. (The government’s understandable scepticism about that particular ailment becomes a recurring plotline in the coming weeks).
Other reincarnations of characters from Chatsworth include Fiona, Frank’s beautiful martyr of a daughter, who protects her younger siblings from the effects of an absent mother and a useless father. Her brothers include Lip, a brainy teenager who gives grinds to his fellow students, although all his intelligence doesn’t prevent him from trying to “de-gay” his younger sibling Ian, who is having an affair with his employer at the local supermarket.
A large cast of neighbours, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends adds to the general mayhem. Watch out in particular for Joan Cusack, the other instantly recognisable face, who plays an agoraphobic, obsessive compulsive kook, and who steals the show almost every time she has a scene.
The English Shameless was regarded as a bit risqué when it started, but it has nothing on its American counterpart, which ups the ante in terms of bad language and sex scenes, and may be uncomfortable viewing for some people as a result. But at its heart, it’s a family drama, not unlike The Simpsons, in which the fecklessness of a useless, workshy, though mostly lovable father, is overcome by the close-knit unit around him.
Mostly, though, it’s just great comedy. Watch it while you still can.