Showtime’s ‘Shameless’ Deserves More Respect
It was Jimmy Kimmel and Kerry Washington who had the honor of announcing The 2012 Emmy Nominations on July 19 of last year. Reading the names of each of the nominees in every major category from Best Comedic Actor to Best Dramatic Actress and Best Comedy to Best Drama, they rattled off the usual names- Mad Men, Breaking Bad, John Hamm, Tina Fey- along with some exciting new ones- Homeland, Veep, Zoe Deschanel. Yet for the second year in a row, no major Emmy nomination went to Showtime’s Shameless. Ok, I know no one’s ever accused the Emmys of spot-on accuracy- Buffy The Vampire Slayer or The Wire’s constant neglect come to mind- but this just seems crazy!
Despite a very public show of support by major publications including, The Hollywood Reporter, not to mention the fact that the show has some seasoned pedigree, including Oscar-Nominees, William H. Macy and Joan Cusack (in fact the recipient of the show’s singular nomination), as well as a writing team that includes, Paul Abbot, the creator of the oft-awarded original British series on which this show is based, and Emmy-Winner, John Wells, of ER and The West Wing, Shameless just can’t get any Emmy love. Yet what is perhaps more perplexing then the fact that a show with this caliber of people involved keeps going unrecognized is that it also happens to be brilliant. Routinely touching and hilarious while at the same time brutal and quite dark, there is no show currently on the air that depicts the family life of the lower half of the 99% with such accuracy and unflinching honesty.
Though, I’ll admit, the story of the six Gallagher children is not for the faint of heart. Their mentally unstable mother, (a heartbreaking and kooky Chloe Webb of Syd and Nancy, showing you that her most famous part only hinted at her true gifts) comes in and out of their lives with selfish abandon. While Frank Gallagher, their dad, as played by Macy, is an anti-hero unlike any other. Devoid of the familial passion of a Walter White or the personal pride of a Don Draper, he aimlessly passes through life moving from scam to scam, burned bridge to burned bridge with no motivation other than to kill brain cells.
Yet Macy somehow makes this filthy wretch watchable, if not entirely likeable- I don’t even think Daniel Day-Lewis could achieve that feat- as he neglects his responsibilities, cheats anyone, including the dying, and involves his children in nearly all of his illegal and dangerous scams. He’s a difficult guy to watch, yet that’s the brilliance of the character- the writers, and Macy don’t try to redeem him. Yeah he’s got a fucked up back- story involving one messed-up mother (Louise Fletcher, Oscar curse-my ass, she’s still in fighting form, her scenes with Cusack crackle) but who cares? No arc here, he’s a lying, alcoholic, thieving, insurance- scamming deadbeat sack of shit!
Sold yet, Emmy voters? If not, oldest daughter, Fiona, brilliantly played by Emmy Rossum should help change your mind! Capable of Teen-Mom style immaturity and poor-judement, while at the same time, caring for her siblings in the wake of her parent’s absence with the ferocity and passion of a lioness, this is not your average college-age coed. In what could have been a run- of- the- mill, poor, slutty-girl-role, the writers along with Rossum allow Fiona to emerge as a force of nature, making us feel the rot of disadvantage and neglect, but also the hope and rush of youth. Her scenes with Macy and Webb are particularly brutal/funny/poignant, a vivid reminder of the constant beating that poverty and addiction can dole out.
Given rich and real storylines of their own, the younger Gallagher children are also hilarious and heartbreaking. Similar-in-age brothers, Lip and Ian (Jeremy Allen White and Cameron Monaghan respectively) meet the routine struggles of late teenage life (college applications, first sexual encounters), in ways at once indicative of us all, yet also wholly unique to the Gallaghers. The same can be said of the younger children Debbie (Emma Kenney), whose loneliness and isolation, along with Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), whose anger and inability to express himself, are amply explored as well. As exemplified by these characters, the show does a fantastic job of showing the equal parts exhilaration and lonely worthlessness that neglected children often feel.
That is because in the world of Shameless, no character goes wasted or unexplored. With a large ensemble cast the size of this one, including young children, it would be extremely easy to paper the background with unused players, yet the supporting roles on this show are never mere decoration. From Joan Cusack (she hasn’t been this delightfully delicious since Addams Family Values) to Shanola Hampton, Justin Chatwsin to Steve Howey, each give great performances in rich subplots that only deepen the Gallagher’s world on the south side of Chicago.
Which leads me to the true brilliance of Shameless- the show somehow manages to keep the wild and at times wacky world of the Gallaghers grounded in a harsh reality that never glamorizes a life like this, but is also never boring (sorry Treme and The Wire, sometimes television can be too real). The exhilaration of an us- against- the -world attitude can be intoxicating to a child, but ultimately, as the show demonstrates, it is confining. Life for the Gallaghers is a desperate series of choices, most of which are self-compromising. Like a truly dysfunctional urban Waltons, the storylines remain clear and concise, not glamorizing neglect or poverty, but rather demonstrating what happens to kids who honestly don’t have any adults around to tell them everything will be all-right.
So what is the problem, Emmy voters? Clearly the subject matter can be off-putting to some, but no more so then that of Breaking Bad or of American Horror Story. Yes, one can argue that the minors on those shows are more shielded from the dysfunction and criminality, but guess what, in real life, that is rarely the case! If Emmy voters are ignoring this show out of a prudent need to pretend that childhood is innocent, all they need do is turn on the news or go to the movies (Beasts of the Southern Wild anyone?). And the remake excuse doesn’t fly either for anyone whose seen The Office, or Homeland!
Basically, people must not be watching, or at least copping to the fact that they are. To that, I say, if you are not following Shameless, you are missing the best cable family show since Six Feet Under! If you are not admitting to it, then you need to really evaluate what constitutes a guilty pleasure (Mob Wives, Duck Dynasty- not brilliant tv!). Don’t be put off by the harsh subject matter, Shameless, routinely explores the family dynamic in a way that has never been shown on American television, while at the same time showcasing some of the best writing and acting on the small screen. Season 3 premiers Sunday at 9 on Showtime.