(Showtime) It's almost impossible to take Shameless seriously as a drama. It's such an over-the-top conglomeration of misfortune, selfishness, malicious intent, and cynicism that it stretches the imagination to believe that so many miserable people with so many strange problems could exist in one family. It's like watching a big, sticky ball of unidentifiable goo go rolling slowly down the highway. However, there's something inherently funny about that goo. Maybe it's bitter laughter in response to a story that hits a little too close to the ignominious suffering of real life, or maybe it's shocked laughter in response to a series of far-fetched tragedies that produce a histrionic satire of reality. In either case, Shameless is oddly fascinating in its own twisted way.
Based on the English series of the same name, the show follows the exploits of the Gallagher family, a collection of losers and miscreants who cohabitate grudgingly in a house on Chicago's South Side. Sheila Jackson (Joan Cusack) is ostensibly the matriarch of the family, but she's largely absent due to her crippling agoraphobia that has kept her secluded in her bedroom for years. Throughout Season Two, she begins taking a prescribed number of steps outside the house each day, getting closer and closer to her goal of psychological freedom.
Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) – father in name only – is also mostly absent due to his alcoholism and espoused philosophy of parental neglect as a path to fostering strength and independence in children. He's terrified that Sheila's condition will improve and she'll discover that he's been using her disability money to drink himself into oblivion.
Frank's approach to parenting – and to life in general – becomes a bit more understandable when we meet his mother Peg (Louise Fletcher). She's a monstrously overbearing and cruel woman who has been in prison for various illegal activities for much of her later years. She verbally abuses Frank and tells him he's worthless at every opportunity.
Care of the Gallagher/Jackson brood falls to Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum). She's the eldest daughter, and probably the closest to a decent, responsible character the show has to offer. She works a thankless job waiting tables at a night club to put food on the table for the children. She's constantly on the lookout for eligible men, but often finds them to be either married or criminally-inclined.
The strange thing about watching Shameless is that you're never quite sure who to root for. Just when you start to sympathize with a particular character, they do something that's either idiotic and self-destructive or horrifying and completely unforgivable. This lack of narrative coddling can be off-putting at times, but from a storytelling standpoint it's pretty bold and interesting to watch. One is reminded of the work of celebrated miserablist Todd Solondz, only with a bit more of a sarcastic edge to the material.
Different people will enjoy Shameless for different reasons. In a way, it's like the guilty pleasure of watching a trashy soap opera, but rather than seeing well-to-do people screwing each other over, you're watching desperately poor people scrabbling to survive in an environment that promotes bad choices and cycles of abuse. This social commentary is refreshing in its deviation from the standard television formula in which life is portrayed to be fundamentally okay. Shameless keeps you on your toes by suggesting that – much of the time – it isn't. The lives of the Gallaghers may not be entirely believable, but they're certainly darkly entertaining and grimly comic, like watching the slow-motion wreck of a train filled with clowns.
For Fans Of: Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Californication, Skins, Extras, The Office
Why We Like It: a dark carnival of misfortune, elements of sharp social commentary, doesn't pull its punches