Review – Shameless has more heart than sex (and that’s saying something)

Shameless is a recession-era family sitcom, there’s no denying that. The Gallagher family is barely getting by, with their single father spending his disability money on booze and his children working together to make ends meet. That whole “making ends meet” bit sounds pretty trite, doesn’t it? Believe it or not, the final product is anything but.

You could really blame it on the license that comes with putting a series on pay cable. There’s a lot of sex – some of it uncomfortably kinky – and a lot of mature content. Modern Family this ain’t.

But it is a surprisingly heartwarming affair. The characters are all lovingly fleshed out, and there isn’t one of them that is unlikeable. Even the absentee vagrant dad Frank, played by William H. Macy, is lovable, despite the unwritten television rule that all drunk fathers should be despicable. No matter what he does, you believe him when he declares that he’s a victim — even as he’s leaving the electric bill to his children.

Every one of Frank’s kids are great. Fiona (Emily Rossum), Ian, and Philip all work together and have such a loving bond that it’s heartwarming even when Philip insensitively reacts to his discovery that Ian is gay. The best of the siblings, though, is the surprisingly deep character of the tween Debbie, who loves his drunk father enough to bring him a pillow while he’s drunk on the floor. He continues to treat her like dirt, but the inherent sweetness of this put-upon little girl is perhaps the most poignant emotion of the show. Justin Chatwin, Joan Cusack, and Shanola Hampton are among the non-Gallagher cast members, and they round out the cast quite nicely.

Another great thing about Shameless is the fact that there are little moments of complete absurdity. One scene in the second episode, for example, features Hampton’s character Veronica performing an Internet striptease. However, she eventually decides to cut her show short to go search for a Gallagher who’s gone missing (won’t tell you which one). As the camera switches off, we suddenly flash to a dingy room, where a man is sprawled on the floor with his laptop, enjoying (if you know what I mean) Veronica’s performance. He cries out with anguish as she disconnects her webcam, and a bird perched in the background begins to cry madly. We never see that guy again (though he did look suspiciously like former New York governor David Paterson).

(Another great easter egg comes near the beginning of the first episode, when one of the Gallagher children is revealed to be wearing a shirt with the word Oasis printed on it. Get it?)

All in all, Shameless is unexpectedly great. It is full of subtly emotional moments mixed with copious amounts of sex and nudity, though the two are balanced so that neither overpowers the other. It feels startlingly honest; it feels real. Shameless will have me crowding around my television just like Deadliest Catch has the Gallagher family huddling around theirs. A

Shameless premieres Sunday January 9 at 10/9c on Showtime.

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