Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Shameless" offers satisfying family drama

I've never seen the British series that's the basis of the new Showtime drama "Shameless," premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. So, when I viewed the three preview episodes sent to press, I went into it with no preconceptions; no idea whether this was a re-invention or a carbon copy; no clue about whether it had the potential to be better or worse than the original.
All I can tell you is, based on its own merits, Showtime's "Shameless" is an entertaining, well-acted and wholly satisfying drama, featuring breakout performances by some amazing actors.

The series focuses on the Gallagher clan, technically headed by Frank (William H. Macy), a frequently absent alcoholic who, on many nights, is returned to his home by police officers who offer his family such warnings as "Keep him away from the carpet until his pants dry." With their mother having taken off years ago, and with Frank offering little help, the primary parenting duties fall to the oldest Gallagher child, the steady, responsible Fiona (Emmy Rossum, in a star-making performance). It's Fiona who is mainly in charge of feeding, clothing and raising her five brothers and sisters, who range from teenaged Lip (Jeremy Allen White) to toddler Liam. Nearly all the kids are charged with contributing funds to the family's bill, which they do with methods ranging from the legitimate to the shady (one little girl, we're told "collects money for UNICEF year-round -- some of which she actually turns in!").
Set in Chicago, "Shameless" paints a fairly convincing portrait of a family living on the outskirts of society. The series (from executive producers John Wells and Paul Abbott, the latter of whom worked on the British series) feels appropriately messy. Stray kids are always wandering in and out of the frame, and everyone looks slightly tarnished.
The best scenes focus on the Gallagher children and their struggles to get from one day to the next. This is particularly difficult for Fiona, who tries to balance her role as mom with a normal life as a twenty-something woman. However, her siblings have their own issues, including teenaged Ian (Cameron Monaghan), who is struggling with his sexual confusion and Lip, whose tutoring sessions with the neighbor girl often become profoundly non-academic in nature.
The series is slightly less successful when focusing on the outsized Frank. Frank, by nature, is a broad character, and Macy -- who can be subtle -- is completely over the top in the role. He scowls. He grimaces. He drunkenly shuffles his feet and slurs his words. It's not that he's bad, exactly. Actually, his performance seems perfectly appropriate to the character he's given. Frank is supposed to be an over-powering force who frequently upsets the delicate order that his kids are able to painstakingly construct from the chaos of their lives. But that doesn't mean he's fun to watch. Macy is probably best when paired with Joan Cusack, who gives an equally wacky performance as an agoraphobic neighbor lady. Together, the two actors find an odd, frequently funny rhythm.
But the show is still strongest when focusing on the kids, most of whom are played by gifted young actors I haven't scene before. They feel like real kids, and, more importantly, like a real family. The Gallaghers might be a dysfunctional group, but I still find them engaging company.

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