How 'Shameless' Reinvented the Working-Class-Family TV Show

The Showtime series is poignant as well as funny.

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Showtime

Plenty of TV shows have focused on working-class families. My Name is Earl, Roseanne, and The Middle—to name a few—all shed light on the modern American struggle to make ends meet. And they all have one main goal: making people laugh.

Last year, a new series premiered that, on the surface, has a lot in common with these other working-class sitcoms. Shameless, which airs Sunday nights on Showtime, follows a family of seven in Chicago's South Side. While Frank, the alcoholic father, spends his days and money getting drunk, the other members of the family must fend for themselves physically, financially, and emotionally. Despite their father being a champion for the sloshed, the six kids somehow manage to remain a family—though a highly dysfunctional one.

But Shameless reinvents this type of show by relying on both humor and poignant sentimentality—it's aiming for the funny bone and the heart.

Yes, humor plays a critical role. Shameless entertains, it tickles. The opening credits show each Gallagher going about their routine, one at a time, in the communal bathroom. Fiona wriggles down a lacy thong before peeing, Ian jacks off to porn, and the toddler dunks his toothbrush in the toilet before brushing. Each family member's interaction with the same dirty commode spotlessly reveals each personality and the family as a whole—a concept most artistically and visually hysterical. I laughed just as hard before the season premiere as the season finale.

But the humor does not negate the poverty-stricken environment or complex relationships. The writers are not afraid to show the squalid environment in which the Gallagher family lives or the fierce, genuine emotions felt by each character. This is precisely where My Name is Earl, Roseanne, and The Middle fall short. Through a pioneering blend of comedy and raw disclosure, Shameless successfully connects audiences to a more real American actuality—a noteworthy and rare accomplishment in the history of the working-class sitcom.

As proof, let's compare some of the characters in these shows:

Fiona Gallagher (Shameless) vs. Roseanne (Roseanne)

Though both represent the maternal caregiver, the characterization of the women could not be more different. Fiona is a young adult forced to be mom, trying her best to concoct a mixture of the life of a 25- year-old with that of a 55-year-old. As a result, Fiona has wild sex against the family's peeling countertop with a stranger she meets while clubbing, but wakes up at seven to sign field trip permission slips and water-down the milk so it remains only slightly lumpy through another family breakfast. Rather than just seeing the humor in her absurd actions, audiences also recognize the signals of poverty and fierce familial loyalty.

Like Fiona, Roseanne also represents the working-class of Illinois. However, Roseanne Conner is a middle-aged mother. Her age deems her matriarchal role more standard. This difference between the two characters is the root cause of sentimentality in Shameless. While Roseanne does combine humor and sentiment, she does so within the customary family blueprint. A 20-something taking on the maternal role usually reserved for a 40-something is novel for the working-class sitcom. It openly reveals family disconnection—partially due to the Gallagher's economic situation. As a result, Fiona's actions within the matriarch role wrenches heart strings, while Roseanne's actions within the role only gently tug at them.

Frank Gallagher (Shameless) vs. Earl Hickey (My Name Is Earl)

Frank Gallagher is one of the most appallingly uproarious characters I have encountered on the small screen. His inebriated antics exasperate, disgust, and amuse. How does this character contribute to Shameless's novelty as a working-class sitcom that reveals equal amounts of truthful emotion and humor?

Frank's relentless failure to perform as a father, friend, and decent human being brings humiliation on the rest of the Gallagher family. He puts his children at risk of severe debt by cashing the pension checks of a dead relative for booze—despite Fiona's attempts to save for her siblings' education. Laughter fills living rooms when Frank uses the Gallagher toddler for increased pan-handling success. Those same living rooms are suddenly silent when Frank's ten-year-old daughter covers her drunk, passed-out father with a ragged blanket each evening.

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English Taylor is a writer based in Nashville.

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