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.

The comparison of Frank and Earl is similar to that of Roseanne and Fiona. Frank's displacement from his family inspires more feeling in audiences than Earl's consistent presence within his family and circle of friends. Though Earl, the protagonist of the series, has been married and divorced multiple times, he still keeps in touch with his ex-wife. While Frank is incapable of acting like a responsible adult due to his alcoholism, Earl takes control by attempting to atone up for his previous sins. Audiences never see Frank apologize to his children or attend AA. He constantly blames others for his woes and refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Viewers become upset and disappointed with Frank. Earl's proactive actions, framed in a red neck and lighthearted context, classify him as more comedic and unserious.

Lip Gallagher (Shameless) vs. Axl Heck (The Middle)

The eldest Gallagher son is similar to his oldest sister, Fiona, in that the family relies upon him as a father figure due to Frank's lack of presence. Despite this pressure, Lip manages to retain aspects of his hormonal teenage boyhood. His algebra tutoring sessions more closely resemble biology when his female tutee offers up sexual favors. Lip contributes to the family income by selling pot from a pastel-colored ice cream truck—fooling cops into thinking he provides cold treats to sweaty customers. While Lip has his share of hysterical situations, he also displays moments of blatant emotion. Though uncommon for many teenage males, Lip's flashes of unaffected feeling are debatably due to his involuntary patriarchal role and meager circumstances. When Lip finds gay porn under his younger brother's mattress, he accepts and respects the discovery rather than committing to the predictable heterosexual teenage male reaction of disgust or discomfort.

Axl Heck also plays the role of the eldest brother in The Middle. Unlike Lip Gallagher, who often takes on patriarchal responsibilities due to Frank's absence, Axl is solely a son and brother. Similar to the comparison of Fiona and Roseanne, Lip's requirement to step up to the plate as a father figure to his siblings charges his actions with sentiment. Yet, unlike Fiona and Roseanne, Axl and Lip are the same age. Ultimately, Frank's paternal nonexistence is what causes the two teenage boys to be characterized so differently. Axl is a stereotypical teenage boy. He is lethargic at home (despite his jock status at high school) and often unpleasant to his family. Though Axl does have sporadic, short-lived moments of tenderness, his stable home life and economic situation arguably enable him to live up to the stereotype. In fact, Axl's mother often becomes nostalgic when recalling how affectionate and caring Axl was as a child. While Axl is constantly troubling his mother with 95 percent sarcasm and 5 percent sentimentality, Lip vigilantly defends and supports Fiona.

These comparisons show how Shameless combines a unique combination of sentiment and comedy. This increased sentiment is generated through the writer's willingness to display family turmoil and poverty. In a history marked by working-class sitcoms like Roseanne, My Name is Earl, and The Middle,we have yet to see a series that makes an effort to reveal more candid emotion versus overly-charged humor within a disadvantaged ambience. By refusing to tip-toe around poverty and familial havoc, the writers of Shameless are bringing their audience step closer connecting with the non-fictional millions trying to make ends meet.

Presented by

English Taylor is a writer based in Nashville.

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