Thrashing around amid all the rumble of serious prestige Sunday television — Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead even — is a strange and wily little Showtime series called Shameless that, now almost three full seasons in, I am just starting to love. Something I began watching to see how bad it could get, I've grown a sort of gnarled fondness for over time. So much so that I'd urge you to give it a shot should you ever find yourself in the mood for some modern squalor to balance out all of fancy TV's period ennui and sword fighting.
The purists out there will of course urge you to instead watch the British show that the Chicago-set version is based on, and they may be right. But I've not seen the original, because this is America dammit, and I think the adaptation has merits in its own right anyway. As I said, the show takes place in a dingy South Side Chicago neighborhood (Canaryville, to be specific) and concerns the Gallagher family, a rambling group of misfits ostensibly ruled by the drunken ne'er-do-well patriarch Frank (William H. Macy) but really run by oldest child Fiona (Emmy Rossum). There are neighbors as well, most prominently the tough-talkin' but easy-going lovebirds next door Veronica and Kevin, and an OCD-riddled (former) shut-in named Sheila (Joan Cusack), an occasional love interest of Frank's. It's a messy group and the first two seasons spent a lot of time over-articulating that messiness.
Shameless's biggest problem is also its chief identity as a show. There is no sexual depravity, no linguistic taboo, no outlandish plot of low-life ugliness that the writers are unwilling to cover. Shameless throws every gross and dirty thing into a big rusted pot and stirs it into a pungent stew of sex, scat, and other sordidness. If that sounds entirely unappetizing, I don't blame you. It certainly was for me in the beginning, and still is now. But what lies underneath all that over-enunciated and occasionally smug filth — we get it, Showtime, you're allowed to do pretty much whatever you want — is a heart that's begun beating more fully and richly as the show, particularly this season, has progressed. The awful and ugly things still happen, but they're cushioned by an emergent new pathos that is played remarkably well considering the show's grimy beginnings.
The main arc of the first half of this season was the sudden arrival of child services, taking the minors (meaning all but Fiona) out of the Gallagher house and scattering them throughout the byzantine and often bleak foster system. The plotline, stretched out over several episodes, gave the show a crucial moment to stop and assess the weight of all the seedy things that happen to and around these characters (who are mostly children), adding a layer of thoughtfulness that was sorely missing when the show began. Sad and urgent, the storyline let some real depth of feeling run through its veins, giving all the sillier stuff some clarity through context and texture.
It also gave Rossum a chance to stretch her legs as an actress even further than she has already; she's grown into the role so well that I think she's now giving one of the better regular performances on television. Natural and smart and sexy and wonderfully open, her work is the show's all-important grounding. She's the conduit to the real world of the audience, not letting anything get so over-the-top that it completely alienates us — Rossum holds the show together just as her character does her family. No wonder she gets it so right. An actress who started out in the wildly unpleasant bomb The Phantom of the Opera, Rossum has, in my eyes, fully redeemed herself and then some with Shameless. This season especially, as her character makes the heart-swallowing decision to essentially abandon her own youth to become her siblings' legal guardian, has provoked fine and often subtle stuff. Shameless may be worth watching just for her.
Though there is plenty interesting going on elsewhere. Third-oldest brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) came out way back in the first season and is now dealing with the emotional pains of a rough-hewn, down-low relationship with the local tough Mickey. It's been painful to watch, but Monaghan, at all of nineteen, plays it with graceful maturity. And it's good to see a show throw us into some complex intra-gay dynamics, violent and unforgiving as these particular ones may be. The show, in being so ecumenical in its offensiveness, frees itself to tell any kind of story it wants to, allowing for a gay teen story that doesn't fall into any specific tropes or patterns. Or rather it does, except here the closeted half of the relationship isn't some boring high school jock, he's a criminal and possible sociopath who may never accept himself. That may sound like a downer, and it is, but it's intricate and engaging nonetheless.
Really the only stories that bore are the ones likely to get the most chatter. V and Kevin, while trying to conceive, have turned to V's mother in an upsetting and overdone (and incest-y) plotline that hopefully will end soon. There's also the matter of Justin Chatwin's character, Fiona's loyal and helpful boyfriend who is beginning to chafe under the stress of suddenly being the co-caregiver of five ratty kids. Chatwin is not the finest actor, especially up against his most frequent scene partner, and I hope his character's run is sputtering to a close. Last night's meet-cute between Fiona and her new temping boss (Greek's Jake Dorman) hopefully spells some new and more exciting romance in Fiona's future. Also last night, the romantic troubles of the second-oldest sibling, dashing ghetto-genius Lip (Jeremy Allen White), reached a shockingly violent climax. That's all I'm going to say in case I've swayed you and you want to start watching the show, but know that the twist, for all its Shameless-style outrageousness, felt organic to the build of the season. Big bad things are coming as the season winds down, I fear.
It might seem strange to give an endorsement of a show three-quarters of the way through its third season, but as I've said, I only came to realize, and admit, my love for this show very recently. It crept up on me. I didn't want to like it, for all its unnecessary shock value and at times too-easy gonzo riffs — the entire character of Frank is an annoying caricature in an otherwise increasingly believable world. But here I am anyway, suddenly finding it the most eagerly anticipated show of my week. There's just something so exciting about a series that stumbles gamely until it beautifully, maybe accidentally, finds its way. It's like weeds popping up through the sidewalk where they don't belong, but then growing bright yellow dandelion flowers. Chaos and nuisance gives way to something small but lovely, in its scrappy, ragtag way.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.