Showtime is the network of The Problem. Cancer, serial killing, pot-selling, multiple personalities, prostitution, addiction ... and now the brutal wallow of poverty.
The debut episode of Shameless airs this Sunday and introduces the tragicomic family of poors called the Gallaghers. Alcoholic, longhaired single father Frank (William H. Macy) is too busy carousing to care for his children, leaving his daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) to raise her five siblings in Chicago. Yes, poverty, that old bleak specter. We have here, the premise goes, a show set among the masses.
Shameless depicts poverty in far more than a quantitative sense. The show plays on so many stereotypes as to be white-trash porn. People steal cars, they steal from UNICEF, from the collection plate at St. Tim's. "That's my fucking bike!" a little girl yells at a fleeing Gallagher. Frank smokes, drinks (a lot), and is no stranger to the local cops. His children fret over electric bills. The kids share a single cell phone among themselves ("Any minutes left?" Fiona asks as she catches it. The answer is 14). The neighbors are into S&M, and Fiona doesn't go out clubbing until she's sure she can return her shirt to the store. Shameless celebrates and makes kitsch of the artifacts of destitution.
"We may not have much," Frank declares, unshaven and decked out in a salt-of-the-Earth jean jacket, "but we know how to party!"
This depiction of class separates Shameless from Showtime's other fare, which typically displays families with transparently bourgeois (or at the very least comfortable) roots. Nancy Botwin of Weeds may sell a lot of pot, but she comes from the suburbs and knows her lattes. Theatrical Dexter occupies a swank bachelor pad and pulls in a seemingly healthy salary. Shameless, in contrast, originated in notoriously class-preoccupied Great Britain, where it is about to enter its 8th season, and class remains a central part of the American import.
But to portray poverty as so comic and so kitschy runs the risk of condescension, especially when you consider the idiosyncratic style of the show and the affluence of Showtime's demographics. The colorful dramatization calls to mind The Wire's David Simon mockery of newspaper editors, when the journalists babbled on about the need to render the wonderful "Dickensian aspect" of crumbling, broken Baltimore. The targeted demographic of Shameless does not likely resemble the show's characters. Showtime privileges gloss over earnestness, and a glossy portrayal of poverty, full of irony, introduces a new depiction of poverty.
Most of the characters, of course, have to be clever and white because the alternative would make the disconnect too transparent, the tone too unsure. Shameless has its serious moments but doesn't want to get too serious. This poor Chicago is hardly the one featured in Alex Kotlowitz's non-fiction book There Are No Children Here. A 2010 report (PDF) indicated that Chicago's child poverty exceeded 30 percent, but the Gallagher kids seem cheerful enough. When cops dump a drunken Frank onto the family carpet, the moment is more clownish than moving. It's practically minstrel.
In the past, American TV played poverty straight, and while a blue-collar spirit may have characterized many shows, extreme poverty was never the running joke. The downtrodden inspired earnest lessons of the week. They highlighted broken homes and addiction. Shows frequently featured a rough-and-tumble kid from the streets, lost and then found (The OC's Ryan Atwood, Boy Meets World's Shawn Hunter, Roswell's Michael Guerin, Leonardo DiCaprio on Growing Pains).
It's also important to distinguish what's been more a history of broader blue-collar comedies from the completely impoverished environment Shameless is stylistically diving into. Several U.S. shows emphasized a working-class spirit while staying away from truly poor characters. And while Shameless may pride itself (as seen in its every trailer) on oh-so-daring scenes like a teen Gallagher's study-session blowjob, many of these older, broader shows took a bolder look at working-class ideology. The comedy of Archie Bunker (All in the Family) was much nastier than what we've seen out of Shameless. Roseanne offered similar lessons as a blue-collar family grappled with issues, but the comedy was less clever and more raw than Shameless seems to be. These working-class comedies were also less patently absurd—they avoided making cheapness, theft, and addiction easy tropes, which risk the air of condescension that a network as sharp as Showtime assumes with this debut.
Many Americans tend to overlook divisions of class, but its presence still stakes out significant claims on society, with real stratifications. Shameless does mark a positive step in depicting so desperate a level of poverty at all. The premise beats another show set in Manhattan, at least, and producer John Wells (The West Wing, ER) has a respectable reputation earned from past success. In a New York Times interview, Wells says he relates to growing up in a "falling-down home" and that he sought "damaged" writers to help flesh out this rotten, confused setting ("hardly a Garden of Eden" as Frank puts it in his opening monologue, "but it's been a good home for us").
Shameless is not without certain promise and enthusiasm. Enough acting talent and production money supports the show that it may defy the risks and develop its few characters dynamically and meaningfully. The biggest shame? If Showtime turns the poor into caricatures for a laugh that can only be described as cheap.