Offensive Enough to Be Good


This is a “shameless” TV review. Not just of the new Showtime series by that name starring William H. Macy, but a shameless admission of how, after just two episodes, I’m very (very) taken with it.

The critical reception out of the box is quite divided, and to me that augurs well, as it’s a sin to be milquetoast enough for everyone, and anything that annoys critics has at least a positive energy. Entertainment Weekly calls it “charmless, pretentious.” The New York Times finds it “surprisingly appealing, crude, funny and also touching.” A friend who works for the Denver Post says on Facebook, “Our reviewer found it distasteful, which is always a good sign....”

I’m with the Times. The newspaper of record hits the bullseye in its review, and in a separate feature also succinctly sums it up as “a television show where familial love, juicy cursing, casual sex and drug use, bluntly put humor, mega-alcohol bingeing and total chaos reign.”

If you are easily offended, have a sense of propriety that you feel should extend to the whole world around you, or think that political correctness not only applies to how one regards others in real life but throughout entertainment and the media without regard to context, you will side with the Post reviewer. Maybe find it disgusting, even offensive. Much as I respect your feelings and even opinions, at the same time, frankly, I don’t give a damn. The show warns you right up front by its very name what it is.

Okay, maybe my take here isn’t staying true to this publication’s name by being strictly progressive, even if “Shameless” is a sizable leap forward, groundbreaking in a way, and expands the boundaries of what can be entertaining on TV. But if it’s anything, the show is indeed populist.

It’s a series about how the other half or whatever proportion it may be actually lives. Macy’s Frank Gallagher is a sodden alcoholic shirker milking his disability to the tune of a $700 a month tab at his local tavern. He has six kids and a wife/mother who disappeared from the scene — an economically drab but humanly colorful Chicago working class neighborhood — long before we arrive.

One could call the show American lower class magical realism. It’s resonantly real in the messiness of its mise en scene, and characters and how they live, yet at the same time delightfully surreal. It pulls no punches and punches are thrown. Paterfamilias Frank Gallagher is being described as an antihero, but that’s a misnomer. Rather he is simply the all too common man with neither heroic qualities nor the reverse. And his brood is a bunch of misfits and oddballs, though not one of them overdrawn.

Having been teethed and raised on nice family sitcoms like Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons, The Donna Reed Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, now that I approach six decades alive in this wooly and wildly dysfunctional world, I’m ready for something that gets to the true heart of the matter of how odd existence on this mortal coil can be.

Sure, I was quite taken with the network series Parenthood and how it embodies the best values of a modern family. But now into its second season, I set it aside (it’s still recording on my DVD and I’ll get back to it). Because as much as I like it, I was also starting to feel like I’d eaten a case of Tootsie Rolls and was suffering from sugar shock.

Shameless is the deliciously witty and engagingly twisted corrective. It’s raw, it pushes the envelope, and it takes chances and succeeds, at least as far as its first two episodes have gone. And though it is more about the half-full bottle of warm beer left out overnight, I expect it to mature and gain further depth and body like a fine wine.

It’s superbly casted and smartly written, staged and shot. And I like the way we the viewers are dropped into its world without many things and even obvious anomalies being explained. That means we have to figure things out as it goes along, and that adds to its allure.

At the same time, as much as it is chillingly close to the real ways real people live in the real America, ergo sometimes crude and bereft of the pretensions Entertainment Weekly feels the show has, it is also artful. The second episode features a brilliant soliloquy set within a sharp montage that shows Macy — who no one with a brain can argue isn’t one of today’s finest actors — at the top of his form.

Like quite a few TV series these days, it is a spinoff from an original English show. I’m going to check tomorrow to see if that one is out on DVD here, and happily expect that if it is my comprehensive local video store is bound to have it if anyone does. I am ready to enjoy both without, I hope, playing the comparative game.

What really makes Shameless click is that just like all the aforementioned other family shows as well as such modern variations as The Simpsons, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, to name a few, at its core this show is driven and glued together by genuine family love. And so I must ask if not insist: How can that be a bad thing?

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2011

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