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TV Review: Shameless, Now With U.S. Welfare Fraud

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens January 7, 2011 at 3:21AM

Can a falling-down drunk, single father of six, who pays his $700 a month bar tab – when he pays it at all – with his fraudulently-gotten disability checks be the hero of a series? Well, sure. It’s not easy. The original British Shameless, about an irresponsible father and his children, all of them resourcefully skirting the law, was about a family with accents that were sometimes hard to decipher, living in Manchester council housing. They were original, surprising, and they were Britain’s problem. The American remake follows the original almost to the letter, but the distance vanishes when the family lives in Chicago and is cheating the U.S. government.
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Can a falling-down drunk, single father of six, who pays his $700 a month bar tab – when he pays it at all – with his fraudulently-gotten disability checks be the hero of a series? Well, sure. It’s not easy. The original British Shameless, about an irresponsible father and his children, all of them resourcefully skirting the law, was about a family with accents that were sometimes hard to decipher, living in Manchester council housing. They were original, surprising, and they were Britain’s problem. The American remake follows the original almost to the letter, but the distance vanishes when the family lives in Chicago and is cheating the U.S. government.

Remarkably, Paul Abbott (who created the somewhat autobiographical British series) and writer-producer John Wells (E.R.) have come through with a version for Showtime that is darkly comic, still edgy, and doesn’t press any alarmist social-welfare buttons.

No small trick, because this is not some warm-and-fuzzy show about a widowed Dad who drinks a bit. No, the Gallagher parents are off-the-charts bad. Mom has skipped out, no one knows where. Frank – William H. Macy plays the layabout Dad -- really is a government cheat, constantly drunk. The five younger kids are left in the care of the ever-responsible oldest daughter: Emmy Rossum, in a startling change from her usual demure roles, is thoroughly convincing as sexy, tough-minded, warm-hearted Fiona.

The children steal and pilfer milk from a delivery truck. The teenaged kids have a lot of sex. Ian, who is gay although hardly anyone knows it, is having an affair with the married, Muslim grocery-store owner he works for. Young Debbie leaves a mug of coffee for Frank when he falls asleep on the floor.

How does this manage to be so funny? Because the family is constantly getting out of outrageous scrapes, and because the Gallaghers are unembarrassed about themselves, shameless in the best sense; this is just their hardscrabble life. Their story is not some nightmare vision of a warped American family, but a gleeful alternate reality.

Like The Office, this American remake has softened its abrasive lead. In the British version, David Threlfall as Frank was hard to like; with greasy hair and a red face, you could practically smell him through the television. Macy doesn’t make Frank a better man, but he makes him more sympathetic, more a self-absorbed, overgrown child than a guy you’d cross the street to avoid. And as we see in episode three, when social services comes looking for Frank’s suspiciously missing aunt, who owns their house, the system the Gallaghers are cheating is more pig-headed than they are.

There is a core of harsh reality here. When a couple of guys spot Fiona working at a burger place, one of them says that of course he’d sleep with her but would be very careful: “Project girls don’t abort.” For all her bravado, the scorn directed at her class can hit Fiona like a slap in the face. No wonder she is wary when handsome, attentive Steve (Justin Chatwin), who exudes middle-class manners, falls for her. She rejects his extravagant presents, not because they fell off a truck -- which they did -- but because she doesn’t want to be bought. Fiona has slept with plenty of men, but she is self-respecting and proud, the heart of the series as well as the family.

The same was true for the terrific, bracing original, with Ann-Marie Duff as Fiona and James McAvoy as Steve; the series slid downward when they left after two seasons. (Sundance Channel ran the original, and the first seasons are worth catching on DVD.)

In episode two of the Showtime version, Steve tries to help the family by kidnapping Frank. Macy is priceless when Frank wakes up in another town. And when his children think he has vanished for good, we see how much he matters. They usually want to kick him, and sometimes they do, but he’s their Dad and they love him. Frank announces at the start of the series that the most important thing is knowing how to party, a sentiment that amounts to embracing life. That’s the high-spirited sense that informs Shameless and makes this offbeat series thoroughly winning.

Shameless starts Sunday at 10 ET, during Showtime’s free preview weekend. Here’s a look at the accurate if slightly sanitized trailer:



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