“Shameless” first aired on Showtime in 2011 as an Americanized version of the award-winning British dramedy (dramatic comedy) of the same title. (Is that not always the case?) The show features a drunken patriarch, Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), who dances between parenting his five children and alcohol abuse at the ultimate expense of his second-eldest, Fiona (Emmy Rossum). Petty theft, Larson, and abuse of narcotics seem to be bonding threads for the Gallaghers as a dramedic mix of both family ritual and necessary family survival. And despite their obvious failing, their celebration of crime, questionable ethics, and violence is shared with the ever-growing population of their viewership.
Devoted viewers of Shameless express diverse reasons for their annual commitment. Some might argue that it is the crass, British-style humor of comedy that is refreshing to their American taste. Others might identify the characters as being uniquely transparent and therefore insightful to the everyday lives of the “Others.” And still viewers might state that the full-frontal nudity, passionate love scenes, and overt drug-use are all enough to keep an audience coming back for more.
Avid critics of the show, on the other hand, have spent the past six years questioning why this show has earned its appeal. How is it that a show that is so obviously under-written and poorly performed able to outlast classics like “West Wing”? An example in season six proves that the writers too often elevate convenience over creativity. Here, Fiona discovers her pregnancy (arguably too) soon after the discovery of her youngest sister, Debbie. Additionally, the over-played trope of the ex-partner-made-kryptonite is abused upon Jimmy’s (or whatever his name happens to be) return to the Southside in season five. This interaction later leads to the end of Fiona and Gus’s shotgun wedding. So while “Shameless” begins as a unique narrative of the “have-nots” in lower middle-class America, it soon turns into another collection of over-played television tropes.
In my opinion, the devoted audience of this overestimated show points to a painfully obvious truth: “Shameless” gives American viewers what they think they need. This show, if viewed in relation to the rising trend of shocking, dramatic, and crass television, points to the idea that American viewers are finished with the cultural polity of “political-correctness”. “Shameless” bypasses the importance of storytelling – despite our living in a golden-age of television – and even the pleasure of quality entertainment. What viewers want to feel is the good, bad, and ugly of all the stereotypes that help them understand the world, and for some odd reason, “Shameless” seems to give them just that.
Here is the irony in that: this show does just the opposite. Though masked in anti-stereotypical language, the characters, cast, and overall plot structure actually reinforce common threads. I would argue, in fact, that “Shameless” points to the privilege of American viewers to police how their prejudices and biases are challenged and/or reinforced. Over the next few blog posts, this series will explore the various ways that “Shameless” fails to challenge several of the socioeconomic, racial, and gendered biases it claims to unveil.
Jenn St Sume