When Showtime debuted “Shameless” last year, I wasn’t particularly kind to the pilot in my review. My biggest problem with it was in how close it tracked the original British series. After the second episode also repeated the British series note for note, I bailed on the show, reasoning that I’d already seen it with a better cast and that there was little point in watching a rerun with inferior actors.
Over the holiday break, however, I decided to give it another chance, only to realize just how wrong I was. It doesn’t quite top the first season of the original series, but once I got used to new faces going through similar motions, I became captivated. To be sure, the first season — with minor variations — still echoed the first two seasons of the British series, Justin Chatwin’s Steven will never live up to the original Steve (James McAvoy), and William Macy’s Frank is still problematic, but Emmy Rossum and the rest of the show’s supporting characters (particularly Jeremy Allen White’s Lip) did eventually make me forget about the original series (I know next to nothing about Rossum outside of the context of this show, but Courtney and Joanna have led me to believe she’s a distracting nutjob).
Even better, Showtime now has the opportunity to correct the many wrongs that the British series made as that show progressed (it became unwatchable by the fifth season), in particular its ability to keep the cast together. The British series shed characters faster than Pig Pen sheds mud, but one of the things I do appreciate about American television — at least in this respect — is that they will most likely keep most of the characters around. The show couldn’t survive in America without Emmy Rossum (Fiona left the British series fairly early on, as did Steve, and I suspect even Steve will eventually return to the Showtime series, his current unknown whereabouts notwithstanding).
The second season of the Showtime series picks up not too long after the first series ended: Steve is still gone, and Fiona is engaging in some rebound fucking. Amy Smart’s Jasmine is still around (she’s an invention of the American series) to provide the weekly lipstick lesbian jolt; the kids are all engaged in various illegal money-making schemes (Lip is selling weed and smokes out of an ice cream truck and running an underground fight club and Debbie is running a daycare in her backyard); Joan Cusack’s Sheila is slowly conquering her agorophobia; and Frank is still as big a deadbeat alcoholic as ever.
One of the things that the American series has sought to do is to give Frank the occasionally redeeming moment. In the opening episode, he loses a bet with a very large black man who can be Tasered twice without shitting himself, and Liam is taken as collateral. In the British series, Frank probably would’ve continued drinking and simply allowed Fiona and the gang to clean up his mess, but in the American series, Frank at least puts a modicum of effort into retrieving his son, going so far as to lease out his mouth to a gay bar full of penis. I like that Frank has a morsel of a soul in the Showtime series, but I still don’t think that William H. Macy suits the role. He’s too coherent, and I can never get over the fact that Frank looks like William H. Macy dressed up as a hobo for Halloween.
All the same, Rossum, White, Cameron Monaghan (Ian), and Emma Kenney (Debbie) more than make up for the deficit created by Macy. Rossum’s winning smile (and occasional bouts of nudity) carry one half of the show effortlessly and flirtatiously from scene to scene, while Lip does the rest of the heavy lifting. As Fiona presumably gets involved in other relationships, Lip may take on the moral center of the show, and he’s proven more than capable of being the glue that holds the family together. (Sidenote: in the British series, he eventually got involved with Mandy, and that may come to fruition here, too, although the re-casting of Mandy (for the departing Jane Levy, now on “Suburgatory”) is a bit awkward).
Best of all, however, is that the Showtime series has captured the essence of the first few seasons of the British show: That is to say, as dysfunctional, immoral, dark, and scheming as the Gallaghers are, the affection for each other burns through. It’s hard not to get caught up in it. The family dynamics live on the opposite spectrum of “Parenthood,” but there are still echoes of the heartwarming, protect-each-other-at-all costs vibe that courses through the NBC show. Better still, if the opening episode of season two is any indication, the Showtime series may still borrow a subplots from the original series, but they will be worked into new and possibly even better storylines, one in which there’s a flicker of actual hope for the Gallaghers instead of a future doomed to repeat itself.