Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Dump #1: Shameless Praise

On my own personal Tmblr account I'm subscribed to a number of blogs that are related to actors in a US TV show. I also follow a few of them on Twitter. This is pretty blatant admiration from someone who professes to abhor getting involved in all the fake platitudes that the Internet has morphed into (apart from when it lies or is pernicious, of course). It's not that I want to know the intimate details of these peoples lives; I just do it to keep up to date with stuff that's happening in and around the show they're in.

It started with Jeremy Allen White, a young American actor charged with filling some big shoes. The shoes were those of the character Philip 'Lip' Gallagher. Now, anyone who watched TV in the first decade of the 21st Century will have noticed a show called Shameless - even if they didn't watch it or thought it was a documentary.

Shameless introduced us to James McAvoy, Ann-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake, Dean Lennox Kelly, Jodie Lee Latham and a bunch of others. It started as a gritty dramedy, which because of its success saw just about every interesting character leave to explore new and better horizons. McAvoy is Professor X, Duff one of our best stage actors, Peake is probably a Dame in the making, oh and there's David Threlfall, the titular Frank Gallagher - one of our best character actors playing a drunk, drugged out waste of time and space and holding the show together when it became a parody of itself.

The problem with Shameless was - as I said - its popularity and the fact that once an actor gets attention he wants to move onto bigger and possibly better things. With hindsight (and that's a TV series I might get around to talking about one day), Shameless was lucky to have kept Threlfall, because the A list actors involved were unlikely to stick around playing gutter trash for very long.

However, in the USA most actors get signed up for seven series at the outset. If it goes past five seasons then there's a renegotiation of the salaries; to pull out of a series, especially a popular one to go and do something else, tends to cost a lot of money, so it's rarely done. So when Paul Abbot - the man who created Shameless - sold it to the USA, he knew there was a better chance of him being able to tell the story he wanted to tell in the UK but was unable to because of actors' departures.

The first season of Shameless (US) was a carbon-copy of the first two series from the UK, even down to the shagging scene in the kitchen, between the two stars the show was really about - Steve and Fiona (McAvoy and Duff in Manchester and Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum in Chicago). We watched with some mild amusement, it was interesting to see how it transposed from a council estate in Manchester to a project in east side Chicago. The belief in this household was it could never quite achieve the anarchy of the British series; this was, after all, a US TV show and even if it was on cable it was never going to be as ... 'shameless'.

That was where we went wrong and that was how, by the end of the first season, we had become hooked on an almost word for word remake... Except, while the scripts were the same-ish, the situations were developing in an altogether different way.

There were differences; Frank's love interest, Sheila, was introduced immediately. There has been less focus on Monica Gallagher (although she's not been ignored) and Kev and Vee were less... abrasive and dodgy, but no less sexual and, well, they were still dodgy. The interest was generated mainly by seeing how far they'd push the source material - how shameless they would be.

Now we just finished the fifth season. The cast in the first series is essentially the same. There are some new additions and some minor departures, but the Gallagher clan is still intact and that is one of the main reasons why Shameless (US) has grown to be my favourite TV show.

We gave up on the UK version around series 5 or 6. It had changed focus to the Maguire family presumably because most of the actors playing Gallaghers had left and as I said, it became a parody, preferring to focus on out-and-out comedy rather than the social humour and outrageous scams. The Maguire family is the Milkovitch family in the US version - they are important, but they are, with the exception of Mickey, supporting cast, adding to the rich tapestry that time has allowed them to create.

We started with Frank, Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam and they were still there at the end of the latest series, although Lip is now on the verge of fulfilling the potential anyone who watched the UK version knew he was capable of. Fiona is married, but that is a statement that says a lot but doesn't really convey the complexity of her character. She has become a bit of a slapper, but for all the wrong reasons. Series five delved into the subtext of 'father issues' and it's clear that while Fiona despises hers she needs one.

Carl is in prison - juvie - after bodging a massive drug deal for his new 'employer' and he's not yet 15. Debbie is pregnant and she is just 15. Ian is bi-polar and as mad as a box of frogs; he would also make an unbelievable Joker in a Batman film. And there's Liam, the eternal 3 year-old mixed race child, who doesn't appear to have aged a day in five years (that would be my one criticism of the realism in this series, unless it's a joke; which I wouldn't put it past the makers to try).

Oh and there's Frank Gallagher. William H Macy doing a character that is a million miles away from any character you've ever seen him as before. Remember Fargo? Well Macy in Shameless is the complete antithesis of that anally-retentive criminal 'mastermind'. He's a drug addled, alcoholic with a new liver, a new daughter (who he was only vaguely aware existed) and he makes Threlfell's Frank look like the comedy foil he became. Macy is not the stand out actor in this series, there are at least two people who act him off the screen every week, yet he commands this show like an emperor. He is an evil, despicable, heartless piece of shit who would literally send his own kids up the river for a joint, yet like Threlfell's Frank, you just love him.

At the end of Series 5, Frank had returned to Chicago after a brief hiatus away with a terminally ill doctor he was introducing to the delights of crack, crystal meth, pot and alcohol. She wanted to go out in a blaze of disrespectful glory and who better to show he the ropes. Except, after five series of watching this heartless degenerate fuck up the lives of everyone around him; he fell lock stock and barrel for something that was only going to be temporary. Frank has a heart, you just have to work in mysterious ways to find it.

It is almost impossible to convey just how brilliant this series is; the outrageous set pieces devised are superb, only to be out-outlandishly bettered the next time around. Yet, the real theme of the series is about survival. This is, in many respects, I would imagine parts of the poorest areas of US big cities to be like - dangerous places, but also places full of love and hope and fun and taking the opportunity when it comes along because that is the American Dream in this part of Chicago. It also paints a slightly horrific picture of what the most deprived areas of the USA could be like; Shameless doesn't cross into territories such as gangs (very much) and organised crime (although it exists). The Gallaghers exist in a world where they fit into it and have a place to play, but they are also the house down the street from The Wire. Or the people who live in the dodgy area behind the Soprano's strip joint. They are the people in the background in Dexter. The stars of Shameless are the people who tell the story that happens while everything else is happening.

One of the selling points for me is how 'every action will have a consequence'. The series is cleverly written; it isn't just a 12 part spotlight on scum every twelve months; there is a deep plot running through it; it has things that happen that seem to be of no importance that will come back and haunt a member of the clan for some reason or another. nothing happens in this series without it coming back to bite you on the ass.

That brings us back to Lip - for me this series has become about him, not Fiona or Frank. It is the story of an extremely clever young man who is something of a freak within his own neighbourhood because of his potential. There is no resentment, just mocking and good humour from his peers. it's like they hate him for being clever but, by God, they want him to get away from the hell hole they live in and that's where this series really works - there is a genuine humanity about it. Lip is at university; he's struggling and doing Gallagher things to get ahead, yet he's spotted as a bright and potential brilliant talent and that is a theme that has pushed on slowly through the five seasons to the point where he is beginning to realise that his future is away from his family and neighbourhood - but maybe only for a while.

There is the final element for me that makes Shameless excellent drama and not faux-fact. There is a fantasy element in it - not Game of Thrones or Snow White fantasy, just a knowledge that one episode in each run of 12 will have something that defies belief; has something happen in it that you have to stop and think about. And when I say 'fantasy' I don't mean fantastic I just mean unrealistic, yet in the context of all the shit that these people face, it is deserved. What do I mean then? Well; Frank's liver transplant was by accident - almost - without it he would be dead. Lip's relationship with a lecturer is feasible but also slightly 'wow'. Something happens in each series that has you thinking its a scripted drama rather than an improvisation.

It's been shown on ITV2 now for four seasons and it is the kind of program that deserves a prime time slot on a bigger network; it is so good if people watched it they would be hooked and as a result you will find yourself thinking, "I really can't believe they just did that!" a lot.

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