6 Things That Make Shameless TV’s Most Underrated Show

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It takes a while for some shows to reach the tipping point where they break through the cultural conversation and get talked about in a serious way. Most recently this occurred with Enlightened, Mike White’s fantastic half-hour comedy that just wrapped up its second season on HBO. This breakthrough came for shows like Breaking Bad leading up to its third season, Girls and Louie before they started but even more so as they began their second seasons, and Arrested Development just as it was concluding/being cancelled. Nearing the end of its third season on Showtime, Shameless has yet to break through this ethos.

I think that will change soon. In today’s media landscape, shows tend to find their audience after their season has concluded, and the quality of one season becomes projected onto the next. Some shows also just require some momentum to work properly, and take time to build up that momentum. This third season of Shameless has seen its momentum build to its highest yet, and I’m fairly certain the brilliance of this season will result in this show becoming one of the most anticipated when its fourth season is set to arrive next year, as it has already been renewed by Showtime because they never cancel anything. And people seem to be watching it quite a lot. All that’s missing is the critical chatter.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer 6 of the show’s greatest strengths for critical consideration. It doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

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1) Its energy surpasses all other shows right now

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In terms of sheer kineticism, I’m not sure if there’s anything on TV currently that can match Shameless. The conceit of the entire show is that the Gallagher family doesn’t have it easy, but they know how to enjoy themselves. That spirit pervades the entire show. The result is this manic pacing that makes every episode feel like the most action-packed moments of The Boondock Saints, complete with Dropkick Murphys-styled music and plenty of violence, drugs and sex. The franticness and general style with which the show is edited lends itself to a feeling of perpetually high stakes, which feels somehow appropriate for people in the Gallagher’s economic situation. More often than not, they’re living in a race against the clock, or more accurately, against bill collection time.

Of course it’s the momentary contrasts in pacing the show captures that make the more kinetic sequences really pop. If it didn’t handle the quieter, more subdued scenes incredibly well, then there would be issues with balance and exhaustion for the viewer. Also, too much action can become boring, if that’s all there is without breaks or moments of pause. Shameless balances this out extremely well. But the exciting sequences are where it feels most at home.

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2) It handles its multiple, simultaneous, intersecting storylines masterfully

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Its storytelling suffered slightly in its second season, as I recall it. I think people who talk about narrative structure would describe it as having “too many balls in the air,” but you can’t say that about Shameless because one could assume this is meant in a literal sense; let’s just say it may have taken on more characters and stories than it was able to convey effectively for a while. By the end of season 2, it seemed to regain its footing, focus in on a couple of the charaters more closely, and salvage a sophomore season that didn’t quite measure up to the first, at least in my view.

Season 3 has given us something different. The characters that were introduced in the previous season became fully formed, and in an incredibly efficient manner. Every episode has been solid, without the occasional drag in tempo that the previous season had suffered from. And the way it has done this is by turning a former weakness into a strength. Now, instead of some storylines taking away from other, better ones, we have all of them intersecting in episodic climaxes whose complexity and excitement is comparable (though not equal of course, let’s not go crazy) to the simultaneous climax (so to speak) sequence in Inception. Shameless doesn’t have different times being presented at once, but cross-cut spaces cohere brilliantly in some beautiful moments in the third season. It’s like they’ve cracked their form and are in a storytelling zone I can only describe as masterful.

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3) Fiona Gallagher is one of television’s great heroines

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Showtime seems to like its female protagonists these days, from Nancy in Weeds, to Jackie in Nurse Jackie, and to Carrie in Homeland. One who doesn’t get a lot of attention for being a badass is Fiona in Shameless. On one level, she doesn’t seem to be dealing with the issues of someone like a CIA agent, but at the same time, with her own issues being so immediate, the stakes are still pretty high, perhaps higher in terms of her own livelihood and the lives of her family. She takes care of these matters largely on her own, without much outside help and by pooling the resources of her younger siblings.

She also faces the constant dilemma of whether it is more worthwhile for her to devote her entire life to her family’s wellbeing or to take an interest in her own life and her own future. This is a representation of the type of decision countless people in dire economic straits must face every day. Fiona’s conflict is presented and shown to be complicated, but in the end she can’t separate herself from her family’s interests. It’s both noble and tragic.

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4) Lip Gallagher is one of television’s great heroes

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Since the show debuted, Phillip “Lip” Gallagher has been one of my favorite television characters. A classic underachiever, Lip is crazy smart but has absolutely no interest in finishing high school, let alone college, despite academic counselors practically begging him to apply to places to continue his education. And this is because of a general pessimistic philosophy he has honed growing up in south Chicago, that the only way for people in the Gallagher’s situation to get anything in life is to scam it or steal it. For all his book knowledge, Lip ultimately trusts the knowledge he’s gained from the experience of his inner city life up to that point.

He’s an admirable character because he’s able to talk his way out of any situation and seems like he’s in control of his own fate because he doesn’t take directions from anyone. But he also seems unaware of how much control he’s given over to the situation he was born into, how he’s letting that define him and dictate what the rest of his life will be. Like Fiona, he’s receiving plenty of offers to escape from his little world, but refuses them at every turn.

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5) William H. Macy’s performance alone is worth watching

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If Shameless had no other redeeming qualities besides seeing William H. Macy playing the alcoholic mess that is Frank Gallagher, it would still be worth recommending. This is undeniably one of the best performances on TV right now, and a lot of it is that the character is so incredibly well written, but there’s also no denying that Macy adds a whole set of layers to Frank. Instead of playing him like a drunken fool all the time, he plays it completely straight, emphasizing the cleverness with which Frank has been able to get by all these years. He’s needed to be that smart, if you can call it that, to survive the life that he’s lived.

There’s also his hilarious tirades against Obama and the political system and other paranoid rants that he uses to put blame for his situation on anyone he possibly can. He always has an explanation for why he’s in the state he’s in. More recently in the third season, we see even more layers to Frank, when he makes a plea to keep his children, and we see a hint of genuine love he has for them despite his problems. Of course, right after this he loses track of them and couldn’t care less. Macy understands these dimensions to Frank and makes them real.

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6) Southside Chicago is underrepresented elsewhere

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If it’s not already painfully clear from the previous pages, this is a world and experience I’m largely unfamiliar with. So this unfamiliarity is naturally fascinating. When there are so many other shows about people trying to solve problems that could affect scores of other people, political or medical dramas and such, it’s easy to forget that this is such a small, specific section of the population. There are far more other people who have to deal with mundane stuff every day that threatens their livelihood. They don’t have time to be concerned with politics or questions of science or philosophy, even though it’s equally unfair to assume their lives are divorced from these things.

It’s similar to the Beasts of the Southern Wild dilemma in which poverty is depicted without real judgment, supposedly from a perspective closer to the people in the poor conditions rather than an outside patriarchal view. There’s also a perception that this romanticizes or makes light of poverty, a kind of poverty tourism, where middle class folks can observe poverty like George Bush observed Hurricane Katrina, from a safe flyover distance. I think there’s more to it than this. I think one way to expose and educate on matters of a place like south Chicago is through documentary work like Bill James does, but also through telling stories that capture all sides of the experience, not only the tragic side, because that’s not all there is to this environment. Shameless deserves enormous credit for accomplishing something few other shows are able to do, let alone do this well.

Have you been keeping up with Shameless? Have your say on the show in the comments section below.

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  • Fred

    Watch the orignal. Way better.

    • bmg314

      Did. It’s not.

  • James

    This is based on the UK version of Shameless. It’s quite w popular over in the UK

  • James

    Shameless US might be a remake, but its WAY better than Shameless UK. That show sucked after 2 short seasons.

  • James

    Steve was the best part, by far, in Shameless UK, but he was only in like 10 episodes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.richesson Eric Richesson

    Great Article, love the show, William H Macy is a beast.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shiela2 Shiela Ingram

    Big fan of shameless I think its one of the best written shows and I think Fiona Gallagher and Co are very relatable. I know a lot of Fionas and it nice to see them represented. Watched from the pilot to the second to last episode of third seaseon. I also like that Ian is represents a different aspect of a gay man. Not all gay men are like kurt or blaine from glee.

  • aniston

    Love, love this show and Game of Thrones! Such a brilliant show! Perfect casting (William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum are the beeest!)Tried the original version (UK), couldn’t stand it.

  • aniston

    Love, love Shameless! Hope they get noticed soon! WHM and ER are doing great, awesome, awesome jobs!

  • tretre10inch

    Idk.. This show is too popular to be considered underrated.. I kno a ton of people who love this show.

  • Conn

    I’m from the US and i watched the whole UK version before i even knew there was an american one, so when i tried watching the american one i just didnt like it cause i was use to the uk versions of the characters. so i dont think theres a fact of which is better its just whatever one u watch first in my opinion