'Shameless': A Family That Sticks (Just Barely) Together : Monkey See Showtime's new Shameless stars William H. Macy as the poor-quality patriarch of a sprawling Chicago family, but it's the kids who keep the drama (and the house) running.
NPR logo 'Shameless': A Family That Sticks (Just Barely) Together

'Shameless': A Family That Sticks (Just Barely) Together

Cameron Monaghan as Ian, Jeremy White as Lip, Blake/Brennan Johnson as Liam, Justin Chatwin as Steve, Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher, Emma Kenney as Debbie, and Ethan Cutkosky as Carl in Showtime's new Shameless. Showtime hide caption

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Showtime's Shameless — premiering, like Episodes, this Sunday night — is either a drama with light elements or a dark comedy, depending on how you prefer to place the emphasis. Based on a UK drama of the same name, it stars William H. Macy as the disastrous Frank Gallagher, a stumbling alcoholic whose six kids (!) are getting by on their own in their Chicago home, led by Fiona (Emmy Rossum), who's the oldest. There are also the teenage boys Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and Ian (Cameron Monaghan), and then the elementary-school ones, Debbie (Emma Kenney) and Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), and then there's the baby.

Don't forget the neighbors, the friends (including one who comes with a crazy mother played by Joan Cusack), and Steve (Justin Chatwin), the new man in Fiona's life.

Whew. It's a lot to deal with.

The show's strongest element is how intimately lived-in the house full of kids is from the opening of the first episode. The routines they've developed to keep everyone fed and the bills paid in spite of their father's utter uselessness (and frequent absence) feel like real artifacts from a long period of self-education, and are executed without ceremony. It's not a house full of wisecrackers or a house full of sad sacks; it's a house full of kids who understand from bitter experience that if you don't pay the electric bill, the electricity will be shut off, so everybody who wants electricity has to be able to find a way to kick in some money — ill-gotten or otherwise.

There's a lot of table-setting that has to be done in a drama with a cast this large and with this many stories to unwind, and it's exceedingly difficult to know for sure where it's going. But what's promising about Shameless is that the pieces that are being moved into place have promise and depth, even if they haven't been very deeply penetrated by the end of the two episodes I watched.

It's a little surprising that the least interesting element is Frank himself — though his story gets more attention in the second episode than in the first. As great an actor as Macy is, a ranting drunk is a type so often seen in movies and so inherently disconnected from everyone else that it's hard for one to carry a show.

Good thing, then, that Frank's kids are a more developed bunch. I very much like Rossum here; she plays Fiona as effectively a very, very young mother dealing with the equivalent of a very, very bad spouse. Fiona can face off with Frank over the well-being of the other kids in a way that explicitly echoes disputes between parents arguing over their offspring, but she also has a protective streak where he's concerned. Her independence is balanced with a tendency to long for and then run from other people's kindnesses, which is a better source of dramatic tension than the very act of eternally picking up her drunk father from the floor (or choosing not to).

It's a good show. It's not a great show, at least not yet, but it feels from the first frame like you're being dropped into a story in which the characters have already been living for a long time, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to achieve. The sprawling cast and the cramped surroundings make for a creeping claustrophobia, but there are nice moments of freedom that suggest that when these characters get to breathe, they'll do it in a way that will be worth following.