5:56 PM EST, January 9, 2013
To spend time with the Gallaghers, of Chicago's South Side and Showtime's Sunday night lineup, is to enter a world of unrelenting near chaos. Almost every time the viewer blinks, an eye is blackened or love is made or fraud is committed.
The child abuse — or what would be called child abuse in the region's more pampered districts — is almost as rampant as the substance abuse. And as, apparently, befits folks whose circumstances include being A) impoverished and B) on pay cable, the display of breast and buttock abounds.
It's an extreme vision of what life is like for those known, in our increasingly bifurcated society, as “the working poor.” They are an earthy people, “Shameless,” which returns Sunday for its third season, tells us, but they are (mostly) a loving people.
Is it a little bit exploitative, maybe even condescending, as rich Hollywood writers display How Things Really Are in the lower economic brackets? Sure, it is, even if they will tell you that much of what they are showing is meant, first, to be funny.
But this series has been able to skate artfully past that issue in its first two seasons, thanks largely to a soulful young cast and writing that, in those make-or-break moments, has managed to deliver full heart and good, sometimes great, gallows humor.
For all the extreme ways "Shameless" has chosen to illustrate it, it also nails that dread feeling of perpetual fiscal precipice.
And Chicago viewers have received the added bonus of seeing their city portrayed with a vividness and intelligence belying the fact that only exteriors are shot here.
But much of the goodwill built up over the first two seasons is in danger of being spent at the outset of Season 3. In the first few episodes, you feel the strain of the writers "inventing situations," as a Talking Heads song once described the task of writing for television.
The Gallaghers' close friends Kev (who is white) and Veronica (black) enact plantation scenarios on Webcam, the second time the show has gone to the pay-porn well — and an excuse, it seems, to display Shanola Hampton, who plays Veronica.
A drug lord comes to visit Jimmy, alias Steve, the boyfriend of de facto Gallagher matriarch Fiona, and ends up dumping body parts in Lake Michigan. It's more over-the-top than darkly funny, and it borrows overtly from Showtime's "Dexter," the dean of all dumping-body-parts series.
Fiona, meanwhile, tosses all her previous fiscal caution aside, risking the family home to, of all things, promote her own party at a nightclub. When that scenario is over you wonder why the show would have Fiona break character for so small a dramatic payoff.
Such misfires might be dangerous to "Shameless'" future, if last year's ratings hadn't shown a healthy boost over Season 1, and if the show weren't on the ascendant Showtime, buoyed by its genius decision to greenlight the cultural moment's "It" show, "Homeland."
So Showtime, which has also benefitted from a creatively resurgent "Dexter," will likely be able to afford to be patient with "Shameless." (Viewers, meanwhile, will be able to afford Showtime, which is being served up free this weekend, on cable and online, in an attempt to set the hook with "Shameless" and fellow returnees "Californication" and "House of Lies.")
There is reason for viewers, too, to be patient with "Shameless." Even in the diminished new episodes, the show still maintains a deep affection for its characters, led by Emmy Rossum as Fiona. In a role that could easily just be a drag, Rossum maintains her fighter's spark, whether stealing moments of carnal abandon or, literally, shoveling excrement in the temporary employ of a Roto-Rooter equivalent.
The show loves the other Gallagher children, as well: troubled genius Lip (Jeremy Allen White), gay West Point aspirant Ian (Cameron Monaghan), budding sociopath Carl (Ethan Cutkosky, whose character may finally be finding a little bit of socialization), and junior den mother Debbie (Emma Kenney). (There's also a baby, but he's just an excuse for arguments over sitting duties.)
It is Lip who gives voice to this season's credo, that folks in the Gallaghers' place will never be able to make it honestly, will always have to cheat their way to success. The irony is that Lip is the best equipped to win at mainstream society's own game, but his resentment, and perhaps his family loyalty, blind him to real opportunities for escape.
The show even seems to like family patriarch and pariah Frank (William H. Macy), the nominal star of this show adapted from a British version. While it is undoubtedly fun to come up with new offenses to society that wastrel Frank can commit, that fun rarely comes across on screen.
Frank's modern-day, much blunter Archie Bunkerisms and occasional operatic intrusions on his family don't really work in the early episodes, but the writers and Macy do strive to let us understand things from his limited perspective: He's a lifelong, unrepentant drug addict who doesn't understand that his ability to sometimes string words together doesn't keep him from being a boor.
This season begins with Frank missing, and you think: Fine, more time to get on with where this show really lives, in the struggles of children to overcome their circumstances.
But when he does show up, young Deb's shift from keeping a vigil for him to turning on him has genuine resonance. And so, too, might a hasty decision Frank makes that could destroy his family in ways his selfish, neglectful fatherhood never was able to.
Last season's story arc moved wonderfully from dark comedy to actual tragedy — from Gallaghers selling neighbor kids beer and pot from an ice cream truck to a character's harrowing suicide attempt.
This year is starting with attempts at comedy that either don't ring funny or true, even within the show's very broadly defined reality, or both.
But it could still get somewhere meaningful. So much happens here that new events quickly supplant old ones and have the power to make us forget.
The hope is that in the remaining episodes, "Shameless" will find more meaningful, more truthful ways to remind viewers of what has been so affecting about so many of these characters. Frank's attempt at ultimate family betrayal has the potential to create that meaning.
8 p.m. Sunday, Showtime
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