Executive producer John Wells and cast members of Showtime’s Shameless convened recently for an Emmy season event in which the show’s frankness with regard to nudity and alcoholism were much-discussed. But there’s more than that to this adventurous new series, as Amy Dawes has discovered.
“These are people who would be easy to look down on, except that they don’t look down on themselves,” said Wells at a panel following an L.A. Times-sponsored screening of Shameless last week. “They go out into the world and are shameless about who they are. In a similar way, we know no bounds about what we’ll do to get you to laugh or cry when you watch this show.”
That is a true statement. This is a show that veers into outrageousness at least once per episode, which is part of its genius. Still, it comes as no particular surprise that even with Wells (E.R., The West Wing) behind it, NBC’s standards and practices department said no to Shameless. Or that it took eight years to finally get a greenlight on cable – so that by the time the show had aired 12 episodes in America, the British version that inspired it had run 100 episodes on the U.K.’s Channel 4.
Set on the working class South Side of Chicago, where the six children of an unrepentant alcoholic (William H. Macy) learn to take care of themselves without his help, Shameless so freely depicts nudity and sex and transgressions of one kind or another that it’s easy to mistake that for the point.
Personally, I hated this show when I first sampled it. It seemed crass and exploitative in that bratty, anything-to-be-edgy way that Showtimes’s Weeds can sometimes descend to. I think that’s because I dipped into it somewhere down the line and didn’t absorb the essential pilot episode first.
But after reading some reviews that were annoyingly contrary to my own reaction, and listening to a friend’s enthusiasm, I went back and started from the very beginning, and suddenly, I’d fallen through the looking glass. I was amazed by the quality of what I was seeing – the writing, the performances all around, and the fluid, spontaneous, combustible nature of the show’s comedy, its poignancy and its fiery pride. I then watched episode one, Frank the Plank, and was equally entranced. That single hour gives Macy, as Frank Gallagher, more amazing, rare, outrageous scenes to play than most actors get in an entire season. Now, I’m embarrassingly smitten. I want to give every cast member a bouquet. I can’t wait to see what the Gallaghers do next.
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“This part plays itself – I’ve never had so much fun,” Macy said on the panel. But he also responded to charges that the show errs in making light of alcoholism, a topic that that the commenter said is “never funny.”
“Drunk is really funny,” said Macy, who’s best known for movies like Fargo and Boogie Nights (he was also a series regular on E.R.) “It’s also really sad. My mom was a drunk, and she did some really funny things when she was toasted. But if Frank is the poster boy for alcoholism, we need not worry about anyone else wanting to become an alcoholic.”
He points out that in one episode (shot in below zero weather during Chicago’s epic winter storms, Macy wants everyone to know), his character is shown passed out on the frozen ground “getting pissed on.” Not an enviable condition.
Wells said the goal is to show the reality of dealing with a loved one with a substance abuse problem. “It tries to show the situations we can end up in over and over with family members who are battling addiction,” said Wells. “You’re never really safe around even the most pleasant of drunks, and we’ve continually been clear that it’s not something to only be made light of.”
Then there’s the nudity. “It’s based on story,” said Steve Howey, who plays bartender and neighbor Kevin, and is shown lying in bed in the altogether in the pilot. “It’s about all the things that create this beautiful circus.”
Said Emmy Rossum, whose disrobings have included a night skinny-dipping scene: “I’ve always been really loathe to do nudity, because I don’t like it when sex is glamorized on TV. But I like it when it’s real, like it is on this show. It’s a sneek peek into people’s lives when they’re at their most vulnerable.”
Rossum plays eldest daughter Fiona, who’s torn between her essential role in holding the family together and her desire to make a different life for herself. She added that, having grown up an only child with a single mom, she has always yearned to be part of a big family environment like the one she’s thrust into on the show.
Wells said he finally got Shameless on the air after Showtime’s Bob Greenblatt told him he’d make the show if he could find a great actor for Frank.
“So I went to Bill, and when Bill said yes, we had a deal,” said Wells.
Macy looked startled. “I just found that out!” he said. “I wish I’d known before we talked money. I was begging John to let me do the role.”
“He’s not kidding,” Wells smiled.