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Shameless (US) 1.01, “Pilot”

“Name one time I have let you down.” – Philip “Lip” Gallagher

Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) imagines her passed-out father thanking her for her hard work.

This midseason, The Signal will be reviewing the midseason pilots as they air. This group includes Shameless, a Showtime adaptation of a British series starring Emmy Rossum, William H. Macy and Justin Chatwin, amongst a group of others.

The US has a long history of adapting British shows for its own audience, with American characters and settings. Showtime is the latest with Shameless, a one-hour dramedy all about the highs and lows of life. A review of the pilot, written by Paul Abbot & John Wells and directed by Mark Mylod after the jump…

What exactly is Shameless? As I’ve never seen a frame of the original, I’m judging it on its own merits. It’s funny, but it treats its characters with respect like a drama. Some moments it feels like Weeds (the Lip/Ian subplot, with the girl Lip tutors, felt like classic-era Weeds), and it definitely lives in the same universe, if not setting, as The Middle (which also features a family dealing with money issues and a gaggle of kids, if with less kids and more money), and yet, it feels like its own show, rather than a remake. From the pilot, there’s no distinct formula for the show to follow weekly. It’s hard to quantify beyond this: I enjoyed it.

Though it doesn’t fall within the Showtime trend of half-hour comedies featuring women in contreversial roles (like, say, United States of Tara, or Nurse Jackie, or Weeds, or The Big C, or Brit import Secret Diary of a Call Girl), it does follow the best elements of that brand. For one, it focuses on the kind of life that TV usually doesn’t portray, the poor families that have to scrape by, without making those characters piteous or apologetic for their life. More importantly, though, its anchored by a strong female role. That’s Fiona Gallagher, played wonderfully by Emmy Rossum: fierce and independent, compassionate and logical, proud but not afraid to do what she needs to survive. Despite being cast in a romance the show’s first time out, she’s much more than a romantic figure. She’s the rock to which the ivy clings to survive, in the face of the uselessness of their drunk layabout father Frank (William H. Macy). Though Macy received most of the press attention ahead of the show (Frank being, apparently, the breakout character in the original), here he’s thankfully a sad sidenote, exactly the role he plays in his family’s life. He’s not funny, not charming, just deeply sad, and I’m happy that the portrayal doesn’t sugarcoat him. Rossum owns every minute of this pilot she’s onscreen, which is thankfully much of it. Rossum is capable of holding the screen on her own, but she has a fitting partner in Justin Chatwin, whose stores of charm are bottomless as affluent suitor Steve. The two have an excellent rapport and chemistry, making the rosy romantic moments (such as Steve recounting what Fiona wore the first time he saw her to prove he wasn’t lying) work when they could have fallen flat with less charismatic actors. These two hold this unconventional show together, and well.

N0t to say the rest of the pilot doesn’t stand up. Though I spent much of the episode forgetting faces and names, by the end I’d begun to identify most, if not all, of the cast, and enjoy their interactions. The plot with Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and Lip (Jeremy Allen White) was funny, but it only really ramped into overdrive once Lip discovered Ian’s secret: that he was sleeping not just with a man, but with Ian’s married boss. Their final scene together in the truck was probably reminiscent of a thousand post-outing conversations between siblings, with Lip trying his best to understand something completely alien that speaks deeply to his brother.  This might be the best scene I’ve watched on American TV about gay-straight relations, better even than anything in typically-lauded Brothers & Sisters. Beyond them, their neighbours (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey) made a fun impression, and the kids (while waiting for future episodes for development) filled the space nicely. There were flaws, particularly in the number of characters (which feels necessary in the long run) and the bizarreness of the tutored girl’s family scenes, but it was a largely effective pilot.

The title of this bothered me after watching it, as it’s usually used as an epithet against someone flaunting inappropriate behaviour without a self of self-awareness. Maybe that’s the point, because this family (by some standards) should feel shame, should feel like outsiders. But they don’t.  The most important thing here is that this feels like a family. A too-big, too-poor, chaotic family with a patriarch who is more a piece of furniture than a leader, and they are fantastic just the way they are.

Let’s see what happens next.

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