On Sunday nights when it’s in season, I watch the Showtime series Shameless. I’ve been a devoted fan since the very first episode in 2011. The show is adapted from the British series by the same name, and will soon be as long-lived as the Brits’ 9 years. The premise: a Irish American family living in Chicago’s Southside that has been poor (for many generations, we suspect) struggles with all the things society has pegged to them. Father Frank, played by the inimitable William H. Macy, is narcissistic, drug-addled and useless as a source of parental guidance. That is provided by eldest sister Fiona, who is intrepid and grounded, but also prone to crap romantic judgment and angry outbursts.
The five remaining kids have various issues of their own. Lip is such a genius that Fiona quits high school to work so that he can stay in. He gets into MIT, goes to the fictional Chicago Polytech, and gets expelled for drunken violence. Ian is gay and shares his mother’s bipolar illness. Carl is a habitual truant, until he gets himself into military school where he learns to channel his aggression into good deeds like chaining up addicts in the family’s basement until they’ve detoxed. Debbie starts the show as winsome 10-year-old, becomes a teenage mom, and then, hey, a welder! The littlest Gallagher is Liam, and he’s Black. The show is, in fact, one of the more diverse on TV. Fiona’s bestie is V, a Black woman married to a White guy; the pair eventually make a fraught (but sexy) threesome with a Russian mobster chick.
By the current Season 8, Fiona has become a landlord, having bought herself a run-down apartment building. Liam attends a private school where he is the “scholarship” kid, barely getting any class time because the principal keeps trotting him out to show donors how inclusive they are (in an incisive episode directed by the talented Regina King). One of the best episodes involves Ian, 20ish, who has fallen in love with a trans man who provides services to LGBT homeless kids. Ian starts organizing the kids to disrupt “gaycorcisms,” religious conversion therapy. After one such action, the minister comes out, yells at the kids while they chant “Muff Diving is Jesus’ love!” Minister has a heart attack during the exchange, but lo, Ian is an EMT! He saves the minister, and becomes the new neighborhood hero. It’s pure queer adolescent fantasy and I totally love it.
Stereotypes of “White trash” are in full effect, but, as in all the best satire, slyly turned on their head. This isn’t Friends, where there are no people of color 90% of the time or the British version, which is all White. This family sees color and loves the “other” anyway. The people of color are just as rude and as kind, as addicted and as healthy, as poor and as enterprising, as dumb and as clever, as violent and as pacifying as the White folk. I wish this was more ordinary in TV. We ultimately get to see everything the stereotypes of both groups hide: how hard these poor people work, how little the system helps them, and how deeply they rely on each other.
I have read critiques of the show for being unrealistic (it is!) - for uneven character development and inadequate coverage of Ian's mental illness. I surely wouldn't watch it for guidance on how to address bipolar disorder, but I appreciate at least some of the more sensitive moments, like the time Ian figured out that he had the same thing his mother, who abandoned them, did. But watch it for yourself, and let me know what you think.