What a fascinating show Shameless is. I am a strange creature of course being from the UK but having never watched the original British show. I did have some idea of what the show was about but I wasn't prepared for the strangely effective blending of drama with comedy.
I watched the whole first season in about ten days and thoroughly enjoyed it. The key for me was the way the drama and comedy complimented one another so often. Obviously that structure is built into the fabric of the show where the Gallagher's lack of parents or money could be depressing but is instead what makes them such a tight unit.
That balancing act was repeated though throughout the season to entertaining effect. An obvious example was the way in which oversexed neighbours Veronica and Kev temporarily adopt a very Christian girl who has come from a bigamist marriage. Putting someone with strict morals into the middle of the messy Gallagher home is such a shameless (ha ha) comic setup and naturally we got several punch lines out of Ethel. However the story worked for me because it suddenly drew out the caring paternalistic side of Kev and reinforced the feeling that anyone would be welcome and loved in this extended family.
Similarly young Debbie was generally portrayed with a comic touch. Her innocence and enthusiasm was a nice contrast to the older generation and yet there was a serious undertone to her character. She was the one who crossed the line between naivety and cynicism. She was always keen to help Frank out no matter how he treated her yet she was smart enough to realize that she couldn't fully trust him (108) when he is temporarily sober.
The final example of this interplay I will give is agoraphobic neighbor Sheila (Joan Cusack). Again an obvious comedy figure, played for laughs all the time with fussy and exaggerated motion and the only person who lets Frank fool her. However there again the writing managed to bring out genuine sympathy and tragedy in her broken marriage and crippling fear of leaving the house. The show seemed to know which moments to play straight.
At least most of the time. The main problems I had with Shameless were Frank and Steve. Frank was almost always played for laughs, his utter selfishness rendering him fairly impotent as a dramatic character. And that did cause problems on occasions. Sometimes Frank's actions were so reprehensible that it should have been a dark moment for the show. Yet I never found myself able to feel those moments because Frank was so silly the rest of the time. When Monica, the Gallagher's mother, returns Frank ends up agreeing to basically sell baby Liam to her. It's about as immoral and hateful a decision a character could make and yet it didn't land emotionally. I think there were moments when you could tell the show just wasn't designed to bear that kind of dramatic weight.
As for Steve, I found it difficult to warm to such an unapologetic car thief. The Gallaghers and their neighbours generally managed to make their poverty enough of an excuse to cover for their petty theft. However Steve's life of crime had no excuse. He was a rich kid who just wanted to steal cars. As much as his exit from the show was sad for Fiona, I'm not sure it was bad for the show.
Those two negatives aside though I thought it was a very successful season. Fiona was excellent playing the stressed out matriarch though I thought Lip was even better as the cynical second eldest child. He really shone in the episodes where he had to face down his parents (108 and 109) for what they had done to him. It became evident after those scenes why he is so stoic. I also thought he came across strongly when defending his brother from the local bullies and then in the season finale when desperately trying to keep his girlfriend Karen by screaming "I don't love you" at her. Younger brother Ian was fine too and his gay relationship with a local Muslim married man was particularly effective at bringing out the tragedies of their world.
I was particularly pleased with the detail work that went into Karen's story. It was perhaps too heavy (again) with her father committing suicide in the final episode but it fitted into the theme of broken lives in the show. We saw ample evidence of her loose behavior long before her father humiliated her by calling her a whore in public. As sad as that was for her I couldn't help but think she had brought it on herself a little by flirting with Frank and agreeing to go down on Ian with Lip in the room. So when Lip said that she had been kind of whorish I was pleased that we were being not asked to ignore the evidence before us. Her story wasn't simple and despite coming from a more stable home than the Gallaghers she was even more messed up.
It's always difficult to sum up a whole season in one review but in general I think Shameless was an impressive attempt to do something different. I thought it worked as a light drama (even if the subject matter was dark) and a light comedy. Its moral lines were problematic but a lot of the shows strength was in playing with those lines and making it clear that the family had to survive in a very harsh world. I thought the writers played with their universe well and made the neighbourhood a believable enough place to play out entertaining stories. The acting was strong throughout and the writing was good.
Shameless is another example of Cable TV doing what Network TV just can't do. Shameless was so much more interesting and daring than the comedies on network TV. And of course what made this work as drama was the patient build up of little details rather than a simple "what antics do the kids get up to this week" formula.
The score of 64 is awared to the season as a whole. It is a broad assesment of the show's quality. Some episodes would clearly have scored much higher than that.