Ever since Andy Griffith clanged the bars of Mayberry jail on Otis Campbell, alcoholism has had a rich TV history. From Dean Martin, Sam Malone and Norm, Foster Brooks, to Jackie Gleason’s rummy drunk, the request for one more beer has often been played for laughs. William H. Macy tries out a lush for recessionary times in the new Showtime drama Shameless that premiered last night, with dark results. The show is adapted from a Brit story of the same name, but this version is set in Chicago, and as it begins a voice-over from Macy’s character, Frank Gallagher, is introducing his six kids. Prominent among them, and in the series, is Emmy Rossum’s passionate Fiona, a young woman who, as Gallagher explains, “has all the good qualities of her mother except she’s not a raging psycho-bitch."
We’re soon introduced to a downscale Brady Bunch household: three boys crammed in bunk beds in a room better suited for one, the girls in the other. Over a dour, frantic breakfast, we see the cash-strapped siblings collecting money for the electricity bill, watering down the milk, sharing one cell phone; Fiona prepares for one of what seems like her slew of jobs. In a few short scenes, we're told how tight money really is: When the teenage Lip (for Philip) is given a blow job by a girl he’s tutoring in science, he says, “I’ll still have to charge you for this.”
Fiona’s one escape seems to be nightclubbing, dancing with delight and abandon late into the night with her friends. We next see her in a club, her purse stolen on the dance floor. A good-looking guy, played with a kind of decent charm by Justin Chatwin, chases the robber (unsuccessfully). He, knight-in-shining-armor-style, ends up back at her house being lauded for courage. (He’s wide-eyed in surprise at the sheer number of people inside it, which includes an interracial neighbor couple with S&M tendencies, thrown in, sitcom-style.)
And because it's Showtime, the network that’s built a series brand on bare asses and bad parenting (Weeds, Californication, even Dexter), with the children upstairs, though awake, his reward is quick sex with Fiona. On the sink, the table, the floor, in one of the those kitchen sex scenes that seem to happen often and best in Hollywood, so much so that it's a cliché (now they’ll knock a glass off the table!).
But they are interrupted by Macy, making his grand entrance as a dead drunk delivered to the door by police and unceremoniously dumped. Fiona’s mien makes it clear it happens often, and a discombobulated Steve leaves in his expensive car. Fiona has a bathetic one-way conversation with her passed-out parent, and one of the little children comes in to give Daddy a pillow, in one of the more cringe-worthy scenes.
We next see Gallagher awake and signing over his disability check to a bartender. Apparently, investigators have been following him to prove he’s faking a disability, but they’re out of luck because “they have to actually catch me doing something,” he says triumphantly.
Meanwhile, in a much more inventive and fresher story, we meet the teenage Gallagher brothers, Ian and Lip, the latter played by the terrific Jeremy Allen White. Lip, with amazement and, at first, dismay, finds his younger brother is gay and attempts to “cure” him by arranging a blow job for him. (Asking the girl how it worked out, she says, “Have you ever tried to play pool with a rope?”) Their mutual affection and strong bond is one of the more promising aspects of the series, as is Ian’s covert affair with Kash, a Muslim and married convenience store owner. In one of the funnier moments, Kash's wife heads out of the store with their children, telling him, “I have to take the boys to Cub Scouts at the mosque before all the carpets are taken.”
In fact, the best moments of the show are details at the edges: a man who leaves his wife (the stand-out Joan Cusack, as a delirious fruitcake of a neighbor) piles his collection of clown knickknacks into the back of their car, or Ian and Kash's affair being discovered because they’ve accidentally swapped sneakers when dressing hurriedly in the stock room.
The core story of Fiona and Steve seems at first more predictable. “I’m not looking,” she tells him, with finality, rebuffing his interests. Then he buys the family a new washing machine, which softens her heart. Over dinner, though, she spurns him again, with the complaint that he’s essentially too "good" for her, too used to success in life. He then steals a car and confesses that is what he does for a living, which significantly ups his appeal to her. It’s a spirited scene, and it tells us all we need to know about how messed up she is, although we get further clues later when she rolls a joint with her father and new boyfriend.
So far, the show is only successful in bursts. The publicity campaign for Shameless shows the whole family grinning joyously, but Macy is the only one going (adroitly) for laughs, as if almost in another show. “I gave my life to that company!” he cries out operatically at one point, of a former employer, a poultry butcher. “You worked there a week,” notes Fiona. At other moments, Shameless aims for a shabby grandeur, but this is no Angela’s Ashes. One reason to keep watching is Cusack, as an episode guide notes she soon goes looking for her missing Ballerina Barbie.
The first episode ends at breakfast, this time a happier one, as Steve has brought bacon! The camera lingers on the happy chatter of the children. But dad’s still passed out on the floor.