Ten years ago, Showtime launched Shameless, a dark comedy about a large working-class Chicago family headed by a hopeless alcoholic and junkie. Based on the critically acclaimed series from England’s Channel 4, the US version of the show introduced William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher, a lovable scoundrel and patriarch who somehow managed to survive to middle age despite his disease and many poor life choices. This weekend, after 11 seasons, that all comes to an end. Viewers will have to tune in to see if Frank, who overdosed at the end of last week’s episode, is going to make the show’s funeral — or just his own.
The original Shameless was written by Paul Abbott (Cracker, State of Play), who drew upon his own harrowing childhood in Manchester, England. HBO originally bought the idea for an American version in 2000 from John Wells, the TV producer behind ER and The West Wing. But it took another decade, and a switch to Showtime, to get Shameless staggering out of the bedroom and down the stairs in a drunken heap.
Macy’s co-star was Emmy Rossum (Mystic River), who played Frank’s long-suffering oldest daughter Fiona Gallagher, whose job it became to raise five siblings after Frank bailed and her mother disappeared. Fiona has her own issues, of course, and also makes regrettable decisions — an impulsive marriage here, an overdose there. Then there is the show’s sprawling array of family, friends, and lovers, notably Joan Cusack in a recurring role as one of several woman attracted to Frank, who can be quite charming and loquacious.
With plenty of screwing, swearing, and bad behavior, Shameless was even more over-the-top than the UK original, but fit perfectly into Showtime’s adult lineup. “What can be better than to have a character who's inebriated much or most of the time?” Macy told an interviewer at the time. “There’s pretty much nothing that's out of bounds for Frank.”
And yet, more than most TV shows, Shameless had a soft spot for religion. Frank is a cheerfully lapsed Catholic whose penchant for theft led his parish to install security cameras. “This is the best place to shout at God,” he declares one wintry day while sitting on an abandoned beach along Lake Michigan. (Shameless was partially filmed around Chicago — the scene above takes place along the northern lakeshore, probably 20 miles from the south-side neighborhood where Frank supposedly lives).
Abbott, the show’s creator, wrote the American pilot as well, which got decent write-ups from critics on its debut in January 2011. New York's Emily Nussbaum praised the show’s “rough and original charisma” which celebrates “the freedom and not merely the deprivation of its family of quasi-orphans.” Ellen Gray added, “If your first encounter with the Gallaghers doesn't drive you screaming into the streets, prepare to fall in love.”
NPR’s David Bianculli noted that Macy “barely appears in the premiere episode, which focuses instead on his eldest daughter, played by Emmy Rossum, and the other kids. But they're strong enough to carry on without him — which, in this show, is the entire point.” (Macy’s ability to hide in plain sight carried over into real life, as he managed to be completely written out of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal despite the fact that he is married to one of the highest-profile names in the scheme, Felicity Huffman, and was frequently on camera accompanying her to and from the courthouse.)
Shameless’s audience continued to grow into Season 3, when, as the Chicago Tribune reviewer Curt Wagner wrote, “The show rightly remains focused on the Gallagher kids, including oldest brother Lip (Jeremy Allen White), gay West Point hopeful Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and budding sociopath Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), and their efforts to improve their situation.”
By Season 4 the show’s audience had peaked at an average of 1.7 million viewers per episode. Viewers remained remarkably faithful through Season 8, after which it declined markedly. Rossum exited after Season 9 following a contract dispute — she'd been paid far less than Macy despite holding up half the show. By then, however, Shameless was on its way to becoming Showtime’s longest-running series of all time. If you count the six clip-reel shows produced for this, its swansong season, Shameless has produced 133 episodes of the American version, nearly matching the 139 episodes of the UK original.
The show has been nominated for Emmy Awards nine out of ten seasons and just picked up its third win — the second for stunt coordinator Eddie Perez, whose task it is to create explosions, collapses, and other catastrophes that don’t quite kill off Frank. Macy has won three SAG Awards and Shameless has been honored multiple times by Prism, an organization that “honors the creative community for accurate portrayals of substance abuse, addiction and mental health in entertainment programming.”
And that gets at the show’s secret to its durability. Despite being the chronicles of an abusive wretch and his messed-up brood, Shameless endeared itself to viewers. “For all the ridiculous and outlandish storylines that have defined the nearly decade-long run of Showtime’s Shameless,” wrote Nina Metz, “underneath it all there’s always been a vulnerability and an honesty about the cravings of the heart.”
The Shameless series finale airs April 11th at 9:00 PM ET on Showtime.
People are talking about Shameless in our forums. Join the conversation.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.