Shameless, the hit TV series created by Paul Abbott, is anything but subtle. It paints a portrait of addiction’s “ripple effect” on the family—an effect that is by turns violent, gross, tragic, absurd, and hilarious, but never far off the mark. The negative aspects of the Gallaghers’ family situation (poverty, alcoholism) are over-dramatized, but so are the positives (adventures, camaraderie); the result hurtles between disturbing and heartwarming in a manner that realistically invokes the extreme feelings of a family at war with itself.
The series revolves around Frank Gallagher – an obnoxious alcoholic patriarch played by William H. Macy – and the six children who are his satellites, reflections, rejecters, and caretakers. Each sibling plays a particular role in the mini-community they’ve created: Fiona, the parent/martyr; Lip, the brain; Ian, the sidekick; Carl, the troublemaker; Liam, the baby. Fiona’s boyfriend, Jimmy, who plays pseudo-father and housekeeper in Frank’s absence, refers to Fiona’s siblings as “her kids”—a family rearrangement that’s not uncommon with over-functioning children of alcoholics.
The youngest daughter, Debby is the only Gallagher sibling who is still mindlessly devoted to her deadbeat, destructive dad. In the Season Three premier we find Debby obsessively counting each of the 137 days Frank has been gone (the family kicked him out at the end of Season Two) and praying for his return. While Debby is distressed by Frank’s absence, Fiona is dismayed by the possibility of his return: “Frank’s like scabies,” she laments. “You can’t get rid of him, no matter how hard you try.”
The season premier begins with the image of dirty laundry hurtling down the chute, an overwrought metaphor of the Gallaghers’ lives gone “down the tubes.” Even Fiona’s current job is a metaphor: she has to literally deal with shit all day as a toxic-waste cleanup worker. The company’s slogan is “You poop it, we pump it”—which sounds a lot like Fiona’s “clean-up crew” type of relationship with her dad. In most of this episode, Frank is traipsing through Mexico while Fiona is knee-deep in excrement, trying to hold the family together. It’s over-the-top (“Showtimey,” like so many of the network’s dramas) but it hits home; we get the idea that if it weren’t for Frank, Fiona would doubtless be somewhere less gag-inducing. Like, perhaps…college.
Meanwhile, back at the Mexican border, Frank has been on a months-long bender. “Did I miss Christmas?” he asks. “You missed Easter,” a stranger responds. Frank then tries calling various friends and family members for help. He’s a seasoned liar and manipulator: articulate, imaginative, and determined. Fortunately, the people in his life know this, and smartly reject his calls for help—a refreshing refusal to enable that we don’t often see onscreen.
Shameless is about a man who is just that: without shame, dignity, or any kind of empathy for others. This is what makes the show unique; for so many film and TV characters, it’s easy to detect the inherently good person hiding inside a crippling addiction. Think of Denzel Washington in Flight, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed, even Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park. They all play smart, strong characters who are obviously fighting for their loved ones and for their lives. But that’s not always the case in the real world, and Shameless is a perfect example of a man who’s character has been entirely eclipsed by his addiction. We are offered no glimpse of who Frank Gallagher was before alcohol got hold of him. Maybe once, long ago, he tried to fight to get his life back—but today he’s only fighting for his next drink.
The Gallagher kids are gathered around the dinner table when Frank finally stumbles home after five months. Their reaction speaks volumes; they pause, look up at him in silence, and then return to their lively conversation. They can’t let Frank’s presence – or his absence – faze them; they know that if they start counting on him, they’ll be lost. Frank’s addiction isn’t just an individual disease—it, like all addictions, is a tragedy that affects the entire family, and it’s thoughtful of Shameless to highlight this. We viewers can’t help but admire the Gallagher siblings’ strength, and we can only hope that Frank might someday inherit some of it and get clean. Recovery might not be “Showtimey,” but it’s certainly an adventure.