RedEye

Showtime's 'Shameless' hits its wobbly stride

It would be easy to write the series "Shameless" off as another cable TV excuse to show nudity, alcoholism, rampant drug use, petty theft, unlicensed day care, home growing, purse emptying, fiscally motivated courting, foster child exploitation, credit card fraud, murder by information omission, wife cheating, ice-cream-truck-based beer selling, Little League bookmaking and behind-the-back name calling.

But to compile such a list is to get at the great, rowdy, often comic joy of this series, which confronts your morality at every turn and, within the confines of its own South Side world, very often shifts it, at least temporarily.

In chronicling the six children and one deadbeat dad of the Gallagher clan — a character's map puts the ramshackle home in the vicinity of 19th Street and Kedzie Avenue — "Shameless" overflows with life and, specifically, with the barely controlled chaos of life on the financial edge.

Yes, it's terrible that Lip, the family's post-high-school genius, sells beer and more along with the ice cream. But the Gallaghers have a need, and he and his partner have a code: No armpit hair, no beer.

When a suitably hairy kid does show up at the truck window for a cold one, he is told, "Timmy, look, this is your third one today. Don't come back, unless it's to buy pot."

In the early episodes of its second season (beginning 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime), "Shameless" hasn't lost a misstep.

If anything, Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), the family's patriarch and pariah, is starting to develop some of the besotted, ne'er-do-well charm producers are so insistent on him having. Macy's perpetual slur and even-I-don't-believe-myself grin wear down your defenses, even as you're grateful you don't have to experience what this exemplar of inadvertent horizontality must smell like.

But while Macy is the ostensible star, the real heart of the show is the young adult Fiona (Emmy Rossum, a master of harried radiance), who has taken on the role of mother to her younger siblings, protector of them from Frank and primary paycheck earner and money wrangler.

Around her, beyond the toddler Liam, are Lip, short for Phillip, wanted for his robotics skills by a local professor but more enlivened by his multiple hustles; the teenager Ian, trying to combine homosexuality and a patriotism that, this year, sees him seeking an appointment to West Point; Debbie, a preternaturally wise tween; and 10-year-old Carl, the budding anarchist whose creative destructions are always good for a laugh and a sense of impending doom.

Season 1, last January, saw Fiona in a passionate affair with a charming car thief who might have taken her away from all of that, except that he wasn't who he said he was and she wouldn't continue the family's cycle of abandonment.

That's the tension of the series: How will the Gallaghers pay the next utility bill or school fee or grocery tab — and, bigger picture, who among these memorable, mostly affecting characters will overcome their circumstances and how?

In Season 2 Fiona is back to the grind, juggling premature, de facto motherhood and the desires of a single young adult. She's waitressing at a vapid dance club, and her casual fling with a Yuppie customer leads her to another in her series of temporary escapes, a moment of passion at one of Chicago's best vantage points, out on the spit of land by the planetarium.

The show, a canny Americanization of Paul Abbott's long-running, loosely autobiographical British series, only shoots exteriors in the city, but they are used with musical precision, like the guitarist who insists on playing the right, rather than the most, notes.

"Shameless" feels like this city in ways that series shot primarily in Los Angeles almost never achieve; executive producer John Wells made "E.R." under similar constraints, and the contrast between the two shows' Chicago-ness is stunning.

The working-class housing of the Gallagher neighborhood is spot on, and the producers sweat the details, down to Lip using a homemade receiver to grab the credit card number of a man at one of the new pay-to-park boxes.

The cast here is well chosen, too, with special credit going to Emma Kenney, almost spookily soulful as Debbie, and Cameron Monaghan, who as Ian makes us feel so much behind his wry half-smile: the conflict between his sexuality and his roots in an intolerant neighborhood, between his modest talents and his high aspirations.

Chicago actress Joan Cusack manages to make human what could be a too broadly "comic" character, the neighborhood agoraphobic Frank shacks up with because she has a house and she'll stay in it. (The joke's on him, though, when her painful-to-the-partner sexual peccadillo is revealed.)

With the country either still in or just coming out of a recession, "Shameless" couldn't be airing at a more appropriate time. It's a show about getting by and making the best of things, yet it treats those subjects with a kind of Artful Dodger dash.

Still, the root here is the deep, blood bond. Few series more deftly show us family members who love each other without having to say it, and none is better at detailing the precariousness of living paycheck to paycheck, petty crime to petty crime, even if this one gleefully stretches realism to get the Gallaghers into and out of fiscal jams.

"Shameless" may look, on its surface, like just another tester of television boundaries, but to focus on that is to miss the show's beautifully beating heart.

"Know what goes on when you're not here?" Fiona tells her absentee father. "Life."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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