Shameless: Prettyin' Up Poverty

Don't be fooled by the camera tricks, naughty misadventures, and shocking (shocking, I tell you!) scenes from Showtime's new dramedy Shameless. Despite a fantastic cast that's only going to get better, the pilot wasn't that good.

That's not to say the show won't improve. Showtime's Shameless—which is yet another U.S. remake of a well-respected U.K. series—has plenty of potential. But it doesn't get an automatic pass because its on a cable network praised for its original programming.

Shameless tells the story of the Gallaghers, a family with an absent mom that's struggling to get by on limited income. Eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) holds the reins as clan leader while boozehound father Frank (William H. Macy) spends his exploited disability pay on his bar tab and makes a nightly routine of passing out on the living room floor. The Gallaghers' financial crisis is so bad that all the family members (even the tykes) chip in to pay the electric bill, cereal is served with watered-down milk, and one entrepreneurial daughter steals from Unicef. To say they're poor would be an insult to poor people.

Right there, you've got a great premise for a strong family drama, which is what I expected from of the pilot. The family's struggle is obvious, their bond is well laid-out, and viewers naturally want to root for them—it's a Gallaghers-versus-the-world scenario.

Unfortunately, the pilot episode relied too heavily on shock value and not enough on family values. Sex and violence can be very effective tools for carrying a story and developing characters, but none of the scenes featuring either were anything more than slapped-on chest-thumping. If you're going to jump to a three-second cutaway of the neighbors engaging in BDSM sex, it's gotta have a point. If your characters include a daughter who gives blowjobs to people who talk science to her (it turns her on for some reason), a mother (Joan Cusack) who's both a germaphobe and a present-day Julia Child, and a father with a clown fetish, they've got to have more of a purpose than just serving as a sort of circus-freak sideshow. It's slightly odd when a plot involving a gay teenager named Ian boinking his married, male, Middle-Eastern corner-store boss is the most believable of the bunch.

Character behavior also left me wondering. Why would Fiona spend her nights (and money) clubbing when the family is on the verge of living in a cardboard box? Why would Fiona's one-nighter Steve (Justin Chatwin) get up to answer the Gallaghers' front door when whoever's there has just interrupted his raunchy kitchen-floor sex (and put a shirt on, please)? Why would Lip bring his gay brother to science girl's house to get fellated while her parents are in the room? These "wacky" situations are too forced. I completely understand that television often requires the suspension of disbelief, but the pilot took it too far, especially since Shameless is set very much in our world.

Further gussying up Shameless' shock value are unnecessary camera tricks meant to distract us. The occasional freeze frame and slow-mo sequences don't serve the story, and have been included out of arrogance or some Guy Ritchie obsession. Showing a drink tray knocked over from three different camera angles and at quarter-speed may work in a music video, but it's a complete waste here. At least the producers got the overall look spot-on, by toning down colors and using low-angle shots to accentuate the dire situation of the family.

Where Shameless does shine is in its casting. Rossum tackles the strong-yet-defensive Fiona full on, and Macy lights up the screen as the drunk lug Frank (though defenders of the U.K. version will say he's no David Threlfall). Special shout outs go to Cameron Monaghan as the "normal" Ian and Jeremy Allen White as "Lip." The media may latch on to Monoghan's portrayal of a gay teen, but I would not be surprised to see White go on to become this show's real star. It's also a decent showcase for the charming Chatwin as conman Steve. You may remember him as the undercover fed who tricked John Locke in one of Lost's flahbacks, or the teen drug dealer from the pilot of Weeds.

Shameless has plenty of potential, and at least some of it will be realized as we spend more time with these characters. But the pilot fell victim to too many premiere episode trappings. Too much flash and not enough heart. If the show keeps its talented cast from making stupid decisions, adds a little bit more emotional punch, and cuts down on its excess, it should be able to overcome this initial misstep.

There's still one more day left in Showtime's free preview weekend (it ends sometime today), so you can check out the Shameless pilot for yourself if your local cable provider has it on demand. For a limited time you can also see the full episode online here.

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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