When It’s OK to Be Shameless

This January marks the fifth season return of Showtime’s Shameless. Therefore what better time than now to catch up on all the beautiful madness you’ve been missing? Airing under the radar for too long, this noteworthy dramedy revolves around a powerful sibling sestet, bonds cemented by the forced circumstances of having to make up for horribly neglectful parents. Veteran actor William H. Macy (who was recognized this year with an Emmy nomination for the role) plays their alcoholic, scum of the earth dad, Frank Gallagher, who goes out of his way each episode to top his latest deplorable decisions with more scruple-less actions. Rare exceptions of reflection aside, a truer example of self-absorbed monster you could not find, especially if you don’t count moments like Frank punching one of his sons in the face as tender care. Very often his children’s worst challenges arise from complications he caused yet, with a lifetime of experience passing his troubles off onto others, he is always ready and comfortable leaving his kin scrambling while he maintains his bum lifestyle of never being beholden to anyone or anything, like an occupation.

What’s scary to consider is Frank is the parent who stuck around, or at least continues bothering to show up every blue moon, for better or worse and usually about money. Their mother, unable or willing to keep up a regular medicinal regimen for treating bipolar disorder, deserted her kids all together. This left it to Fiona, the eldest Gallagher played with gloriously messy panache by actress/singer Emmy Rossum (Phantom of the Opera), to drop out of high school and take on multiple jobs. So commenced a never-ending juggling act of trying to support and watch over a little sister and four younger brothers. Every sibling contributes in this effort to raise enough funds to get by on but there are varying levels of success. The constancy of their extreme plights, as well as certain other exaggerated aspects, are the creative license of a television show but their stories remains grounded due to very relatable characters and truthful, respectful depictions of working-class living.

Occasionally in order to achieve financial goals some legal issues pop up. Criminal activity is not unprecedented along their family line—take Grandma Gallagher, who viewers get the pleasure of meeting for the first time in jail, having been sentenced there for her involvement in running a meth lab. Lawlessness is in their blood, a fluid mixture of part fun, wild energy; part survival strategy; and part trouble. The first ingredient I admire, the second I sympathize with, but the third is the most intriguing because, outside of the television realm, crime is socially understood to be bad. Little to none of this background information excusing or justifying behavior—you cannot break the law says the law. Watching Shameless, such blanket statements are dissatisfying, as the show paves the way for the argument that a line should be drawn between that which is too illegal to shield, and that which is just the right amount of liberating rebellion.

Saying this as a fairly straight-laced individual, I know personally I do not have what it takes to be a Gallagher. Almost rule-breaking experiences are enough to traumatize me, like the lone time I was given detention in high school for skipping a study hall I hadn’t skipped. The charges got dropped but despite knowing full well I was innocent, the incident still freaked me out. And the punishment, staying after school and a mark on my file—not exactly the stuff of nightmares or hard crime.

Meanwhile in the two and half seasons I’ve watched so far of Shameless the Gallagher family have had to deal with such scenarios as:

  • stealing an old woman from a nursing home and pawning her off as their aunt
  • trading a large amount of weed from a neighbor’s backyard to get their little brother back from criminals
  • arranging an SAT test taking scam
  • falling in love with a lying car thief
  • setting up and participating in a fake funeral
  • being witness to a gun shooting in a convenience store

My puny near-detention doesn’t compare.

The Gallagher’s are certainly not the worst offenders on the show. There’s the anticipatable underage drinking and marijuana use but in comparison to others in the neighborhood they’ve avoided a lot of the more serious illegality that surrounds them. The most obvious encapsulation of deviance are the Milkovich’s, a familial clan of violent delinquents from which two of the show’s most memorable (and angry) characters originate. Nobody steals from your shop when Mickey is the bouncer. Likewise no romantic rival stand a chance against Mandy when she has her brothers at her disposal to dig a grave in their front yard (subtlest threat ever).

The show provides the occasional representative for the law, too. Tony, Fiona’s would be cop suitor, is as decent as they come, letting the Gallagher’s slide multiple times out of partiality. He also disappears during season two having never stood much of a chance at capturing her affections. Those would be reserved for the person with the most television-style interactions with crime (going so far as run-ins with the mob), Jimmy (Justin Chatwin). For a time I drew the line at his character, unable to get past his “career” of stealing cars, and later revealed lies over identity, to notice the charms Fiona saw in him (one of those charms being the so-called thrill of pinched vehicles). He does grow on a viewer, with his unflagging refusal to be defeated by Fiona’s initial hesitations to courtship, but frequently defies the law out of excess rather than need. That’s a much less defendable or likable stimulus.

Everybody has their own unique chaos to tackle. The daily grind of Gallagher chaos takes on a different form from my own and watching them triumph each episode with hilarious humor and strong bouts of loyalty is a pleasure. I adore this family, empathize with their challenges, and love their lack of conformity but also recognize I would never actually attempt many of the things they do. And in as mays ways as I wish I had more Gallagher spirit in me—their lack of self-consciousness, willingness to make mistakes, and fearlessly stubborn determination to defy obstacles are all extremely admirable traits—I don’t know how some of their more grey area, ethical choices would translate in a nonfictional setting. While watching I certainly understand and support their creative solutions to a wide range of problems but outside of television I’m not so sure if law-abiding me would be able to go along or agree with some of their schemes. That’s potentially a good thing. Still, there’s more to being “shameless” than committing felonies. In a striking scene from the pilot Jimmy tells Fiona she “dance[s] like there’s no one else in the room.” It is that sort of “shamelessness” that I wouldn’t mind embodying on a regular basis.

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