Shiny Shelf

Shameless USA

By Jonn Elledge on 30 June 2011

There was a brief moment, somewhere around 2004, when Shameless was the best thing on British television. It was funny, it was dirty, it had hints of cutting social commentary and then, unexpectedly, it could break your heart.

Shameless is still there (more there than ever, in fact; this year Channel 4 is putting out 22 episodes, nearly three times the number in the first season). But the show’s best days are long behind it. Surprisingly early in the show’s run, the original cast started making for the exit. James McAvoy was first out, leaving early in the second season to pursue a Hollywood career. Over the next couple of years the show lost Fiona, Lip, Kev and Veronica… Even Liam’s gone, presumably so the actor can spend more time with his secondary school.

The upshot of all this is that, somewhere along the line, the show lost the critical mass that kept me watching. It went from being unmissable, to watchable, to something I forgot was even there.

Watching the first episode of Shameless US, then, was disarmingly like bumping into old friends. Okay, they’re now American, they’re in the south side of Chicago rather than Manchester, and a couple of them have jumped ethnic groups. But they’re still recognisably the Gallaghers. And the show is still, unexpectedly, good.

The first episode, in fact, is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the UK original, and repackaging it for an American audience hasn’t meant the toning down you might expect. Frank’s still scum; Steve’s still a car thief; Ian’s still having underage gay sex with Muslim shopkeeper, who’s married to a white girl in a headscarf, a plotline that should be extra shocking in the states for at least two reasons.

The new Frank is as good a performance as you’d expect from William H Macy, but the rest of the cast are great, too. Emmy Rossum’s Fiona is worth singling out, but there’s no obvious weak link, and not one of the kids is an irritating TV munchkin.

So far, in fact, the biggest difference between the US show and the UK original is one of tone. The Channel 4 version was bright and colourful: for all the struggle and the crime and the poverty, life on the Chatsworth estate looked fun.

The US version is darker. There’s more night filming; the world beyond the Gallagher’s house looks cold and hostile. The show looks less like a celebration of life on the breadline, and more like an indictment of a world that lets people live that way at all. That doesn’t bother me – making poverty look like one big party always risked being patronising, rather than liberating – but that shift in approach is likely to have as many detractors as fans.

All the same, though, the Shameless remake is fun, and funny, and suddenly, achingly sad. It’s John Wells, one of the best producers on American television, working from Paul Abbott’s scripts to put the characters I loved back on the screen. Maybe this time, they’ll stick around.

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By Jonn Elledge

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