"Now, no one is sayin’ that Chatsworth Estate is the Garden of Eden," says Frank Gallagher at the beginning of the British comedy/drama series Shameless. What follows is a succinct, funny montage of characters and setting, culminating in a neighborhood bonfire around a burning car and narrated with boozy affection by an alcoholic single father living on a Manchester council estate. In addition to introducing the characters, this opening sequence serves as fair warning to American viewers struggling to make out Frank’s thick working class brogue. Shameless is well written, and well acted but in its American market it could use a few subtitles.
Fortunately the show lives up to its title with a headlong anarchic humor so raw that even those who can only understand seven words in ten will have little trouble following the plot. Within the first fifteen minutes it’s made clear that this is a world where sexual acts are as casual as a trip to the refrigerator. Unemployment, violence, and theft are the norm, and functional parents practically nonexistent.
The Gallagher family consists of six children and Frank, who is so hopelessly and permanently drunk that he typically sleeps on the floor downstairs. Mom went out for a loaf of bread some years ago and never came back ("And good luck to her!" Frank says stoutly in the opening) so the true head of the family is twenty-year-old Fiona, the eldest, who does everything from dispensing "dinner money" to her siblings to picking through the youngest Gallagher’s head for lice, to giving instructions about where to set down her passed out father when the police carry him home.
Next oldest is the academically gifted Lip, then the hangdog Ian, the deceptively sweet-faced Debbie, Carl, whose head is shaven to prevent nits and little Liam, a cheerful preschooler prone to "fits." The closest thing to truly capable authority figures are the Gallagher’s neighbors, Veronica a lively blonde in her thirties whose brief experience as a cleaner in a hospital (she was sacked for stealing) has left her with a surprising amount of medical knowledge, and her thuggish but easygoing boyfriend Kev.
What makes this dysfunctional world functional is the dogged sense of loyalty that binds together not just the family but also the neighborhood. When a domestic fight smashes a front window at his girlfriend’s house, Lip gallantly steals some plywood and helps her patch it. When Frank plays his music too loudly late at night, the awakened neighbors come over — to demand that he play something they like. It’s this good will that makes life in Chatsworth Estate bearable, even if occasionally the poignancy of Fiona’s situation hits her – as when she bursts into tears after a tryst is interrupted by the arrival of her incontinent, unconscious father, and loses her temper when she learns that her middle-class boyfriend, Steve, walked away from medical school.
The performances are all good. Frank is played with skuzzy likability by David Threlfall, who Americans with long memories may recall most clearly as the tightlipped, conservative Leslie Titmuss in Titmuss Regained and as the pathetic Smike in the Broadway production of Nicholas Nickleby. Fiona is played by Anne-Marie Duff, James McAvoy is Steve, and Jody Latham is Lip, but it’s Gerard Kearns who stands out as the closeted Ian. He conveys a shy dignity in a family and neighborhood where dignity is in very short supply.
Shameless is written and created by Paul Abbot, who also wrote State of Play. Like that political thriller, this family saga is surprising, smart, and addictive. It may take American viewers a few minutes to get used to the accents, but it’s worth it.