TV review: Showtime's 'Shameless' has a dirty heart, while 'Episodes' has ... Joey

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 10:57 AM

Even the quite shrewd pop-culturists among us can misdiagnose the fevers of anticipation, getting all frothed up about one new cable series and remaining indifferent to another, when it should be the other way around. Such is the case Sunday night on Showtime.

The show I once thought looked so promising - "Episodes," a comedy in which a British couple attempt to dumb down their erudite, award-winning comedy series for a U.S. network - turned out to be rather limp and disappointing.

And the show I didn't think I'd be all that interested in - "Shameless," starring William H. Macy as a drunken, reprobate father of a ragtag brood living in a downtrodden Chicago neighborhood - quickly became, within the first few minutes, one of the best things I've watched on TV in many months.

Such are the lessons of advertising and hype. Certainly "Episodes" does have charms, including a grand lead performance by British actress Tamsin Greig and some laudably wry work by "Friends" alum Matt LeBlanc, who plays himself (in the role of Meta LeBlanc?).

But it is burdened with a crusty, overdone take on the vapidness of the Hollywood machine, a subject already strip-mined by the likes of the "Entourage" boys, Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders, Larry David's Larry David and (another "Friend" of sitcom yore) Lisa Kudrow's unforgettable Valerie Cherish.

So instead, let's crank up the kvelling for "Shameless."

At first glance, the material seems needlessly fetid: Macy plays Frank Gallagher, a lying sack of spit who whiles away his days and disability checks at the neighborhood pub. Once plastered and unconscious, Frank is usually deposited by the cops on the doorstep of his ramshackle abode, wherein his oldest adult daughter, Fiona (Emmy Rossum), tries to keep some order among her four siblings. The family is in permanent straits, low on groceries and barely scraping enough cash together to pay the utility bills.

With astonishing confidence, the creators of "Shameless" leave Macy unconscious on the floor for the first episode or two, instead launching an impressive set of multilayered stories that hinge on the show's excellent ensemble cast. The last dysfunctional family drama I can recall getting off to such a good start was "Six Feet Under," with which "Shameless" shares a certain vibe.

After Fiona, the next-oldest Gallagher sibling is Lip (Jeremy Allen White), a genius high schooler who makes extra cash writing other kids' term papers and taking their SATs for them. He shares a bedroom with his brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan), a sensitive teen privately coming to terms with his homosexuality - mostly by having an illicit affair with his married boss, a Muslim convenience store owner.

Two younger children - Carl and Debbie (Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney) - busy themselves with petty crimes and a wide-eyed observance of their older siblings' series of grifts, cons and scams, which includes stealing weekly milk and butter off a delivery truck and swiping motel room hair dryers for extra heat on winter nights. The youngest Gallagher, baby Liam, seems to be the product of an affair Frank's ex-wife had before she split.

In lieu of their father's help, the Gallagher kids lean on the resourcefulness of their young neighbors, bartender Kev and nurse/online porn star Veronica (Steve Howey and Shanola Hampton), who are known up and down the street for their loud bouts of sex.

"Shameless" comes courtesy of a popular British television series of the same name that has run for seven seasons, from which it has been adapted to U.S. sensibilities - though little has been lost from creator Paul Abbott's compelling original, which is loosely autobiographical.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company