By Hank Stuever
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.
This version is executive-produced by network series impresario John Wells, whose credits include "E.R." and "The West Wing." Wells's ensemble projects don't always succeed - I still can't muster interest in his cop drama "Southland," which just began a new season on TNT - but the producer's sense of polish and momentum hits just the right spot here.
Living down to its title in every possible way, the show's apparent lack of moral center and a prurient default setting will certainly put off some viewers; the Gallagher teens are sexually active, smoke joints in their bedrooms and walk around the house with open beers. It asks for your full surrender of conscience; indeed, shows like this bank on our uncomfortable ambivalence about being entertained by material that can be so relentlessly dirty.
Macy, scruffed out to a degree that you can almost smell his funk, manages a pathetic handsomeness. (Handsome enough to unwittingly seduce his bizarre, agoraphobic neighbor, who is played, in a welcome surprise, by Joan Cusack, channeling June Cleaver and an S&M dominatrix.)
The characters in "Shameless" are each powerless to resist a desperate measure or a crime of opportunity. Even Fiona, working several jobs at once at snack bars and motels, falls for a car thief named Steve (Justin Chatwin), who can provide such niceties as a new washing machine and a paid gas bill.
So although the Gallaghers are bad people, in theory, they are oddly lovable. Together their stories form a deeply resonant portrayal of what it means to be a family on the fringe.
Which brings us back to "Episodes," in a way, because it is a fictional take on the attempt to turn a successful, nuanced British show into a blunt American success as well. But watching each half-hour episode of "Episodes" (seven in all) begins to feel more like a homework assignment at Sitcom U.
This whole notion is well-trod. It begins when an unctuous U.S. network executive (John Pankow, cousin Ira from "Mad About You," you'll eventually realize, after some brainstrain) lures Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Greig) to Los Angeles to re-create "Lyman's Boys," their British show about a lovelorn school headmaster.
Of course it all goes wrong. Horrified by a parade of Hollywood deceit and ensconced in a mansion that has been used as a reality-show set, the Lincolns are arm-twisted into profound rewrites and capitulations: The headmaster is now a hockey coach, and the show gets a dumb new name - "Pucks!" Perhaps the greatest indignity (and "Episodes's" most alluring premise) comes when Matt LeBlanc is cast as the star, against Beverly's repeated objections.
LeBlanc - beefier, grayer and 43 - wallows happily in the chance to play a vainglorious caricature (we hope?) of his post-Joey Tribbiani self, desperate to attach himself to a new hit show.
This was all greeted with roaring laughter when a long trailer of "Episodes" was shown to a gathering of TV critics in Los Angeles last summer, but once loosed from that echo chamber of hype, "Episodes" quickly sheds its charm.
The series rallies near the end, especially with some hilarious physical comedy in the finale. By then the irony is too thick to bear: In attempting to make a good TV show about a bad TV show, the people at "Episodes" have merely made a so-so TV show.
Episodes (30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m.;
Shameless (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., both on Showtime.