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 V.20 No.11 | March 17 - 23, 2011 
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Idiot Box

Putting the “Fun” in Dysfunction

"Shameless" on Showtime

There have been some memorable characters to come out of Chicago's South Side Irish community. Published in the 1930s, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan—a trilogy on the life and death of the archetypal blue-collar South Sider—remains a timeless testament to an area as colorful and storied as any big-city ethnic enclave. And in 1971, Mike Royko put out Boss, an incendiary character study on another South Sider of mythic proportions—Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley.

So who are the South Side Irish? They're a proud, tough-as-nails bunch. Generally speaking, they're also rowdy and know how to knock back more than just "a couple two-tree beers," as the vernacular goes in the Windy City. And they're notorious chiselers.

Adding to the area's lore are the Gallaghers—the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking clan on Showtime's "Shameless," possibly the most functionally dysfunctional family ever to grace prime-time TV.

It all starts with William H. Macy as Frank, the Gallaghers’ single-parent anti-father figure. When Frank's not at the only bar in the neighborhood he isn't banned from, he's probably sleeping off his hangover under the "L" tracks. Macy is pitch-perfect as the unshaven, puppy-dog-faced Frank, and he's the show's driving comedic force. He's just as much the silver-tongued barroom bard as he is a hapless, pathetic wastoid. He's right at the heart of the show’s irreverent, boozy chaos.

“Shameless" might as well be called "It's Always Sunny in Chicago." But then there are the tender moments, the scenes that explore the emotional complexity of a wild but resilient family, living in a bruised but not broken home.

On the other hand, Frank's eldest of the six Gallagher kids, Fiona, is the family's glue. Emmy Rossum brings gravity to the storyline as the motherly big sister who packs the lunches and pays the bills, but still manages to contribute her own fair share of vice.

The balance between the two leads is what makes the show somewhat of a categorical anomaly. If Fiona wasn't around, "Shameless" might as well be called "It's Always Sunny in Chicago." It has all the absurd, mean-spirited and liquor-driven humor that fans of Danny DeVito’s show love. But then there are the tender moments, the scenes that explore the emotional complexity of a wild but resilient family, living in a bruised but not broken home.

The supporting cast is also strong. Joan Cusack uses her duck-lips-in-a-washing-machine facial quirks to perfection here. The longtime Chicago resident plays Sheila Jackson, a married, agoraphobic nympho who Frank shacks up with. Sheila dotes on Frank with bathrobes and Belgian crepes. In return, Frank gets handcuffed to the bed and sodomized by large, bowleg-inducing objects. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, and one just as typical as any in "Shameless."

While the Chicago flair is mostly spot-on, the show's origins are foreign. Like "The Office," "Shameless" is a remake of a British series. And as the admixture of drunken laughs and sobering family moments blend, it becomes clear that the show is about a lot more than Windy City life.

Still, the show's pitches at poignancy are hit-or-miss. Star-crossed lovers staring at each from different sides of the "L" with indie rock blaring comes off as cliché. Bonding moments over weedsmoke between the brothers Gallagher are much more endearing. Like its characters, "Shameless" is a little chemically imbalanced—but even if it at times struggles to combine comedy and drama, the sheer entertainment value is worth the ride. Consider it "Malcolm in the Middle" on meth.

"Shameless" airs Sunday nights at 11 p.m. on Showtime

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