Showtime's new wacky, raunchy, and "edgy" series, Shameless, debuted last night with lots of boobs, buttocks, and kids doing drugs. Tossing a lot of off-color content together does not a good show make. Here's why.
Shameless is a prime example of a show that is on cable because it contains nudity and cussing and "gritty" story lines and figures that, since it's on cable already, it's just going to be as dirty as it wants to be. Just check out the sex scene between Emmy Rossum's Fiona and Justin Chatwin's Steve. In the interest of being safe for work, I had to edit it down before it got really nasty. And while we love seeing such attractive heaving bosoms as Rossum's and Chatwin's, network shows have specialized in creating steamy scenes without nearly as much flesh and often do just as well as their more scantily clad counterparts further down the dial.
But the real problem isn't the raunchiness, it's show's unending quest for edginess. The writers seem to think that the more outrageous they are, the better their show will be. It's as if the violence of The Sopranos and the bawdiness of Sex and the City alone won them those Emmys. Shameless is about the sprawling family of a barely functioning alcoholic (a wasted William H. Macy). There's Fiona who takes care of everyone, misunderstood genius Lip, dutiful gay Ian, pint-sized con artist Debbie, future sociopath Carl, and Liam, a baby of indeterminate racial origin. They're trying to smash how different and gritty they are into our complacent bourgeois faces. Well, it's not working.
Take a look at this scene when Lip and Ian pay a visit to one of Lip's tutoring clients.
See, it's not enough to have a kid get caught giving a blowjob on Shameless. No, she has to get caught blowing her tutor's brother. And the brother has to be gay. And it has to be in front of her clueless mother. And she has to be giving the blowjob because she's "turned on by science." And the father has to have a creepy collection of clown toys. And they had to leave their shoes behind because her crazy OCD mother makes everyone leave their shoes on the front stoop. I've never seen a blowjob that was this muddled and tedious.
This entire show is basically standing there with jazz hands shouting, "Look at me!" to the audience. It thinks because it can get away with more, it should do more and that more is more. It's not. The best shows on television are either hyper-real (think Mad Men, The Wire) so that they can comment on the life we're living, or are very close to real with one devilish twist (think early seasons of Weeds or Breaking Bad) so that we can see how one significant fact can make an ordinary life completely different. Piling on the details doesn't make something good or original, it makes it a muddled mess. Just look what happened to Weeds when it went from a "suburban mom selling drugs" to "a suburban mom who used to sell drugs who is now on the run from her baby's drug Cartel-running father after her other son killed a powerful Mexican politico." It went from being original to being an sad amalgam of contrivances.
Shameless is an appropriate title, because it has no shame when trying to make it's characters as crazy as they can be. Take Ian, for example. Not only is he gay, but he's also looking at pornography. Oh, and the 16-year-old is sleeping with his boss. Oh, but it's not just any boss, it's a Muslim boss who is married—to an extremist woman who happens to be white. A gay teen sleeping with an older man is a compelling storyline as it is, it doesn't need to be obfuscated under all this attention-seeking dross.
Yes, this show is on cable and can indulge all of its whims without the threat of censors or parental outrage, but that doesn't mean it needs to go to such lengths to convince us that it's like nothing we've seen before. As it stands, this thing is just a series of baroque affectations and a down-and-out working class family that will attract more eye rolls than it will eyeballs.