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"Shameless": TV's Dysfunctional Sweethearts May Be One of the Most Underappreciated Shows

"Shameless" may be the most purely entertaining series that is fundamentally a tragedy.

Showtime’s shaggy family drama “Shameless” finished its second season last night, and just like the semi-abandoned siblings the show focuses on, it deserves more love than it receives. The series, based on a British one of the same name, follows the Gallagher clan, six kids approximately ages 2 to 22 who are left to raise themselves while their alcoholic, malignant father, Frank (William H. Macy), does as much as he can not to help them. “Shameless” is maybe the most purely entertaining series that is fundamentally a tragedy I’ve ever seen: Try as they might — and they try so, so hard — the Gallagher kids have been saddled with too much. Their lives are dozens of Jerry Springer episodes strung together (“My father had sex with my underage girlfriend!” “I think my uncle is my dad!” “My mother attempted suicide in front of me!” “I’m an African-American whose two biological parents are white!” “My boyfriend has a secret identity!”), and while their day-to-day experiences have the sort of intense circus energy that suggests, they also have the hollowed-out darkness that comes from being stuck in a life most people cackle over and then have the luxury to flick off.

The most Jerry Springer-ready character on “Shameless” is Frank. As played by Macy, Frank is a very fully realized pathological manic dirtbag. There is no drug or drink he won’t consume, no scam he won’t pursue, no subject he won’t pontificate on, no ethical boundary he won’t cross. Frank takes up all the air in the room. He brags and boasts and schemes, before collapsing into a pool of his own vomit. If he loves his children it’s a very notional kind of love: He’d steal from them and sell them — he has, in fact, stolen from them and sold them — before he’d hug them, and say it’s all part of a strategy of making them self-reliant. And despite being a drain on his family, the state and the world’s supply of alcohol, Frank imagines himself, perpetually, as the victim, of his mother, of his children, of the responsibilities he always ignores. Worst of all, it’s not that Frank isn’t capable of a certain sweetness; it’s just that this sweetness is exclusively directed at his ex-wife, Monica, the only person more self-involved than him. He is exhausting.

Frank is insufferable in the sort of showy, grandiose way that would be riveting to watch if his children weren’t so much more grounded and sympathetic. As is perhaps realistic of growing up with a father like Frank, the Gallagher siblings are not a performative bunch. They are not prone to speeches, complaining or whining, and when they get in fistfights, they do so quietly. Compared to his kids, Frank is a cartoonish, next-level dirtbag. Next-level dirtbags and antiheroes may be currently en vogue on TV, but the appeal of “Shameless” is all the straight-up good guys — nuanced and complicated and mistake making, sure —  who clean up after him. Despite Macy’s billing and screen time, Frank is ultimately the supporting jerk, not the main character of this show.

The real protagonist of “Shameless” is Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum), a TV heroine of such sheer likability she is, to my mind, the heir to “Friday Night Lights’” Tami Taylor. Fiona, the eldest, hugely self-sacrificing sister, has the misfortune to have the innate sense of responsibility both of her parents lack. Bright and tough, potty-mouthed and occasionally promiscuous, responsible beyond measure, she dropped out of high school to raise her siblings. Week in and week out, she does what she can to make sure they have more stability than she did. Early this season, when Fiona found out that her genius brother Lip (Jeremy Allen White: Imagine if Dustin Hoffman in his seedy roles were extremely sexy) had possibly gotten a girl pregnant, she initially refused to get mad. “I’m not your mother,” she said, waited a few seconds, and then smacked him upside the head for being such an idiot. Fiona isn’t his mother, but in the Gallagher world, what does being a mother count for anyway? Being Fiona counts for a whole lot more.

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