Shameless Comparisons: Monsters and Sacred Monsters

A warning.  This review contains spoilers for both the US and UK versions of the television Shameless.

I.

When we watch our favorite television shows, we generally don’t realize how much of those shows are informed by our shared cultural identity.  It is not until we see shows from other countries (or subcultures) that we do realize it.  A show from Spain, for example, relies on knowledge of Spain that a Mexican viewer may not have.  We may like these foreign shows, but we cannot necessarily appreciate all their nuances.  I may love Upstairs, Downstairs, but the British class system is completely alien to me.  Similarly Seinfeld does not translate well abroad because there is something so American (specifically New York) about it.  Thus we get the remake–a way to reinvent the show in a new cultural medium.

Because for years Americans only saw British television shows of the highest quality, there was and is a (misguided) belief that all British television is wonderful while most American television is terrible.  As a result, for decades American television has co-opted hit British television shows with wildly mixed results.  For every show that transcended its British predecessor (e.g. All in the Family) or became a hit in its own right (e.g. The Office), there are tons of poor knock-offs that are best forgotten.  Most of them fade from memory almost immediately (will anyone admit to watching the American versions of Coupling or Men Behaving Badly?)  Alas, some not mercifully canceled and instead damage the memory of the fantastic original (Queer as Folk).

II.

Thus we come to Shameless, the story of the Gallagher family and their struggles just to get by.  In the UK version, the action centers around Chatsworth estate in the Greater Manchester area.  The US version transplants everyone to Chicago–thankfully not Pittsburgh where another American remake of a British show set in Manchester was transplanted to.  (I have nothing against Pittsburgh mind you, but Chicago is a much more comparable city to Manchester.)

I am about a month late to the party, but I was not able to watch the US version until just recently.  I was riveted–I watched all 12 episodes in two days.  I cannot wait for Season 2 and have already rewatched some of my favorite parts.  Nevertheless, because so many of the US story lines were nearly exact replicas of the UK version that it was impossible not to compare the two.  Any time there was something different, it felt incredibly jarring whether the change was for better or for worse.

The US version has a major advantage over the UK version: the benefit of seeing what has already worked and what has not.  From my perspective this is great because, I eventually gave up on the UK series.  Although always somewhat unreal, the show became far too much like a soap opera.  What was really unforgivable though was that almost all of the original Gallaghers left the series.  At this point only the drunken patriarch Frank and his son Carl, the most uninteresting of the children, remain.  Because of the departures, the show shifted focus to the Maguires, the resident criminal family of Chatsworth (more on them later.)  For me, this change made the show unwatchable.  I believe it is still popular in Britain.

The UK show is part farce, part drama, and part dark comedy.  It is also a social commentary on the strong class identification and divisions inherent in British society.  Chatsworth is a council estate.  The US version makes it quote clear that the Gallaghers do not live in public housing (although putting them in the projects or in Section 8 housing would probably have been truer to the original intent of the UK series.)  Hence in the US version, there are all sorts of convoluted ways to explain how the family as poor as the Gallaghers can afford to stay in their house.

The ostensible center of both versions is Frank Gallagher, the drunken, drug-addled, lazy, scheming monstrous father of the Gallagher clan.  The real center of the show is his eldest daughter Fiona, and makeshift mother of her younger siblings: Lip (Phillip), Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam.  Fiona is the heart and soul of the series.  One of the major failings of the UK version is that Fiona leaves at the end of Season 2, thereby robbing the show of its emotional core.    Anne-Marie Duff was a great Fiona on the UK series.  Emmy Rossum of the US version may be even better.  Rossum’s performance is complex; she’s a tower of strength but at the same time so vulnerable as to always being on the verge of falling apart.

III.

Fiona is the show’s heroine, but I watch Shameless for Ian.  Played by Gerard Kearns in the UK version (who has since departed) and Cameron Monaghan in the US version, Ian is a closeted, gay teenager in the process of discovering himself.  Ian is far and away the most personal character for me.  When he does not feature heavily (like any soap opera, there are too many main characters and stories often get pushed to the side for long periods of time), I lose interest.  I thought the UK version ruined the Ian; I pray the US version doesn’t follow suit (incest and sex with women do not a compelling gay character make.)

When the Ian plots US show veer too far from the UK version, I feel most disoriented and a little uncomfortable.  Nevertheless, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  It was through Ian that the Maguires infected the UK show.

In the UK version, a classmate of Ian’s Mandy Maguire (the only Maguire I really liked, and therefore the show had to kill her) develops a crush on him.  She tries to have sex with him, and when he rejects her, she tells her thug family he assaulted her.  That is the show’s first introduction of the Maguires, none of them was really distinguished.  Ian outs himself to Mandy, and she becomes his beard and confidante.  The US version follows the exact same plot, only Mandy’s last name is changed to Milkovich, presumably because there are no people of Irish descent in Chicago.  In fact, the US version so closely mirrored the UK version that the two Mandys looked almost exactly alike even though the actual actresses couldn’t look more different.

In the UK series, Lip and Mandy begin to have sex.  It was a convoluted way to protect Ian from being outed, and Mandy gets pregnant as a result.  Mandy’s family, thinking Ian is the father, force Ian into marrying her.  More Maguires are introduced, and they start to become regular characters.  Lip protects Ian again by announcing that he is the father, and a grateful Ian has to pretend to hate Lip.

This leads to Ian coming out to Fiona, which is one of the most touching moments of the UK show (starts at 7:09.)  It’s quite a performance from Anne-Marie Duff.  Ian begs her not tell anyone, and whatever conflicted feelings she had about the ruse and about Ian’s sexuality completely fall away, and she is once again his protector.  It’s a beautiful scene that came after a very intense build up.

In contrast the US version had a sweet coming-out to Fiona scene, but it lacked that satisfaction that came from a much more involved build-up.  In the season finale, Ian and Lip are arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle.  After Fiona brings them home, she demands to know from Ian who gave them the car.  Ian says nothing, but as Fiona turns to leave, he tells her that he’s gay.  Emmy Rossum too gives an excellent performance.  Her movements were so subtle that I missed them on my initial viewing (I watched that scene three times.)  When Ian outs himself to her, she quivers a bit, as all her anger crumbles.  Almost instantly she collects herself and says, “I know.”  Ian apologizes for not telling her, and she (lovingly) informs him that she’s still pissed off at him.   It’s a sweet moment, and very well acted, but it came out of left field.  It would have been nice if there had been some build up.

IV.

The early seasons of the UK version have some definite advantages over the US series.  Stronger secondary characters for one (Kash and especially his wife Yvonne just a few of he characters who are better written in the UK version.)  Another is a lack of ridiculously impossible MacGuffins.  For example, there is no DNA test in the world that can tell you that someone you thought was your father is actually your uncle (US), whereas it is plausible that the sibling who is the family caretaker would know all her brothers’ blood types in case of injury (UK).  (Also, this plot came much later in the UK series.)

For emotional impact however, there are moments of high drama in the US version that are second to none.  Case in point: “But At Last Came a Knock,” the highlight of the first season.  Even if I hated the rest of the series (which I don’t), this episode would have won me over.  This is the episode that introduced Monica Gallagher, the mother of the Gallagher clan, and the woman who abandoned them years before.  In an inspired bit of casting, Monica was played by the brilliant Chloe Webb, the under-appreciated genius behind Nancy Spungen from Sid and Nancy and Mona Ramsey from Tales of the City.  No one could have played a better Monica.

The highlight of the episode was the confrontation between Monica and her children.  It came late in the episode, but it was well worth the wait.  Frank Gallagher is the undisputed monster of the series, but Monica is the sacred monster, an absent presence but one so powerful that the mere mention of her name devastates her children.  Since the episode, the viewers have seen the Gallagher kids’ defense mechanisms: Fiona by taking care her siblings, Lip through his studies, Ian through ROTC, work at the Kash & Grab, and sex, Debbie by her almost obsessive desire to form attachments with strangers, and Carl by being a nascent psychopath.  Most of all, they have each other.  While the Gallaghers do get hurt (seeing Frank at a parent/teacher conference for his girlfriend’s daughter after he refused to go for their conferences), but for the most part they’ve managed to protect themselves from the hurt.

Monica however, shredded their defenses, and it is not surprising why.  The defenses were erected to protect against rejection.  Monica is the very embodiment of that rejection; hers was the most primal and the most painful–the mother who abandoned her children.  And she left them in the care of an uncaring drug-addled alcoholic.  Monica inflicted a wound that never heals.  The defense mechanisms stopped working; only running worked.  Debbie physically ran from her.  Ian too ran when he heard her name, and he ran straight to Mickey for sex–physical contact to dull the pain of not being loved.  Fiona tried to fight Monica, but could not win, and she too left  Carl completely shut down; he could not even look up.  Only Lip did not run, and then in the next episode he tried to find a way to leave the family–first through a DNA test and then vicariously through Ian.  But the truth is that the Gallaghers can never escape Monica even if they did get her to leave again.  She is the unconquerable foe; she is their mother.

In the UK series, Monica returned, and was a main character in several seasons (giving birth to a Frank’s daughter Stella.)  I hope the US Monica also returns, if only in small doses.  Not just because Chloe Webb is a fantastic actress, but because Monica brings something to the show that it otherwise lacks–someone the Gallaghers can neither avoid nor overcome.  A villain yet one they want to love so badly and even more who they want to be loved by.  A sacred monster.

The most frightening characters on television are not cold-blooded killers; they are mothers who don’t love their children–Livia Soprano who put a hit on her own son, De’Londa Brice from The Wire who tried to force her son into becoming a drug kingpin, even Lucille Bluth who terrorized her children with her endless selfishness, apathy, and (hilarious) drunken meanness.  In two episodes, Monica Gallagher joined that pantheon.

What the US series did so beautifully was to convey the hurt and defenselessness of the Gallagher children when confronted by their sacred monster.  “But At Last Came A Knock” is one of the most powerful episodes of television I have seen in some time.

Weekend Roundup

Marriage Equality Train: Next stops–Maryland and Rhode Island?

That both states are very close is not much of a surprise.  Maryland has been a blue state for quite some time, and its proximity to DC–where same-sex marriage is already a reality–had put added pressure on the state to legalize same-sex marriage.  All the more so after the Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler released an opinion recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages (and after Governor Martin O’Malley won his reelection bid last November and pledged to sign the bill.)  If the bill passes, there could be a referendum.  The good news is that getting a referendum to overturn an LGBT rights law in Maryland has not been successful in the past.  The bad news is that equal rights supporters have a very poor track record in state-wide referenda.

Rhode Island is, quite frankly, just a matter of time.  If not now, then soon.  Before this week, Rhode Island had a very homophobic governor in office.  Now Lincoln Chafee is governor.  Governor Chafee is undoubtedly a (to quote a now-infamous remark) “fierce advocate” of LGBT rights.  He was when he was in the Senate, the lone Republican one could say that about.  Lincoln Chafee’s ouster in 2006 was a tragedy.  Had he turned independent, Rhode Island would still have a great Senator rather than a future great Governor.  However, he was loyal to the GOP in a year when the country was sick of Republicans.  Despite an approval rating of over 60%, he lost his seat.  When I heard he was running for Governor, I told anyone who would listen that I hoped he would win.  After his election he refused to meet with the anti-gay bigots from NOM, and then he called for a marriage equality bill in his inauguration address.  That, my friends, is fierce advocacy.

Perhaps if marriage equality is successful in Maryland and Rhode Island, the LGBT rights movement can recapture the momentum that it lost after the failures in New York, New Jersey, Maine, and California.

Future Heartbreak? This Sunday Showtime will air the episode of its new series Shameless, which is an American version of a British series of the same name.  One of the characters is a gay teen named Ian Gallagher.  I have not seen the British show, and I had never heard about either the original or the American version  until today (I don’t have Showtime, but I will watch Shameless the next time I visit my parents.)  Having said that, I am excited and terrified at the thought of this show.  I am excited because British shows are usually very good at creating gay characters (Beautiful People, the British Queer as Folk).  It seems like people really enjoyed the British version, which is now on my Netflix queue.  I am terrified because American shows by and large make gay characters horribly one-dimesnional.  While I have not watched Showtime lately, their track record with gay shows has been appalling (The L Word, the American Queer as Folk).  On the other hand, this is not a gay show, it is a show where one of the central characters is gay.  That’s an important difference, and every once in a while, in that paradigm American television does do a gay character well.  Maybe Ian Gallagher will be among the lucky few.  (Although can we talk about this Ian Gallagher as the anti-Kurt Hummel thing that Vanity Fair and Towleroad are pushing?  Gay people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors; to define a gay character as an antithesis of another gay character is to denigrate the entire community, because there is an implied superiority.  Kurt and all effeminate/fey gay men around the world are just fine the way they are; the same is true of not-effeminate/fey gay men.)

I’m a little hesitant to watch this show because I am afraid of what would happen if I like it and then Showtime cancels the show?  My heart was broken by Beautiful People, and I’m still a little gun shy about new relationships with television characters.

edit:  I have been watching the British version on YouTube.  It’s funny, but this whole Ian Gallagher as the anti-Kurt Hummel is complete bollocks (as the British say.)

Turkish Orders Another LGBT To Close: Dear Turkey, do you really expect to join the EU?  And given that you pull this kind of thing all the time, do you really want to join?

Johnny Weir Comes Out: No, really.  I know you’re shocked.  And (what incredible timing!) he’s just about to start selling his autobiography/memoirs.  But it really was because gay kids are killing themselves.  I don’t want to hate on Johnny Weir; I liked his personality, and I liked his skating.  But his desire to play the victim now (Big Bad Gay Media made me stay in the closet!) rings hollow given his constant need for the spotlight–including television shows and a movie about his “outrageous” personality.  Additionally, after all of his complaining about the constant probing into his sexuality he outed his rival/enemy Evan Lysacek on Chelsea’s Hendler’s show.  Dear Johnny, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, even you really do hate Evan Lysacek.

Politics: President Obama selected William Daley as his new Chief of Staff, and progressives are up in arms.  I share their disappointment that the President appointed someone who believes the Democrats went too far to the left, but we need to be rational about this for a second.  No progressive legislation is going to be passed in the next two years, Daley or no.  As of this past Wednesday, the Administration is unofficially at war with Congress.  In the face of inevitable investigations, government shut-downs, and the 2012 election cycle, nothing progressive was going to get done anyway.  The White House needs a general right now and one who is not afraid to fight.  (But it would be nice if the Obama White House branched out and employed someone from outside of Chicago.  The rest of us are not incompetent.)

League Football: Tomorrow Barcelona plays Deportivo La Coruña in A Coruña.  Depor has not had a great season thus far, but they are still dangerous, especially at the Riazor.  Barcelona barely got past Athletic Bilbao at the Copa del Rey this week, and squeaked by Levante last week, so there is clearly some rust.  That needs to be fixed ASAP given that Real Madrid is always lurking.

For weeks I have been hearing non-stop bashing of La Liga.  The whiner complain that it is boring because only one of two teams is going to win, and that’s only because the rest of the league is so weak.  It denigrates an entire league, whose overall quality is just as good as any other (and team-by-team there is better technical quality in La Liga than anywhere else in the world.)  The bashing is usually from the English (of course), and all they talk about is how only two teams exist in La Liga.  Let’s examine why the detractors are hypocrites.  Every major league in the world has its big two, three, or four.  Spain has Barcelona and Read Madrid; Italy has Juventus, AC Milan, and Inter; England has Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea (and previously Liverpool–sometimes); and Germany has Bayern Munich and occasionally a team that is not Bayern (this year it is Borussia Dortmund.)  Ligue 1 has been more competitive of late, but almost no one pays attention to Ligue 1 because the quality is just not there.  And we won’t even go into the problems with the leagues in Portugal, Scotland, Holland, and the rest of Europe.

Here are some facts.  Since the 1992-93 season, the beginning of the English Premier League, there have been 5 different winners in Spain.  There have been 5 different winners in Serie A.  There have been 6 different winners in the Bundesliga.  There have been only 4 winners in the Premier League.

From the 2000-2001 season to the 2009-2010 season there have been 3 different winners in La Liga, 4 in Serie A, 5 in the Bundesliga, and 3 in the Premier League.

From the 2005-2006 season to the 2009-2010 season there have been 2 different winners in La Liga, 1 winner in Serie A, 3 different winners in the Bundesliga, and 2 different winners in the Premier League.

In the 18 completed seasons since the formation of the Premier League, the top winner of La Liga (Barcelona) has won 8 titles; Serie A has a three tie for the spot as Juventus, Milan, and Inter each have 5 titles (but a lot of suspicion because of the Calciopoli scandal); the top winner of the Bundesliga (Bayern) has won 10 titles; the top winner of the Premier League (Manchester United) has won 11 titles.

This season as it stands, Barcelona leads La Liga by 2 points;  AC Milan leads Serie A by 5 points; Borussia Dortmund leads the Bundesliga by 10 points; and the most thoroughly mediocre Manchester United in recent history leads the Premier League by 4 points with two games in hand.

Meanwhile there actually a race in La Liga with two stellar teams (one possibly among the greatest of all time.)  In the other three major leagues, there is a lot of mediocrity at the top, which is why the league leaders lose and draw so many matches.

Can we please give lie to this canard that La Liga is boring?

World Football: Chile is probably out of a national coach.  The election for head of the Chilean Football Association head was held again, and this time Sergio Jadue won.  Bielsa has said he would resign if Harold Mayne-Nicholls (who did not run in the recontested election) was voted out.  There is a new head.  According to local media, Jadue will try to convince Bielsa to stay, but that probably will not happen.

And FIFA head Sepp Blatter, to the surprise of no one, is now calling for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to be held in the winter.  When will Sepp Blatter go already?

The Asian Cup has started in Qatar.  Qatar lost 2-0 to the powerhouse that is Uzbekistan.

Women’s Football: Kristine Lilly finally retired, and it is a sad day for American soccer, men’s or women’s.  Lilly participated in five World Cups, and was on the winning side in two of them.  She is the most capped player of all time, men or women, and the second highest scorer in women’s history.  She saved the US in the final match against China in the 1999 World Cup.  It is truly the end of an era, and the US team is all the better for her having played on it.

Music I listened to: Well none, but I did listen to a World Football Daily podcast.