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