It says a lot about British culture and society that we are so reluctant to celebrate one of our most consistently inventive and impressive TV shows, preferring to snipe at it with that most typical and lazy whinge that ‘It’s not as good as it used to be’. The TV show of course is Shameless, a drama series about life on the fictional Chatsworth estate in Manchester, and it’s currently embarking on its eighth series, its longest yet.
This new series has started with five episodes in as many days, featuring a storyline that has seen Frank Gallagher go missing on his stag night and go through a nightmarish series of hallucinations inspired by Close Encounters, Dr Who and Alien, as well as have a heart-to-heart with the vicious bastard that is his subconscious. When The Sopranos did that kind of thing, it was ‘inspired’, when Shameless does it, it’s ‘just a bit silly and weird’ and ‘shows how far it has fallen from its peak’.
That so-called peak came in the first two series of course, back when James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff were the stars of the show as Steve and Fiona, and Shameless was adored by the critics. Since then though, it has shed characters at a remarkable rate and many people seem to have struggled to adapt to the changes it has gone through.
It’s true comparing Shameless in 2011 to that of 2004 is a little disconcerting. From the Gallagher clan alone, Fiona, Steve, Lip, Ian and Debbie have all departed, while neighbours and friends Kev, Veronica, Carol, Marty, Kash, Yvonne, Norma, Stan, Maxine and Frank’s second wife Sheila have also gone. Even the Maguire family have seen Mandy killed in an explosion and patriarch Paddy return to Ireland (and possibly also get killed). That’s a heck of a turnover.
However, creator Paul Abbott has managed to keep up the momentum and keep Shameless fresh, funny and moving when it needs to be. He may not write it much anymore (another stick used to beat the show with), but this Guardian interview shows that he is still very much at its heart. Of course, this is a system that works for all the best American TV shows. Speaking of which, the US version of Shameless starts this year and looks surprisingly faithful, if a little less scuzzy than its Manc counterpart.
Something that is very important to remember about Shameless is that the whingers may drown out those who praise it, but the audience figures are still very strong, otherwise it wouldn’t keep getting recommissioned and there wouldn’t even be an American remake. A ninth series is already confirmed and there’s still a long way to go with this new one even after the busy first week.
No many how many popular characters it has lost (for whatever reasons), Shameless has so far managed to replace them well, with the likes of Micky Maguire (the warm-hearted, gormless, homosexual thug) and Lillian (the world’s most unlikely brothel owner) both providing regular laughs, while the traumas of Jamie Maguire and his wife Karen (whose mental illness struggles have been dealt with incredibly well) are easily as interesting as those of Fiona and Steve. Most of Frank’s children have flown the nest, but Carl and Liam have grown up into great characters in their own right.
So, maybe it’s time for people to give Shameless a break. It’s not ‘poverty porn’ and it’s not really any less good than its ever been, and it’s one of the rare rays of creative sunlight in British TV schedules stuffed with identikit detective shows, period dramas and celebrity chefs. With Sky stealing all the best American TV shows, we should cherish our homegrown alternatives.