Shameless (More4)

A pacy and gritty depiction of the Land of the Free.


Of all the TV shows I never expected to get remade in the US, Shameless pretty much topped the list - though its journey there, one gathers, has not been smooth. When the showrunner (see how I know how to use the cool American term for, er, its lead writer), John Wells, first began pitching it, the studio bosses failed to get it. They were desperate to set it in the Deep South or a trailer park, suggestions that he roundly declined.

“We have a comedic tradition of making fun of people in those worlds," Wells told the New York Times. "The reality is that these people aren't 'the other' - they're people who live four blocks down from you and two blocks over." Initially it was going to be an HBO series, but it was Showtime that, somewhat courageously, ran with it in the end. It was duly rewarded for its tenacity with some good ratings, and series two has now been given the green light.

So, what's it like? Hmm. For my part, I can't exactly see why More4 is bothering to screen it (Thursdays, 10pm), though I suppose it must fill its schedules somehow; it is incredibly similar to the British original (Paul Abbot, who created it, is a co-writer and executive producer), only somehow not quite as good.

These days, the UK Shameless - soon to enter its ninth great season - is nothing more than a soap opera. When it started in 2004, however, it felt properly edgy. There were lots of reasons for this: the sex, the language, the brazen way it depicted a social group the Labour Party is always trying to pretend doesn't exist.

But mainly it was down to David Threlfall's performance as the alcoholic paterfamilias, Frank Gallagher. I loved Frank's riffs - the character is straight out of Shakespeare, a poet he is sometimes given to quoting - but I also recognised the slight sensation of panic he induced in me. It was exactly the feeling I get when his living equivalent sits next to me on the bus.

Basically, it's help! (I don't say this aloud, obviously; I just . . . exude it.)

Shameless US is set on Chicago's South Side, and Frank's role has been taken by William H Macy. He plays it beautifully: the crablike swagger, the blend of confusion and wiliness, the weird omnipotence no binge can wholly slay. But he is emphatically not dangerous. Or, to be more accurate, the American Frank's danger has been reduced by a more politically correct sensibility to a charge of neglect. This series, we are told, will make plain the effect of his alcoholism on his family.

(They are a sensitive lot, the Yanks; on BBC Radio 4, I heard Macy describe how the animal-loving chat-show queen Ellen de Generes had taken exception to a shot in the opening sequence in which one of the Gallagher children holds a tabby cat in one arm and a blowtorch in the other; he duly promised - yawn - that the team hopes not to "cross the line" taste-wise in future.) Naturally, I know that addiction is a nasty business. But isn't the pleasure and the surprise of Shameless that it is more joy-fest than misery-fest? Frank's children can take care of themselves. They are strangers to self-pity. No point crying when coins must be found for the meter.

On the plus side, there are two future stars among the cast: Jeremy Allen White is fantastic as Frank's clever son Lip, and Emmy Rossum who plays his daughter, Fiona, is even better than that: wise, tough, vulnerable, sexy (though I'm unsure about Joan Cusack as Frank's nutty love interest, Sheila).

The show is fast, well written, and still plenty filthy when it comes to sex, of which there is a lot. Nor does it seek to suggest that salvation can be found in hard work (in fact, British viewers, having read of the US's supposedly non-existent welfare state, will be agog, as if catching sight of a unicorn, at Frank's benefit cheques).

Walking into his favourite bar and finding a load of car workers who have just been laid off, Frank can only point out that this is the problem with employment - it's just so unreliable. Like I said, it's amazing this stuff made it to America. I had every suspicion that they would, at the very least, have given Frank a morning paper round.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue