I occasionally wonder why “Shameless” hasn’t become a critical and awards favorite, not on the level of “Mad Men” but at the upper second tier, beside shows such as “The Good Wife,” “Justified,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Louie.” Every time I watch an episode of the Showtime series, which returns on Sunday night at 9 for a third season of Gallagher family madness, I am filled with admiration.
The acting is top-notch all around, particularly by William H. Macy, who is seamlessly gonzo as the always drunken Frank, who not only neglects his six kids but adds to their financial and emotional burdens. He steals from them, uses them to manipulate strangers, and hates them when they get in the way of his next drink. In the season premiere, sweet red-haired daughter Debbie (Emma Kenney) is loyally counting the days until Frank returns from one of his binges — he’s in Mexico, but that’s another story — but shortly after he’s back in their Chicago neighborhood, he curses his freckled daughter, and not by name, since he’s forgotten it.
Macy and the writers keep Frank unsympathetic as much as ever in the first four episodes of season 3. And that is a great choice, as it protects the show from falling over the line into sentimentality and pure antic comedy. He’s such an awful narcissist, you can’t quite laugh at him, and he never becomes the stereotypical lovable drunk — Otis on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Throughout, the tone of “Shameless” is expertly modulated by Paul Abbott (who also wrote and produced the British version of the show) and John Wells. It is as stringently hard-nosed about poverty and parentlessness as it is celebratory of the Gallagher children’s spirit and their scrappy triumphs.
Emmy Rossum also helps to keep “Shameless” from drifting into pure comedy as oldest sister Fiona, whose trust issues are heartbreaking. Looking at her somewhat depressed demeanor, you can’t help but feel badly about her sacrifices for her younger siblings. She’s vacuuming up sewage, trying to make enough money to stay in the house, rather than working on any kind of career and using her formidable intelligence. When she and oldest brother Lip (Jeremy Allen White) fight over how to support the family, you sadly realize they’re both saddled with responsibilities that exceed their ages.
The editing of the show is also consistently impressive. The story races forward happily and aggressively, but none of the plot strands among the many characters is ever dropped or given short shrift. From Steve, now known as Jimmy, and his family, including his gay father, to Sheila and her son-in-law lover, Jody, all the story lines are regularly reinforced and satisfyingly resolved. “Shameless” behaves like a crazy burst of life force, always verging on anarchy but never succumbing, just like the family it portrays. The center holds.
Maybe the sexual content in “Shameless” makes awards people and some critics uncomfortable? It is true that the show is fairly explicit, with the kind of shame-free attitude toward sex that suffuses the entire story. It would trouble me to think that violence doesn’t dampen the acclaim of excellent shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire,” but that sexuality is a deal-breaker when it comes to “Shameless.” Of course, the truth may have more to do with the fact that Showtime has a number of other celebrated series, including “Homeland” and “Dexter,” and there is only so much room in the rave department for each network. At least viewers have found “Shameless” — the ratings are strong — and so it will continue. Like the Gallaghers, it doesn’t get a lot of praise, but it survives nevertheless.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew