A wild, feral beauty

With its most recent episode, “Casey Casden,” the US version of Shameless has found its own authentic voice, blasting its way out of the shadow of the UK version, to which it had been staying remarkably true. The storylines are still for the most part the same, but there are minor, subtle variations, a set of low-key differences that have accumulated and evolved into a unique, stand-alone personality.

The Chicago setting is great: rough, raw, uncompromising in a much tougher and larger way than the original Manchester setting (sorry, Manchester!). When the cops come out with choppers and SWAT teams, it’s just more convincing here.

But that’s not what makes this version, that’s not what really makes it tick.

It’s Emmy Rossum that gives the show its wild heart and lonely soul; her feral beauty strikes at you, demands you notice it. This is the role she was born to play. The character of Fiona is key to the entire show, just as she was in the UK: in this remake, Rossum ups the ante and drags every scene out from under her costars, whoever they are, however brilliant and magnetic, charismatic or compelling they may be — doesn’t matter, because Rossum is providing the soul that Shameless is utterly dependent on. It is a wild ride, chaotic, unruly, beautifully so, but it needs this soul for you to buy into its unhinged brilliance.

Episode 4 was the one that turned the corner, when the show began to hold its own in the face of Rossum’s raw and heartbreaking truth. The storylines had punch and accereleration, and they ratcheted together to move forward hard and fast, deftly and solidly. The family was drawn into the scheme to return a toddler that youngest daughter Debbie had, inadvertently, stolen. Elsewhere, Lip and Ian were trying to steal a water heater, and neighbor Kev was trying to work out how an off-hand comment had led to the quickly-spreading wildfire news of his apparent engagement to Veronica. It was tightly scripted chaos, making its way through the complex character work and reverse heist plotting with ease.

All the storytelling elements dovetailed in just the right way, and suddenly, wonderfully, we saw the true power of the ensemble. Not just the actors, but the writing (by Cindy Caponera), directing (Todd Holland), producing and soundtrack song choices. With this episode, Shameless exploded into life, exceeding the promise of the pilot and the fascinating and entertaining second and third episodes. It came into its own, setting up a more assured trajectory for the remainder of the season.

Shamelessly Brilliant

On Sunday 1/9/11 at 10pm ET, the Warner Bros./Showtime remake of the wild, raucous and charming British show Shameless will begin.

Overseen by the prolific and talented John Wells (ER, Southland), and the show’s original creator Paul Abbott (State Of Play), the pilot episode does an extraordinary job of translating the anarchic heart of the original, transplanting it successfully from a run-down Manchester district into a raw, snow-covered, beaten-down Chicago setting.

It’s hard to overstate how much the original show meant to me when it aired seven years ago in 2004. It was unlike any other British show at the time: unflinching, inspiring, heartfelt, emotionally brutal and bloody funny – much like family life, no accident as Paul Abbott was always upfront about how shamelessly autobiographical the show was meant to be. The show centers around alcoholic patriarch Frank Gallagher, father of six kids of various ages, abandoned by their mother, and left to fend for themselves. Frank dedicated himself to getting as drunk as possible, leaving oldest child Fiona to hold it all together. Out of these dark events, Abbott created an incredibly charming, outrageous and moving comedy drama, which just happened to be hilarious, and heartwarming, with its biting, whip-smart humor and belief in the power of family.

British shows don’t always, or even often, fare well when they get remade for American TV. For every success story like The Office, there are others that miss the mark. I have to admit to a sense of trepidation with Shameless: the original was so… original, and raw. Would it be possible for an American channel, even a cable network like Showtime, to pull this off?

Hell yes.

From the very beginning, this new incarnation barrels along, sharper and harder than the original, and any doubts about the show getting softer in its transition to the US are decisively kicked aside with a razor sharp sense of abandon that is wielded with hysterical precision. The script by Wells and Abbott crackles with a new electricity: the show is invigorated with its new setting and cast. Yes, the cast. The cast of the original was one of the most charming, likeable and funny collection of rude, stick your middle finger up at authority misfits. How would this aspect of the show translate?

Again, brilliantly. The cast feel instantly at home inhabiting these characters, managing to normalize their good looks to the extent that you realize that Shameless is our Hamlet, a great play waiting to be reinvented for a new era, and these are the latest players to bring it to life. They do it with utter conviction. Three in particular have their work cut out for them: William H. Macy as Frank, Emmy Rossum as Fiona, and Justin Chatwin as chancer Steve, who in the first episode tries to win Fiona’s heart with charm, wit, and a new washer. Macy does a great job of taking over from David Threlfall’s iconic version, embodying Frank’s “to hell with the world while I have a drink” mentality, and is perfectly at ease with the many physical tics and mannerisms that seem to make up Frank’s existence. Likewise, Chatwin steps up manfully to the unenviable task of taking over from the frankly legendary James McAvoy, whose career was launched with this role: it’s great to see how easily Chatwin handles the challenge, bringing a new level of charm, wit and cheekiness to Steve.

But Emmy Rossum is the true star of this show.

In the original, Anne-Marie Duff brought a raw, fragile roughness to the character. Rossum goes one better, exposing Fiona’s delicate mix of in your face attitude, desperate vulnerability, her longing for more from life, and her overwhelming desire for things to be different. Rossum embodies and evokes all this beautifully, with a raw, real, sensual honesty. I’m not the first to say it, but an Emmy for Emmy seems assured.

The show benefits hugely from its transition to the tough, unyielding urban setting of a decaying Chicago neighborhood. It’s excellently directed by original Brit director (here a co-producer too) Mark Mylod, and perfectly shot by DP extraordinaire Jimmy Muro in a gorgeously crisp and sharp style, with outstanding location choices that enhance every exterior scene. Its use of loud, raucous songs kicks up the joyous, crazy energy. And its handling of a teen struggling with his sexuality is commendably done.

As soon as the pilot ends, you want more, lots more. You want to binge on the rest of the episodes like Frank with an open tab at the bar. It takes everything great about the original, makes it better, and adds new outrageous and heartfelt elements, while easily sidestepping sentimentality. It moves faster, hits harder: it’s even more uncompromising than before, and more brilliant for it.

Simply put, Shameless is the most thrilling, exciting TV drama debut of the 2010-11 season. Watch it.