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.

The return of Southland: 3.1 “Let It Snow”

The highly anticipated Season Three of Southland began on TNT with “Let It Snow,” an episode that continued the series’ signature high-impact simplicity with an elegantly propulsive momentum.

The writers (executive producer John Wells, and the creator of the show, Ann Biderman) had a complex task on their hands with this one: keeping the show running at full throttle on a newly reduced off-network budget, while making the episode fully accessible to newer viewers, essential for the show’s continued survival.

Southland has traditionally never made many concessions to the viewer in the way it tells its stories, which has always been one of its strengths as a drama. Its world is detailed and real, and we need to catch up and keep up, just like the patrol cops and detectives in the complex situations they encounter. Wells and Biderman negotiated the complex demands of this season opener skilfully; sketching with the lightest of touches enough details of the key players’ back stories to allow new viewers to know them, while accelerating them into new challenges. There were delicate echoes of the pilot “Unknown Trouble,” and also of the last episode aired, “Maximum Deployment,” but these echoes were artfully reframed, with quiet evolutions shaded in.

Southland has always been a minimally presented, high impact drama, but this latest episode brutally honed that style even closer to the bone. Each scene was a brutal street haiku, containing just a few, perfectly chosen details that illuminated whole worlds, telling us almost nothing but showing us everything. “Let It Snow” was a masterclass in starting scenes late and ending them fast. The actors had never had long to make their impact, and they took advantage of every precious second. Michael Cudlitz was the MVP of this episode as John Cooper, fighting his excruciating, debilitating back injuries, and desperately begging for the help of his ex-wife to sustain his painkiller addiction. His tragic, haunting expression as she rushed away from him in tears was the key moment of the episode, locating the show’s heart amidst the chaos and tension. Ben McKenzie also did great work executing the path the writers seem to be laying out for his role, as Ben Sherman drifts from the hotshot, by-the-numbers rookie, to a more experienced, weary, rule-breaking patrol cop. Regina King hit her emotional beats compellingly as Lydia Adams, perpetually dealing with the horror that her detective faces, and never quite getting numb to it.

All in all, it was a fascinating start to season three, with director Christopher Chulack combining great character work with tough, almost unbearably tense set pieces and raw street-level action. It promised much for the nine episodes to come. It’s great to have this show back, and on the leading edge, where it’s always been; where it truly belongs.