If Showtime has specialized in high-concept moms — Pot dealer! Multiple personalities! Cancer! — its latest dad is harder to pin down. In “Shameless,” whose limited charms require diligent excavation to uncover, William H. Macy stars as the ne’er-do-well sire to six impoverished children scraping to get by — from toddler to twentysomething Emmy Rossum — but it’s the kids who are alright, while dad is a familiar amalgam of lower-class excess. Not entirely devoid of worthwhile moments, this adaptation of a U.K. series wallows in dreariness without offering enough dramatic compensation in return.
Clearly, in light of his recent feature “The Company Men,” producer John Wells has an enduring interest in economic struggles and the toll they can exact on a family. Yet in this long-gestating collaboration with British series originator Paul Abbott, “Shameless” goes well beyond lost middle-class moorings to focus on a clan where life is a constant struggle just to keep the heat and lights on.
With their father Frank (Macy) a near-absentee drunk/slacker and mom long gone, the six Gallagher kids have come to rely on big-sis Fiona (Rossum) as their protector, surrogate mom and the glue that keeps them afloat. Everyone works odd jobs, and the youths aren’t above a little petty larceny.
That doesn’t leave Fiona much time for herself, which explains why she dances at a local club with such reckless abandon as to catch the eye of the smooth Steve (Justin Chatwin), initiating an intense if tumultuous on-and-off relationship.
More interesting, at least at times, are her younger brothers: Lip (Jeremy Allen White), who tries using his smarts to talk his way out of jams; and closeted gay Ian (Cameron Monaghan). The interplay between those two gives “Shameless” what little soul it possesses.
Much of the rest of the three episodes previewed, by contrast, simply stumble along, employing what’s becoming an overused mix of broad, almost silly comedy with more sober exchanges. Other than passing out hammered, Frank doesn’t contribute much on any level, and while Macy can look woeful with the best of them, there’s precious little he can do with a character that spends long stretches passed out on the floor.
Rossum is certainly appealing, but too many of the supporting players (led by Joan Cusack as a germaphobic mom, and the Gallaghers’ wacky neighbors) come across as cartoonish concoctions there to capitalize on pay-cable license rather than service the story.
The series does cast light on a world (relocated to the grimiest part of Chicago) where nothing comes easy, and kids don’t have the luxury of idleness or childhood.
For the most part, there’s nothing here to be ashamed of. It’s just that at a time when TV drama is so flush with riches, “Shameless” plays like a poor relative.