Shame shame shame
Channel 4 is halfway through showing the latest series of Shameless, it’s sixth I believe. I struggle hard to think of a show worse than this one. Like its C4 stablemate Skins, it is a wild fantasy about a certain demographic. Whereas Skins holds a microscope up to a wildly unrealistic group of teens, Shameless turns its gaze towards society’s other big, bad wolf: the working classes.
When Shameless first began, reviewers in the broadsheets fell over themselves to heap praise upon it, congratulating its creator, Paul Abbott, on his depictions of a working class family on a rough estate in Greater Manchester. This was no warts-and-all portrayal, like much of Abbott’s other work, this was a comedy drama, with petty crimes, drugs and violence interspersed with jokes and slapstick situations. Despite the fact I’d grown up on a council estate, I couldn’t identify with it at all. Earlier series may have had a certain charm, but six years down the line and the show has descended into a ridiculous parody of itself. It’s hard to believe that anyone who writes for the show even knows where their nearest council estate is, let alone visits it in the name of research. Just as Dynasty and Dallas told us that all there was to running an oil business was walking in and out of palatial rooms wearing shoulder pads, Shameless appears to be trying to say that all there is to living on a council estate is fucking someone, getting fucked on drugs or getting fucked over by someone.
Its depiction of large families pretends to give it heart, but in fact there’s something quite snide about the whole family dynamic. Women in the show are mainly scripted with contempt: they’re playthings for the men or bad mothers or loudmouthed harridans, while the majority of the men have a ball and do what they like. Perhaps this is a reaction to the prevalence of ‘strong women’ in British soap operas, maybe writers of northern working class drama feel it’s time for men to have the upper hand but when the women are as two-dimensional as this, it feels like a very empty evening up of the scores. The matriarch of the main family, the Gallaghers, was absent for the first couple of series having abandoned her brood to the care of her eldest daughter. So far, so normal. On her return, with her lesbian lover (of course!) she has wavered between a saintly Mother Earth and the whore of Babylon. One minute she is devoted to her husband (a drunk loser) the next she is using sexual favours in return for getting her car fixed. Her most recent exploit was to have sex with a social services inspector in an effort to prevent her family being broken up, on the misunderstanding that her husband had asked her to do this. His reaction on realising what she’d done was horror and disgust, despite him having been nuts-deep in a practical stranger in the pub toilets only a few scenes previously. Scriptwriters will probably argue that they’re complex characters; I reckon someone’s got ‘mother’ issues.
The show that claims to hold a mirror up to council estate dwellers was even reported by most newspapers to have been imitated by the real deal: Karen Matthews and her family were rumoured to have been inspired by a kidnap plot on Shameless when concocting their own futile plan involving young Shannon. Whether this turned out to be the case, I don’t know, but the reactions of newscasters reporting on the story from the sink estate in Dewsbury that the Matthews family called home betrayed what they were thinking: 'these people are scum'. Whither the hilarious antics of Frank Gallagher now, eh? Not so much fun once you get into the thick of it, I suppose. No cutaways to someone downing three pills and a bottle of Thunderbird to rescue you from the harsh realities of non-fiction.
Sex plays an important part in the way the programme is desperate to show us what a great time the working classes are having. In earlier series, there were the obligatory couple of bedroom scenes per episodes. Fast forward a while and Shameless is obsessed with it. Barely a scene goes by without someone disrobing. Cock seems to have taken the place of plot, satisfying all those chav and scally fantasies of the broadsheet readers under the guise of primetime drama. Well, everyone likes a bit of rough, don’t they? Don’t they?
Despite my misgivings, the show remains fairly popular across most demographics. Perhaps Jarvis Cocker was right when he sang about Common People that just “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do”. There certainly isn’t much more to Shameless, that’s for sure.