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"Now nobody's saying the Chatsworth Estate is the Garden of Eden..."

Paul Abbott has been responsible for a wealth of acclaimed British drama, from State of Play to Clocking Off, but, strangely enough, the only work that I had seen by him was his contribution to the excellent Robbie Coltrane vehicle Cracker and the work he had done with Robson Green on the underrated Touching Evil series. So Shameless completely passed me by first time around. It was not until halfway-through the second season (currently airing on Channel 4) that a friend persuaded me to give it a chance. So it was great news for me to get the opportunity to review this first season, as it enabled me to see everything right from the beginning.

Shameless: Series One
The Series
Shameless centres on a disparate Manchurian family nucleus and the mischief that they get up to on and around a dodgy Council estate. Frank is the single father supposedly in charge of the motley crew, but in actual fact he is really more like the lead troublemaker. An irresponsible unemployed gambling alcoholic, Frank starts at rock bottom and pretty-much stays there for the entire season, so it is a merit to both the script and the acting that the character is so... well, likeable. Oddly enough, however, Frank is not really the central character. He may well be the best character, but the series does not revolve around him. You see, whilst Frank is out drinking, or in recovering, his eldest daughter Fiona is the cement holding the rest of the wild bunch together. Having to always act way beyond her years, Fiona is as much their surrogate mother as their big sister, and the whole of the first season pretty-much follows her evolution, studying how she tries desperately to have some semblance of a life of her own.

Holding her back is the responsibility of five younger children, all of whom need varying degrees of help. The eldest son, called Lip because no one can be bothered to call him Phillip, not only has to deal with the state of his own love life—which largely consists of doing a neighbour’s daughter’s homework in exchange for blowjobs—but also the discovery that his younger brother is gay. Needless to say, Ian, the younger brother, is in a bit of a predicament himself. As is pointed out to him in one episode, being a teenage white boy on a Council estate in Manchester, having sex with the local Pakistani shop keeper—who happens to be a married man—is one of the worst predicaments he could be in. Next up is Carl, who is basically a bit of an animal—the highlight for him in this series is urinating in a public telephone booth. But I guess he still has plenty of time to evolve. Then there’s Debbie—the youngest daughter—largely considered to be an angel who can do no wrong and is unable to lie. But, don’t worry, that all changes as well. Finally there is the largely token baby, Liam, who is prone to fits that we are seldom privy to. As if this were not enough to deal with, the carefree neighbours Kev and Veronica, often drop by—only adding to the mayhem.

Shameless: Series One
However good the script and story is, the characters would be nothing were it not for the supreme performances on offer. Anne-Marie Duff, who plays Fiona, deserves particular mention, even though this is pretty-much her first major TV part, having thus far only pulled off bit parts in British productions like Charles II and Doctor Zhivago. Capable of drifting in terms of attractiveness from Gollum to Zoe Ball, she has given a new lease of life to faded pink tracksuits, and the development of her relationship with Steve—her new flame—is pivotal to this first season. And that brings me to James McAvoy, who plays Steve. It would be very easy for somebody taking this role to come across as nothing more than a smug smart-ass (which McAvoy is clearly capable of as you can see in the recent release of the Kirsten Dunst/Paul Bettany rom-com Wimbledon), so it is a credit to him that by the end of the season he makes seem more a part of the Gallagher family than their own father. David Threlfall, who plays the aforementioned father, is extremely convincing as an alcoholic waste of space and simply shines when he’s left to his rambling monologues. You may recognise him from bit parts in big screen films like Patriot Games and Master and Commander. Also of note are Maggie O’Neal (from Births, Deaths and Marriages, and Peak Practice) as another neighbour, Sheila, who is both agoraphobic and addicted to prescription drugs, and Rebecca Atkinson, her precocious teenage daughter Karen, who is prone to getting her homework done with the aid of a little oral servicing. Although barely graduated from jailbait, few will fail to succumb to her sexy antics. And for the last couple of episodes we get Annabelle Aspion as the elusive lesbian Veronica, who has a surprise or two in store for Frank and the family.

All of the cast members are well-chosen and the child actors in particular do a fantastic job. The result is a strangely compelling drama that raises itself above the sum of its component parts as a bleak, depressing picture of mayhem, to come across as, quite simply, a truly warm look at family life. For, no matter what happens to this particular family, they always unite and fight together, as one. For all their faults, this particular Chatsworth Estate household has not forgotten to, first and foremost, look after their own.

Episode List:

Episode 1 – Here we are introduced to all of the major characters and we follow Fiona as she meets the potential man of her dreams, Steve.

Episode 2 – Already Frank is missing and the kids fear the worst when a body is discovered.

Episode 3 – Kev and Veronica, through a confluence of mistakes, decide to get married, leading to no end of trouble.

Shameless: Series One
Episode 4 – Debbie starts stealing, much to the dismay of the family.

Episode 5 – Frank’s indiscretions come home to roost and cause yet more trouble for the family, in particular Lip.

Episode 6 – News about their missing mum shocks the Gallaghers.

Episode 7 – Frank goes to extreme lengths to get money and Steve is faced with a tough dilemma when Fiona’s Policeman friend gets jealous of him.

NB. It is worth noting that, after the ‘Next On’ segments and end credits, there are always closing shots which are normally quite amusing and worth fast-forwarding to.

Shameless is presented with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it’s nice to see that British TV series like this are increasingly being released on DVD in widescreen. The transfer is reasonably good, considering the way the show was filmed, which is largely accountable for any complaints that one might direct towards the presentation. Whilst Shameless, for the most part, maintains a hand-held camera documentary-style approach, it also exhibits the worst features of standard ‘glossy’ TV shows, namely the softness and lack of focus. So not only do you get heavy documentary grain, but you also have blurry shots and soft focus—the worst of both worlds. The flip-side to this fact is that the style of filming, if you can call it a style, perfectly suits the drama itself, really making you feel like a part of this manic family whilst also retaining that aura of truth in its documentary approach. Although some may complain of the lack of detail or artefacting commonly associated with digital camerawork, I certainly think that the style does not in any way take away from the content on offer and, aside from these elements inherent to the show itself there are no transfer defects like dust or dirt. I would not advocate this as a transfer to show off a new telly, but it is perfectly suitable for a show like Shameless.

Shameless: Series One
Unlike the reasonable effort to at least supply a widescreen transfer, the audio is shamefully restricted to mere Dolby Digital 2.0. It is one of the most basic audio tracks that I have ever come across, clearly presenting the dialogue—the most crucial element—at the forefront, and showcasing the soundtrack and effects, however few and far between, in a way that is barely adequate. There isn’t really a great deal to say about the sound track. It is a below average effort that most people will be slightly disappointed with. On the other hand, just like any complaints there might be against the video presentation, the audio never really detracts from the show. There are also optional English subtitles.

‘Meet The Cast’: This ten-minute documentary is hosted by Debbie (Rebecca Ryan) and Carl (Elliot Tittensor), two of the younger children. The two of them basically wander around various areas on the set (during the filming of the second season) chatting to different cast members and asking them about their characters, their favourite moments and their most embarrassing recollections. Apart from the main cast (Frank – David Threlfall, Sheila – Maggie O’Neal, Karen – Rebecca Atkinson, Fiona – Anne-Marie Duff and Veronica – Maxine Peake) we get contributions from some of the smaller players including Marty, the guy with tourettes and Jez, the landlady of the Jockey. The interview clips are interspersed with footage from the series itself, illustrating the tales from each member of the cast. It’s a nice little documentary which highlights the best bits of the series without coming across as pretentious marketing fluff.

‘Interview with Paul Abbott’: There is also a ten-minute interview with the writer and creator of Shameless, Paul Abbott. Again, we find his brief comments (largely answers to off-screen questions) segmented by clips from the series for illustration. Normally I would find this irritating, but normally it is done to serve no purpose other than to provide sound bites for advertising—here the clips are used very carefully to compound his points. Abbott is fairly honest about just how close Shameless is to his own childhood in Manchester, explaining how it is largely autobiographical and how he was probably closest in character to Lip. He talks about his techniques to make the show more appealing—it is easier to stomach some of the more serious drama when the characters mock and laugh at their own dilemmas. It’s a nice feature to have on the DVD and more series should have such quality, frank discussions on the source, inspiration and background to the show.

Shameless: Series One
Although it may not appeal to everybody, do not be put off if you caught this whilst changing channels. It's a decent drama with a warm heart and a vicious sense of humour and it deserves to be savoured from start to finish. And whilst the DVD release isn't exactly special, it has a couple of nice features and reasonable technical specs—nothing to complain about especially with a series this good. This one comes highly recommended.