January 13, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
Edgy ‘Shameless’ pushes envelope

Cameron Monaghan, left, as Ian and Jeremy Allen White as 'Lip in 'Shameless,' a crass new series that features frank sex and nudity, gay and straight. (Image courtesy of Showtime)

An edgy hit British show has crossed the Atlantic with a U.S. version having just started its 12-episode run. ‘Shameless’ airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. (EST) on Showtime and is raising eyebrows for its envelope pushing on sexual matters both gay and straight.

“Shameless” presents the downtrodden, dysfunctional, single-parent family, the lumpenproletariat Gallaghers. With a tagline that promises wild and unapologetic shamelessness, the show stars “Fargo” character actor, 60-year-old William H. Macy in the rip-roaring dipsomaniac role as the family patriarch Frank.

Shame is, of course, a dogged devil in the lives of gay people, evidenced by the frequent emotional distancing and acting-out spelled out in such detail on the topic of shame by gay psychotherapist Alan Downs in his best-selling book “The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World.” So this is show worth seeing on many levels.

One of the lead characters is a gay teenager grappling with shame. He’s one of the six Gallagher siblings Ian, played by 17-year-old straight actor Cameron Monaghan as still a boy, furtively hiding his stash of gay male porn at home but also still able to face his sexuality openly when asked about it by one of his older brothers.

Macy, in fact, spends much of his time as Frank feeling no shame, for when he’s not slumped over a barstool, he’s sprawled on the floor at home face up, passed out in an alcoholic stupor. He lives on disability checks from an accident at the poultry plant near where the family resides in a rundown Chicago neighborhood.

“Slammed in the ribs by a headless flying chicken,” he says. “I was lucky. Almost missed me.”

A single father to his six children, Frank expects them to raise themselves and each other. Thus, eldest daughter Fiona — Emma Rossum (“Phantom of the Opera”) without makeup but still enchanting — must act as mother to her siblings. Her school-smart younger brother Philip (Jeremy Allen White), nick-named “‘Lip,” trades help in schoolwork for a girl’s blow job, and teenage Ian has hot sex with his married (male) employer. Meanwhile, young Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) dips into the collection plate at church to help pay the household electric bill. And when no one else can watch baby Liam at home, one sister simply takes him to school for show and tell.

Despite a sensibility that may be too seamy for some, this is super-good TV, helmed and written by John Wells, co-creator of the NBC-TV shows “The West Wing” and “ER.” Wells owned the rights for many years but the major networks simply wouldn’t touch “Shameless,” even though the first season of the British original (which began on Channel 4 there in 2004) later aired here on BBC America and the Sundance Channel. The development deal followed years of Wells negotiating over a U.S. version with the “Shameless” creator and writer, Paul Abbott.

At first HBO signed to carry a Wells’ remake. But it’s no accident that the show eventually ended up on Showtime, home to so many other unvarnished sex scenes, and that it has nudity – and male nudity, too – galore. Showtime has already steered successfully to a U.S. venue other daring British TV shows. Like it’s predecessor “Queer as Folk,” the British “Shameless” is set in Manchester, England.

There’s lots of sex and nudity including scenes with Ian’s employer, with whom he has regular sex in the corner convenience store where he works with Kash, a non-observant Muslem and married man with kids, and when ‘Lip catches them in the act, in their frantic scurry to get their clothes back on, they somehow end up incriminating themselves – each one has in haste put on one of the other’s sneakers.

Ian, the third Gallagher child and the one most like his mother, is basically still closeted, still stung with feelings of shame, but clearly not about to give up what his nature drives him to crave. As such, it’s a fresh take on what it’s like to be young and gay and living far far away from Dupont Circle or West Hollywood.

From the first episode of this series, set to run on Showtime for 11 more weeks Sunday nights at 10 p.m. (EST), we’re pulled into Ian’s unfolding story. Even audience favorite Kurt Hummel, the flamboyant singer on “Glee” and bullied by the school’s football team (played by openly gay, 20-year-old Chris Colfer), has nothing on Ian.

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