Tom Jennings' review of the fourth series of Channel 4's TV show set on a Manchester council estate, Shameless.
Lost In La Manchesta
The occupational hazard in long-running drama series of cast members bailing out has helped spoil the fourth series of Paul Abbott’s Shameless chronicling the (mis)fortunes of the Manchester estate Gallaghers. Since the trauma of eldest daughter Fiona eloping at the end of series one, the scriptwriters have consistently failed to develop, deepen and enhance the story by depicting characters succumbing to depressingly realistic reasons for departure, and the repercussions for those remaining. Instead we’re served up ridiculously over-the-top soapy melodrama – witness neighbours Kev and Veronica banged up in Romania for orphan abduction. Such shenanigans shatter the suspension of disbelief and undermine the aim to counterpose the strength, complexity and resilience of the contemporary ‘underclass’ against the patronising poverty-traps laid by liberal handwringing, middle-class moral managerialism and New Labour police-state discipline and punishment.
In effect, the show’s ambition and refreshing originality are sacrificed on the short-term altar of trash TV for middle-class cool-Britannia youth. Pivotal events and actions in one episode are forgotten by the next, whereupon fashionably topical revelations parachute in to simulate narrative drive. Personality becomes so flattened that believably nuanced and sustained webs of relationships dissolve in short-term infantile whims – a kitchen-sink Dallas/Dynasty. So portraying the children’s prodigal mother as a vacuous narcissist with no redeeming features might be interesting with genuine depth or complexity in or surrounding her. Neither are the Maguires moving in next door more than grotesque caricatures of local gangsters, disallowing any exploration of venality affecting community dynamics; even the local Keystone coppers are characters in their own right (who gives a shit?). Worst of all, young Debbie grasses up the lodger out of selfish spite, imperilling the household despite hitherto holding it together. That her nearest and dearest hardly notice this betrayal, let alone care, epitomises a plot comprehensively lost.
Fortunately many strengths persist through the blunders, as the Gallagher offspring fitfully flower in barren soil. As the pathetic anti-Don Juan at the centre of this joyfully perverted romance (as young Carl muses, sometimes “families fuck you up, but in a good way!”), Frank’s fatalism about the better management of capitalism offering his ilk any hope attracts Abbott’s most concentrated attention in booze-fuelled soliloquies – including appealing for improved conditons for the abandoned poor: “Make poverty history – cheaper drugs now!” The critique of pretension and old-fashioned defensive conservatism underlying his disillusionment later coalesce in a rant about council estate kids going to college, losing their accents and conviviality and “using long words”. Tellingly, while empathising with his position, his children refuse to be constrained either by it or respectable alternatives, and the unruly melange of sex and drugs and karaoke culminates in a rousing chorus of “Never forget where you’re coming from …” It’s just a shame that Shameless parrots so many trivial pursuits in remaining an exception to both the real-world and media rule.
Television review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 12, June 2007
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