The filthy fables of Paul Abbott’s Shameless trample over bourgeois morality. Tom Jennings tries to contain his laughter.
A Low Down Dirty Lack of Shame, and The Gutter Snipes Back by Tom Jennings
A LOW DOWN DIRTY LACK OF SHAME
One of the most interesting aspects of Channel 4’s new drama series Shameless (2003), written by Paul Abbott, is its lack of explicit moral judgement – either on the part of the characters within the script, or in the structure and rhythm of the narrative and its logic and (partial) resolutions. This despite the fact that the scenario and subject matter seem almost obsessively to invite criticism of both the individual characters – their behaviour, choices and interactions; in fact their very being – and the collective attitudes, orientations and situations that accompany them. The result is a complicated balancing act between representation and caricature, honesty and romanticisation, comedy and tragedy, empathy and patronisation, celebration and pathos. For that matter, the chaotic and tumultuous existence of its main protagonists, the Gallagher family, is also a complicated balancing act – comprising six siblings aged three to twenty-one, living on a sink estate in a contemporary northern city, with a progressively absent, unemployed alcoholic father and whose mother has done a runner.
Friends, Neighbours, Fellow Travellers
A corollary to the deliberate amoralism of Shameless is precisely the absence of feelings of shame exhibited by the characters, not only in their vulgar and uncouth manners, but in their responses to their apparently hopeless plights and prospects and their sense of responsibility or moral culpability for their situation. The title of the series is both ironic and apt: apt because the Gallaghers oscillate wildly between good intentions, indifference and hurtfulness towards loved ones, but there is little sign of the overweening feelings of self-worthlessness and self-disgust that characterise real shame; and ironic because accusations of shamelessness, for example made by ‘respectable’ neighbours, represent moral condemnation that tends (and intends) to render its targets beyond the pale of acceptable humanity. It reveals far more about the accusers, hinting at their deeper hidden shame and insecurity concerning their own lowly social status, and furthermore legitimises in their eyes the hostile actions and persecution by ‘the authorities’ that ultimately disrupt or preempt any meaningful sense of their own community.
The attitudes of the conservative, respectable and aspiring working class thus neatly dovetail with, for example, state initiatives concerning policing and welfare – demanding stringent monitoring, control and punishment, not only for transgression but for the offensive of their existence. Likewise, middle class charitability and much of socialism – from the Fabians, Eugenics and Leninism through to old and New Labour, has also comprehensively nurtured, articulated with, and fed upon such reactionary beliefs about the innate inferiority of the poor and the need to intervene and ‘do something about them’. Shameless thus invokes several conventional discourses relating to the nature and potential of working class people, only to then flout and undermine them – and in the process to question the social and political philosophies and programmes that, at root, depend on class-based ideologies of moral deficit and ethical inadequacy for their normative and pragmatic utility.
The main tactic used to achieve this confrontation with accepted homilies, stereotypes and cliches about the degraded poor is a resolute refusal to centre the story around supposedly objective ‘problems’ or ‘issues’. The focus instead is the family’s determination to stay afloat together, and to maintain a sense (or illusion) of agency and hope. In the way are a multitude of obstacles and constraints, most of which are clearly shown to be overdetermined by a combination of historical shaping, situational reality and personal attributes. Any positive outcomes (such as they can be) always emerge from a deliberate (although usually not self-conscious) meshing of sociality, imagination and desire.
But this is no glib, easily or effortlessly achieved solidarity, and neither is it straightforwardly positive. Indeed the violence, abuse and humiliation the characters sometimes heap on each other, and the occasionally indiscriminate volatility of their anger, hatred and destructiveness, are intrinsically linked to their mutual affection, respect and active commitment to each other. This dense patchwork effect is reinforced by the contemporary setting of material which originated in Paul Abbott’s childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s – which partly accounts for distinct residual tinges of nostalgia (as well as the absence of the panoply of ‘child protection’ professionals which might be expected given current hypocrisies and hysterias). But although details of events, characters and storylines are massively condensed, jumbled up and redistributed, what shines through is a sense of trying to comprehend and deal with the apparently ineffable wash of life – from a point of view simultaneously of innocence and thoroughly streetwise worldweariness. The family members are at times so emotionally close as to feel part of each other, and at other times so distant in their thoughts and preoccupations as to be alien to each other even while under the same roof. The fascination with sexual antics rings especially true from this perspective, in an environment where both emotional and physical overcrowding can make common knowledge – but only very partial understanding – of private passions and their effects and ramifications.
Clear and Present Dangers
Despite the all pervading conflicts and crises, the predominant styles of fictional representation of working class life in social realism are also refused. Gone is the tragic pessimism which can only be overcome by individual heroism or the painstaking work of diligent self-improvement. There is no pandering whatsoever to the notion that the family are an imminent threat to themselves or to (polite) society, which can only be averted or contained by the enlightened action of outside forces (the state, employers, experts, etc). Such institutions are recognised as only having the capacity to destroy both the Gallaghers’ fragile practical unity and their sense of who they are, as fully imbricated in each other’s lives rather than separate individuals with isolated needs. So Shameless replaces earnest negativity with exuberance, the yearning for passionate fulfilment, and outrageous comedy bordering on farce.
The price paid to avoid succumbing to the tragic vision may appear to be a trivialisation of the levels of drudgery, misery and suffering experienced by many people in similar positions. Furthermore the exoticisation of their pleasures and the general comic rendering skates over the more ominous manifestations of depression, envy, malice and hatred which regularly afflict those reared in emotionally and materially deprived and dysfunctional environments (clearly, what counts as dysfunctional is crucial here), where urgent necessity prevents distance or reflection. However, it should be clear, to anyone who cares to pay attention, that all of the characters in Shameless are deeply unhappy about many things for most of the time. The difference is that, since this is a mode of being which is entirely familiar and expected (‘it’s how life is’), there is no particular reason to dwell on or agonise over it. Personal or social catastrophe may often follow events within a family which can be attributed to individual psychology and conflict. But it is just as likely to be precipitated by more or less unpredictable externalities – particularly the intervention of state agencies, or activities resulting from crime and the pathologies of those outside one’s immediate social nexus. The sheer number and range of threats and their potential origins means that a pragmatic fatalism is the only sensible policy, if stultifying depression or reactive paranoia are to be avoided.
So, as with all the best television depictions of working class life, it is the emotional realism on this phenomenological level which will most strike a chord with viewers from similar backgrounds. But unlike virtually all other examples that I can recall, there is an overriding sense in Shameless that given the ongoing state of emergency, everyone knows that things will – and will have to change. And while all manner of disasters are just around the corner or are already beginning to unfold, the only strategy that makes sense to effect change for the better, irrespective of how desperate circumstances are, is to mobilise that single most important source of hope, imagination and practical agency which is embodied by the local social network where individual strengths and heroics only matter if they contribute to collective effort.
The Uses of Enchantment
Accounts of working class experience expressed in social realism in the arts, literature and media or in the social and human sciences often also mirror prevailing discourses of class, particularly by constructing a uniformity of ‘the masses’. This contrasts with the differentiation and distinctions found at higher levels of society which have the power to institute general programmes and solutions from above. Similarly the guardians of interpretation and taste (reviewers, critics, academics) try to force representations of lower class life into narrow and rigid categories, leading to a most unseemly disarray in newspaper and magazine reviews trying to categorise Shameless in terms of its genre status, quality and relationship to current politically sensitive issues. Seen through these lenses, the complexity and diversity within and among the characters and the fecundity of their ensemble is lost – when it is precisely this differentiation, woven in practice into a wealth of meaning and possibility, which yields the promise of active, productive, collective self-organisation. As postmodern pastiche, and in wit and irreverence, comparisons with Roseanne or The Simpsons surely make sense; and in terms of affection and unapologetic self-criticism, The Royle Family, Till Death Us Do Part and Bread spring to mind. But the predictable, static and safe sitcom framework has been removed along with the fundamental appeal to respectability that all of the aforementioned series relied upon. With a level of explicitness entirely appropriate to its subjects, the proximity of horror and the sublime, and most of all its dynamic indeterminacy, Shameless is in a class of its own – in which optimistic reading it is anarchic in the best sense, rather than the worst.
THE GUTTER SNIPES BACK
Channel 4’s comedy drama Shameless riotously restarted in a 2004 Christmas Special curtain-raiser to the second series. A north-west community defeats army quarantine and besiegement, after – in timely fashion for the festive season – a consignment of meat falls off the back of a lorry. With typically inspired symbolism, Paul Abbott (writer of many excellent television dramas, including Cracker, Clocking Off, Linda Green and State Of Play) pits the grandiose poisonous stupidity of official power against the informal ingenuity of ordinary folk, who rally when it transpires that the bonanza was deliberately contaminated in a disaster-contingency exercise. Various central characters – the Gallagher clan and their nearest and dearest – are instrumental in the imaginative ducking and diving that restores (dis)equilibrium on the (anti)utopian Chatsworth council estate. Rounding off this holy fantastical yarn – minus po-faced wise men pomp and circumstance – the new lover of pathetic patriarch Frank then goes into labour. As in all its storylines, Shameless’ gutter surrealism elevates a barful of lowest common denominators into both art and politics.
The narrative arc of the original series concerned the survival together of the six Gallagher siblings – aged 3 to 21, with an increasingly absent, unemployed alcoholic father and long-gone mother. Despite their chaotic social situation, desperate finances and violently conflictual personal dynamics, they ward off dangers arising from their own self-destructive urges and mistakes, the hostility of local State agencies and malicious fellow residents, and the not inconsiderable inconveniences of pure misfortune. Throughout, social control mechanisms of pressures to respectability via the isolated nuclear unit are flouted with haphazard self-fashioned mutual care-giving full of warmth, generosity and spontaneity – which, while frequently fractious and abusive, has no truck with emotional blackmail, self-disgust or meanness of spirit. These themes mature in the new stories. Having established the Gallaghers as a viable entity with fluid and variable interconnections in their local environs – now beset by more and bigger threats – the question becomes, how will the family change?
This broader problematic deprives series two of so clear a unifying thread, and the uneven tenor of successive episodes veers wildly between melodrama, romance, personal dilemma and crime caper – with new characters and guilt-free secrets, lies, perversions and purposes parachuted in soap-operatically to add dysfunctional flavour. However, the immense wit and intelligence in the scripting consistently fashions satisfyingly unlikely scams and dodges, averting catastrophe with a remarkable social synergy where even the most feckless shine. The ensemble acting needs to be, and is, superb – enhanced with a postmodern bag of filmic tricks, styles and devices to complicate and distort perspective, manifesting the confused richness of subjective experience.
A closing chorus of ‘Jerusalem’, sung enthusiastically over a wide-angle aerial pan of the estate, sees the remaining friends and relatives contemplate with apprehension, love and goodwill the departure of eldest daughter Fiona and her boyfriend (de facto parent-figures-in-chief). The strong family brew of differentiated vulnerabilities gives its members the confidence to pursue their desires, and next year’s third run will hopefully enlarge on this theme with similarly sophisticated levels of integrity and self-deprecating affection. ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ is afforded further irony by the humiliation in the local pub of a bullying rotten-borough councillor. The prejudicial hatred crystallised in his bluff and bluster hastens his decisive rejection by a clientele (the public sphere of this ‘nation’) of irrevocably mixed background and colour – comparable to the diversity and complexity intrinsic to each of the Gallaghers and their collective identity. It will be fascinating to see if this righteous idealism can be followed up too.
As outrageous comic entertainment, Shameless foregrounds the positive potential inherent in the lives of the vulgar great unwashed, along with its cultural and situational basis in material conditions and social history. Romanticisation, sentimentality and patronisation are largely sidestepped in its hilarious scenarios because their resolutions depend on the interweaving of so many characters’ flaws, fuck-ups and unexpected capacities. However, the fragile civic balance forged by British working class extended family networks, neighbourhood mutual aid, irreverent expression and ‘creative accountancy’ has been systematically savaged by governments slavishly following the new ‘logic’ of capitalism, replacing jobs and welfare with drugs, guns and jails. The damage inflicted by our more troubled members as well as external ‘betters’ now often escalates far beyond the unfeasibly benign atmosphere on the Chatsworth.
Sure enough, Abbott condensed and exaggerated his own experiences among ten abandoned children in 1960s/70s Lancashire for grist to his mill. This accounts for the authenticity as well as the whiffs of nostalgia in absurdist escapism effectively melding satire and critique at a time when the criminalisation of lower-class anti-social behaviour blurs into War on Terror rhetoric. These days, refusing to conform to middle-class hypocrisy – offending sensibility or ‘quality of life’ (or merely hysterically inflated perceptions of threat) – attracts dehumanising, punitive reprisals from the State. Legitimising their assaults on flexible labour indiscipline as protection against yob culture, the real thugs profiting from neoliberal misery instead glorify selfish narcissism as the end-point of aspiration. That’s what I call shameless.
Meanwhile Shameless gives a very rare mainstream media portrayal of organic lower class communal solidarity, doing justice in depth and texture to what’s possible when individual action is valued principally for its contribution to collective effort – without pandering one iota to the bourgeois agendas reiterated in dramatic genres and, disastrously, in left-wing traditions. Soul-searching, preaching, laments and defeatism remain the preserve of documentary balance, liberal issue genres and social realism – which are only too eager to emphasise the depressing likelihood of tragedy rather than pleasurable farce. Preoccupied with the short-term demands of everyday life, Abbott’s characters articulate no explicit ideology – but then art (like ideas) can’t make history, though its material presence contributes to the stew of cultural resources nourishing political movement. Shameless has much to say – and, no doubt, “they know how to throw a party!”
Television reviews published in Variant, No. 19, February 2004, and Freedom magazine, Vol. 66, No. 7, April 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: