2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Shameless and Strike Back

Showtime’s Shameless

Aired: January to March

With Shameless starting its second season next weekend, and with my parents recently gaining access to an expansive OnDemand archive featuring the series, I’ve taken the past week or so to introduce them to the “deranged” – my mother’s word –Gallagher family.

It’s not often that I rewatch dramatic series in this fashion, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I managed it. I didn’t write about Shameless more than a handful of times when the first season aired earlier this year, but rewatching the show has made me wish I had, both because I find myself really enjoying the show (more than my review of the finale would suggest) and because I think writing about it would have helped me confront my frustration with one half of the series.

In my mind, before the rewatch began, Shameless was a show trapped between two instincts. The first was a subtle character drama about children who struggle with a life that they didn’t choose, parents who have chosen to abandon them, and responsibilities that they have chosen even when faced with the potential to abandon them in kind. The second, meanwhile, was a screwball comedy built around a drunkard father we were meant to find funny, and who was suggested as the “star” of the show in promotional material suggesting it was about a single father (rather than, more accurately, about the impact of the single father’s absence).

These two shows still existed when returning to the series, and I still think that anyone who attempts to argue Shameless is either a comedy or a show about William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher are quite simply wrong. However, I felt on rewatch that even Frank’s earlier antics (which had felt so tonally off on first viewing) seemed more comprehensible given what we saw later in the season. I’m not suggesting the character isn’t a terrible person, because he is, but some of the character work done later in the season (his one sober day, his attempt to steer away from his affair with Karen) provided a glimpse into a wide range of different behaviors and emotions rather than the same pattern repeated over and over again. Given his position in the series, and given that Macy is so aggressively (and visibly) playing against type, there is something very televisual about the character in the early going, but there’s a point where his actions feel less like an excuse to fall into a plot and more like a real (albeit terrible) person making decisions that held some semblance of logic.

I wish I could go back and write about the show because I think tackling the character on a weekly basis might have led me to come to this conclusion earlier. Shameless didn’t make it into my Top 20 for The A.V. Club, a fact which is largely due to my memory positioning Frank as more problematic than I discovered in the past week or so. I’m not suggesting the character isn’t still without issues, or that the show was otherwise perfect (it wasn’t), but I think deconstructing the show would have given me a greater perspective on how debilitating his presence truly was, and a more comprehensive understanding of both when and how the show transcended that problem to become about the younger Gallagher generation and some tremendous work from Emmy Rossum and Jeremy Allen White, in particular.

It’s unlikely that I’ll have time to write about the show in 2012 either, but I resolve to make an effort to drop in on occasion given that the rewatch has cemented the series was one of my most anticipated of the early months of 2012.

Cinemax’s Strike Back

Aired: August to October

Another series that just missed my Top 20, Cinemax’s Strike Back wasn’t entirely left out in the cold (unlike other shows I’ll discuss in the days ahead): I wrote a blog post checking in with the series, and also reviewed the finale – and, more or less, the season – for The A.V. Club.

There is some part of me that wishes I had written about the show week-to-week, if only to help the show overcome its low reputation to reach an audience who would have – and still could, OnDemand or on Cinemax’s MaxGo service – really enjoyed it. While the show’s average speed was not particularly subtle, and the desire to involve softcore pornography in nearly every installment proved a somewhat flagrant distraction, I think writing about the show week-to-week would have helped highlight the moments where the show committed to real character development, built great episodic two-part storylines, and delivered some gorgeous cinematography from some beautiful locations.

At the same time, though, I am actually sort of glad that time meant covering the show week-to-week was impossible, as I’m not convinced I would have appreciated the show as much if you forced me to dive into each episode immediately after watching it. On a practical level, the two-part structures would mean reviewing the first part would be pretty pointless, but even while ignoring that I don’t think I would have wanted to deconstruct this series.

This is different, to be clear, from there being nothing to deconstruct. Indeed, one of the arguments I made in defending the series was that there is something to deconstruct here, despite evidence to the contrary, and I think you could create an extensive dialogue about character work, narrative development, and a bunch of other subjects common within episodic criticism while writing about the show. However, there are shows we could deconstruct that sometimes we shouldn’t, shows that are better enjoyed and appreciated without the need to be taking notes or thinking about clever openings. It’s not about shutting off your brain so much as it’s about shutting off the part of your brain that tries to translate every thought into a critical observation.

The latter is easier said than done, and I’ve got a few thousand words about Strike Back linked to above which prove it. However, I feel that forcing me into that pattern week-in and week-out would have made it easier to lose perspective (oddly enough), easier to essentialize the show’s formula. There was something very valuable about not having to “evaluate” the show until the end of the season, a rare privilege that we don’t often get in an environment where weekly discussions are so dominant. Whatever value those weekly discussions have, I feel Strike Back benefitted from the broader perspective, as the subtle yet resonant arc structures could be more carefully mapped across the season. The show is still an action series with plenty of gratuitous sex and violence, but it all added up to something in the end, and I’m not sure that equation would have been as visible when viewed primarily at close range.

Tomorrow: Thoughts on not writing about my three favorite comedies of the year.

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