Lycanthropy, wolves and wolfishness enjoy Olympic status on television and in films these days, but for a firsthand look at how a wolf pack operates you have to turn to a television series that never mentions wolves.
Shameless is hands down the best series on television. It’s a tragicomedy about five destitute Chicago kids kept together and driven to make something of themselves by an indomitable older sister, Fiona, played by the Emmy Rossum. William H. Macy is their feckless, drunken father, Frank, whose claim to their affections is that he stuck with them when their dim-bulb mother pulled out, leaving an infant from a one-nighter with the kids’ uncle.
Here you have the wolf pack at work. Woe to anyone-parent, cop, bureaucrat, do-gooder, evildoer-who trespasses against this bonded pack. They’ve got each other’s backs, and each of them in his or her own way is wily and resourceful. Society is messing with them and they’re right back at it.
Nothing on television today, not even the estimable HomelandHomeland, approaches Showtime’s Shameless for its integrity, percipience and characterization. Fiona is beautiful, zany and scary when wronged. Lip, the oldest boy, is gifted, quick and tough, and he’s looking out for his sister and siblings. The Twilight Saga,True Blood [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Blood], Underworld(film_series)] and the whole lot of wolf dramas toy with a fancy, but Shameless is a wolf pack. These kids smell trouble miles away and they organize for it.
Shameless is an American version of a popular British television show of the same name written by Paul Abbott. The British show has been running for eight years. The industry in the United Kingdom is still smarting from Abbott’s characterization of it several years ago as “gutless.”
Macy plays an exuberant mooch. He’s endearing and funny. He’s no help to the pack at all, but he belongs. He’s a running crisis. He’s a loser, but he’s their loser. He stuck with them, and they’re not forgetting it. The dice are loaded against the Gallagher family in every way, but they outfox the house at every turn. They’re able to do it because of their individual strengths-the series is driven by their strengths, their emerging natures, and the viewer can hardly wait for some new facet of their natures to emerge.
In one show towards the end of last season-the series starts up again next month-Fiona delivers a monologue worthy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. She tells her irresponsible mother, who has shown up out of the blue to claim the youngest child, Liam-why the pack won’t give up its cub. Her speech makes your hair stand up. She speaks for every child who has ever wanted to tell a parent, It’s not about you! The speech is reaches a patriotic crescendo. You gotta walk the walk, and it’s too late for you, Fiona tells her mother.
In another episode, Lip, who looks like the young Robert Mitchum, standing on a porch roof, listens to his father’s latest con job and then wordlessly pisses on him. Exactly what the old cadger deserves.
This Christmas from last year’s closing episode, composed by Macy, will give you an idea of the show’s zing and its zesty fun.
Again and again The Man throws the pack a curve, but after a while you almost feel sorry for The Man because this pack, as wolves do, is going to hunt him down and rip him up in the snow. They are bonded by adversity and experience. They live in a hostile world, but they have learned they can depend on each other. What one can’t do another can.
Like their swift counterparts in the woods, this pack is an unbreakable social unit. They don’t care about other people’s foibles because they’ve got enough of their own. They’re not impressed by the system’s smarts because they outsmart it for a living. They don’t bark, they bite. And they’re faster and more surefooted than their enemies.
Shameless has no star. It’s the quintessential ensemble. Macy is, of course, a famous film star, but his role here is to be indispensably irresponsible. Rossum is trained in opera and theater, and if she is the Alpha wolf it is only because she accepts and has always accepted responsibility for raising her siblings. In fact, her mother, Monica, tells her that she abandoned the kids because she knew Emmy would rise to the occasion. Thanks a lot, Monica. Emmy not only rises to the occasion, she is the occasion. She is that one girl you better not mess with.
When one of the kids, including Fiona, misses a beat or falls into a trap, the others stalk the perp. They’re quick-witted, raucous and wonderfully unpredictable. When they celebrate a triumph you celebrate with him. When they laugh you laugh with them. You don’t watch this show, you join it. And watch those eyes. Watchful, unblinking. Anyone who thinks he’s outfoxed them is stupid. Rarely in television has a group of actors picked up on each other’s roles so smartly or been so respectful of them. The off-screen chemistry of this group must be fascinating for it to be so good on screen.
None of the werewolves, real wolves and just plain furry people in other shows even approaches the beauty of wolf behavior the way Shameless does. We fear wolves because they’re intelligent and relentless. They haunt us because we know that at our best we can’t compare to their teamwork, their discipline. Not for nothing the Romans wore wolf skins. They hoped to acquire wolfishness.
But the virtue of Shameless is greater than its window on wolf society. It is impeccable theater for our times. The Man is grinding us down, driving us from our own parks, out of our own schools and houses, into the streets, into despondence, and this shameless pack is fighting back with everything it’s got. Shameless is gritty cause for hope. It reminds us that Americans are, in fact, indomitable and wolfish when cornered. It’s a message to The Man: corner the wolf at your peril.
Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com