“Episodes” and “Shameless”: A Study in Showtime Contradictions

A few weeks back on our “Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan” podcast, my partner Mo Ryan floated the idea that at this time in television culture, it’s helpful to think of networks not unlike record labels. Mo should know of what she speaks: after all, she was a music critic before she was a TV critic. I wrote about music before I wrote about TV, so I liked the analogy, but don’t have the pay stubs to prove that my opinion matters as much as hers.

I bring this up because of Showtime is a record label, then two of its newest acts are feuding right out of the gate starting Sunday, January 9th. One of them, the half-hour comedy “Episodes,” suggests that importing a quality British television show over to the United States brings with it unending compromise, complete dilution, and is a fool’s errand to even attempt. The other show, “Shameless,” is just that type of supposed fool’s errand: a show brought over from the U.K. by the show’s original writer, transferred into the slums of Chicago, and dropped into our inferior eyeballs.

What are we to make of this Tupac/Biggie-esque contradiction? Well, not especially much: while it’s been easy over the past few years to assign certain networks the specific characteristics that evolve into a fairly recognizable brand, those clear delineations have somewhat faded. “Terriers” broke the FX mold, and, well, that turned off loyal FX viewers and failed to attract those that didn’t buy into the overall vibe of that network. “The Walking Dead” didn’t fit the AMC mold, but that exploded into the network’s biggest hit, while the more “traditional” program (“Rubicon”) is hanging out with Hank and Britt at the intersection.

episodes.jpgNeither “Episodes” nor “Shameless” fit what nominally is the Showtime brand (“complicated” Caucasian women doing bad things but largely earning audience sympathy). And that’s a good thing, because after giving a complex heroine cancer, I’m afraid what the next logical step for the network would have been. (It might have looked a lot like “Boxing Helena: The Series,” for all we know.) The purist in me likes Mo’s notion of a television-network-as-music-label, but that purist would rather that top-down ethos result in an overall vision of what television can accomplish as opposed to stockpiling archetypes and letting them loose in different scenarios. That’s programming as sociological experiment, and gets old fast.

“Episodes” falls between “Entourage” and “Extras” in terms of shows that give a caustic view into the world of Hollywood. (Why do all these shows start with “E,” anyways?) “Entourage” hasn’t been close to a good show for a while, even though last season showed something akin to stakes for the first time since Vince was up for “Aquaman.” I’m not sure I’d want to sit through another “Extras,” which did a much more thorough, believable, and damning examination of the sacrifices one makes in order to became rich and famous. But it was at times so excruciating to watch that I may have developed migraines from squinting at the awkwardness onscreen. “Episodes” isn’t as lavish/hedonistic as the heights of the former and never reaches the caustic, dark underbelly of the latter. It sits there, in the liminal state not only between those two shows, but interestingly, network television and cable television.

The creators of “Episodes” (David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik) also created, among other things, little shows such as “Mad About You” and “Friends.” So a lot of the comedy in the show is directed at fictionalized versions of studio executives that interfered in their past pursuits. That sets up the binary of “writers good, everyone else EVIL” throughout the early proceedings (I’ve seen four of the seven episodes at the time of this writing). That’s a fairly flat concept, one that many people watching cannot relate to nor much sympathize with as two writers (played by Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan) seek to bring their show “Lyman’s Boys” to the States. That derivation from the Showtime brand actually works against the show: even if people cannot sympathize with a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder, plenty can sympathize with Tara Gregson. Both Grieg and Mangan have personality and talent to spare, but their writing couple often seem distanced from the audience.

Being distanced alone would be a bad thing. But Crane/Klarik commit the same sin that Aaron Sorkin did on “Studio 60”: they set up a world in which brilliant writers are put to task by mindless executives, yet it’s fairly clear whenever you are exposed to some of this supposed brilliance that…it’s not really very good. Nothing in the snippets of dialogue from this award-winning import suggests anything much beyond an episode of “Mike and Molly,” which in turn makes audience members less concerned about the changes to this supposed “masterpiece” in order to fit the world of backstabbing Hollywood and well-hung Matt LeBlanc.

As far as LeBlanc goes, Mo and I differ on our interpretations of how “Episodes” fleshes out this fictionalized version of him. She feels that the show presents him as a sly, three-dimensional figure that plays upon people’s preconceptions in order to manipulate the outcome to his liking while still seeming the good guy. And I agree that that’s the result of what he does on the show, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the result of a fully conceived character so much as one that’s given contradictory things to do on a scene-by-scene basis in order to get the story from Point A to Point B. Maybe that changes by season’s end, but for now the mood shifts seem less organic than they should in order to portray the artist as a fully fleshed-out man.

justin-chatwin.jpgDoes “Shameless” suffer the same fate as “Lyman’s Boys” in terms of translation? Hard for me to truly judge, as I have not seen the original show for a side-by-side comparison. I can say that in terms of pure entertainment, it’s one of the better pilots in a while, dating back to last Fall. There’s a verve, energy, and overall sense of community that’s apparent from the first frames of this initial hour. The show doesn’t introduce you to the world of the Gallaghers so much as drop you smack dab in the middle of it. What’s routine for them is foreign for us, both in terms of the shorthanded vocabulary the family shares, but also the socioeconomic climate in which they find themselves. They are poor, but not not hopelessly so. They are close enough to many people currently suffering through the current economy for many watching this show to say, “There but for the grace of my crappy medical insurance go I.”

Many will come for William H. Macy and Joan Cusack, but will stay for the Gallagher kids. While there are too many to all get equal screen time in the early episodes, those that do get such time truly shine. Emmy Rossum isn’t so much singing the music of the night so much as bumping some serious uglies in the night, unafraid to be unadorned and show both heart and humor beneath an initially fierce face that she puts on to defend her clan in the actual absence of their mother and the virtual absence of their around-but-barely father. Even more impressive are her brothers Lip and Ian, both of whom start off in stock stories and continually surprise both themselves and the audiences with the choices they make.

All of this is great…for a pilot. What’s more worrisome is where the show goes from here. In some ways, it’s the television equivalent of the recent film “Pirate Radio.” That film was essentially a series of television told without credits interrupting the individual episodes/segments of its story. “Shameless” plays, at least in the early goings, as the first half of a really kick-ass indie film. And Lord knows, the story burns through itself as if it’s a feature-length film, not an open-ended series. (Two characters meet in Episode 2 that I thought wouldn’t meet until at least Episode 6, and do something I thought would happen in the Season 1 finale.) All this frenetic energy, both in the storytelling and in the overall world in which “Shameless” is set, makes for great short-term viewing. But it’s yet to be seen if this will translate into long-term storytelling.

“Shameless” isn’t as risqué as promos make it out to be, but it’s also not exactly family time viewing, either. So long as two teens talking about anal sex while sharing a spliff doesn’t send you screaming to your nearest rosary bead, nothing here will truly shock you. Little shocks those onscreen, mostly because they are hardly in a state in which they have the luxury of being shocked by anything. Just getting through the next bill preoccupies their minds plenty, as they look for small solaces along the way to get past the rickety washing machine, the paucity of hot water, and the stunning lack of sobriety in what should be their head of household. But there are solaces to be found, and even if they don’t always find them, the fact that the Gallaghers are still searching at all speaks to the type of hope that pervades this dreary landscape. It’s that hope that keeps them going, and for at least a few more weeks, will have me watching.

Will you be watching either show? Leave your thoughts about them below!