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How ‘Shameless’ Became TV’s Proudly Resilient Cockroach

Not only has Showtime’s raunchy dark dramedy managed not to get canceled, it has managed not to get #canceled. As the South Side affair wraps its ninth season, showrunner John Wells, star William H. Macy, and more discuss the show’s surprising staying power as pop culture changes around it.

Showtime/Ringer illustration

On a warm winter day in Los Angeles, old pals William H. Macy and John Wells, the star and the showrunner of Showtime’s longtime dark dramedy Shameless, are sitting in a conference room on the Warner Brothers Ranch studio lot, bitching about their daughters’ horses. “We bought a horse from South Carolina, and guess how we got it here? FedEx,” Macy says. “It cost a bleepin’ fortune. It’s now in Colorado because it had trouble with his feet, and I don’t know what the fuck is going on, so now we’re leasing another horse.”

Wells, who first worked with Macy back in the ’90s on a failed pilot called Mystery Dance and then a slightly more successful program called ER, totally understands the plight of that horse-dad life. “I spent years, every weekend, someplace eating tacos off a truck in the heat, the dirt,” while his daughter competed, he says. When her horse, now 17, ultimately retired to Wells’s “little place in Hawaii,” it first had to be sent for a few weeks to a mandatory quarantine in Northern California so as not to introduce any communicable diseases to the islands. All this talk of equine logistics “sounds ridiculous,” admits Wells. “These are rich people problems.”

Shameless, which wrapped up its ninth season on Sunday night, is not a show about this particular echelon of concerns. Originally based on a British series of the same name about an enterprising, alcoholic father-of-many named Frank Gallagher and his motley brood of kids, the American Shameless is interested in a less privileged social strata. The show is set in Chicago’s steely South Side, but often feels like it’s taking place in some winsome criminal’s fever dream. Characters lie, cheat, and steal; they scheme and scam; they love and lose; they somehow live. (One side plot in Season 8 involved a horse, actually—a horse stolen from a frightened child as part of a botched human-and-drug-smuggling operation across the Canadian border. “You’re so tiny,” Frank remarked to the poor little girl after knocking her out with a panicked punch to the face.) Just like the sprawling, self-sabotaging Gallagher family, Shameless is by turns generous and murderous; tender and wild; often exasperating and occasionally brilliant.

It’s also resilient as hell. This summer, Shameless will begin shooting its 10th season, making it the longest-running series on Showtime. Such a run would be noteworthy all on its own, but it’s particularly striking in the case of Shameless, a series that delights in habitual line-stepping in a world where, lately, those lines have been shifting a lot. Viewers have become more discerning of the insulting, less likely to just smile politely and move on. Risk-averse networks won’t hesitate to shut something right down. And yet Shameless has remained its startling and unapologetically seamy self. Not only has Shameless managed not to get canceled, it has managed not to get #canceled.

“Only two things will be left roaming the earth after the next apocalypse,” a jaded emergency room head tells a newbie doctor in this season’s second-to-last episode, explaining why he’s kicking Frank out of the hospital despite the Gallagher patriarch suffering a gruesome compound fracture while running from a wrecking ball after squatting in an abandoned building once owned by his eldest child, Fiona, before her own life spiraled completely out of control. “Cockroaches and Frank Gallagher.” The doctor says this with a weary sense of wonder, and she might as well be describing Shameless itself.

Emmy Rossum and William H. Macy in ‘Shameless’

“I’m constantly amazed and shocked, and sometimes horrified,” Shanola Hampton, who plays Veronica, a bartender and mother of twins, says in a phone conversation when describing what it’s like to page through a brand-new Shameless script. Indeed, the show’s history through the years is like an upsetting combination of Mad Libs and Cards Against Humanity.

Toddler Liam ingests cocaine left behind on a table, causing Fiona, his half sister and legal guardian, to wind up in jail. Frank receives a liver transplant and goes back on the sauce immediately. Debbie, sick of being a virgin at age 14, takes advantage of an ex-boyfriend while he’s sleeping; when he tells her that what she did is date rape, her response is an eager “We were on a date?” Carl tortures animals and slings drugs and kinda sorta gets a girl killed. Veronica and Kevin are caught in a complicated sex-love-and-green-card vortex with a Russian prostitute named Svetlana. Ian becomes a false prophet. Lip busts up cars, assaults guards, bangs his professor, and orchestrates wire fraud. Various babies are created and brought up in highly irresponsible and outright illegal ways. Everyone shares a vile bathroom.

“Appalling behavior,” is how Wells puts it. “We’re never quite sure exactly where the line is,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll write things and then we’ll do it in the read-through and we’ll go, um, yeahhhhh …”

The way Wells manages his writers’ room has a lot in common with the way an extreme athlete plans his or her stunts. In any high-wire balancing act, successfully achieving an aura of recklessness actually requires a ton of foresight and control. A big-mountain skier respects risk by knowing more than anyone about the nitty-gritty details of avalanche safety. Showrunning Shameless requires a lot of ground rules and preparation to ensure that things don’t go off the rails unless it’s by design. A comedic safe space isn’t synonymous with no boundaries.

“Did you have to talk to your various writers’ rooms when all of this came down?” Macy asks Wells.

“You mean in the last couple years?” Wells says.

They aren’t trying to be vague about what all of this … in the last couple years means, there are just so many ways to define it: The #MeToo era. Cancel culture. The Discourse. The overdue mainstream acknowledgement that a lot of things that get played for laughs are no joke. Common sense. The skittishness that comes from constantly parsing what’s being done and said for good reason and what’s in bad faith.

“I don’t want to sound hubristic about it,” Wells says, “but we’ve been so inappropriate for so long that I think there’s expectations—”

“We even took on #MeToo!” Macy interjects, referring to an arc early this season in which Kevin works to change the perception of his bar, The Alibi, from “the rapiest” to being “Certified Vagina Safe,” and is invited to speak at a march for women. During a rehearsal, he listens in shock to the women’s awful personal stories, then gets his cue from an organizer: “So, Kevin, when you hear ‘Fuck men. Fuck them up the ass. Fuck all of them,’ that’s when you go.” His wife, Veronica, rolls her eyes at Captain Obvious when he later tells her about his enlightenment. “If you had no idea, you’ve been walking around with blinders on,” she says. “Do you know how many times a day a guy touches me inappropriately?”

Macy directed that episode and recalls making some “panicked calls” to Wells in the process. “We shot the scene where people are sharing their horror stories,” he says, “and I saw the first cut and the editor had put this bouncy, comedic music, and I thought, ‘Oh dear god, we’re dead. We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re dead.’ But it worked out.”

Ethan Cutkosky and Cameron Monaghan in ‘Shameless’

Wells says that it took seven years between when the American version of Shameless was optioned and when it actually got made. The idea bounced from HBO to NBC—“which was hilarious, because they were never gonna make it,” says Wells—back to HBO, and then to Showtime, which said they’d be in if Wells could find “someone great” to play Frank. (That was on a Tuesday, and by Friday he was telling Showtime “Bill’s in,” Wells recalls. “It got made because of this man.”) Only once, Wells swears, has Showtime expressly shut down a plot point: the forbidden taboo was … a stolen library book. But none of this—the longevity, the allowances, the trust—would be possible if the series weren’t consistently offering up some fundamental truths.

Frank Gallagher, Macy says, is “fun, and he strives. Maybe you don’t agree with what he’s striving for, but he strives, and that’s compelling.” His is a patently ridiculous character: a despicable con man, a thousand-year-flood of a human, so pure in his filth, so honest in his assessments. Late this season, when Frank sees his sloppy, slurring daughter Fiona—played for nine seasons with warmth, sass, and empathy by Emmy Rossum, who announced last fall that she would not be returning for a 10th season—he delivers a unique twist on a tough-love talk.

He is a “good drunk,” he tells her: happy and fun, both things she is not. “You’re a bad drunk,” he declares. The more glazed-over Frank’s eyes get, the more clearly they see. He is someone who seems too extreme to be real—and yet, to many viewers who have dealt with problem parents or unrepentant addicts in their lives, he is absolutely familiar. And it’s not just Frank who resonates.

Jeremy Allen White, who plays the low-key genius and recovering alcoholic Lip, says that he is frequently approached by viewers who recognize him. “They won’t just say ‘I’m a fan of the show,’ or ‘I’m a fan of you,’” White says in a phone conversation that is occasionally interrupted by his gardener’s leaf blower. “They’ll say, ‘I feel like Lip all the time. Like, I feel like I’m so close to catching a break, but I can never really get there.’”

The world the Gallaghers inhabit is one of institutional obstacles and systemic fuck-yous. It isn’t so much one step forward and two steps back as it is one step up followed by falling down an entire flight of stairs. Sometimes these setbacks are amusing, usually when they’re happening to Frank. Sometimes they’re gutting; like seeing Carl lose out on a girl and a dream in the same day. So many bad decisions and deadly habits are symptoms of a toxic environment—but those symptoms ultimately become causes themselves, and the cycle repeats.

Wells brings up a 2018 survey by the Federal Reserve to illustrate just how many Gallaghers there might be in America: 40 percent of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover an emergency expense of $400, he says. “We’re talking about 80 million people with no net underneath them,” he says. “We try and dramatize it and satirize it and have fun with it, but also feel it.” The line between getting by and being ruined is so thin it’s almost impossible to see. And that line is the shape of Shameless.

Despite the struggles, Shameless maintains a feeling of optimism. Maybe it’s because the unluckiest people are the ones who are most attuned to fortune’s extremely random ebbs and flows, whereas lucky folks just think they did something to earn it. Maybe it’s because the characters rarely seem helpless or without agency, even when they’re extremely down and out. Even Macy—a famous, award-winning, and horse-leasing actor—relates to the hustle. Early in his acting career, by his count, he once went to 50 auditions in a row without getting a role. “That’s six months, being told no several times a day,” he says; he remembers the hustle. Occasionally he teaches an acting class and tells students: “If you’re a one-in-a-million type, there’s seven of you in Manhattan.”

John Wells, William H. Macy and Jeremy Allen White
Getty Images

Ten years is a long time for anything. There’s a meme—horse-related!—that occasionally circulates on social media: It shows a precise, artful drawing of an animal’s hind legs that devolves into a child’s stick-figure scrawl of its front legs and head. “Season 1 … Season 3 … Season 9,” the text underneath says; people online use it to describe all manner of TV shows, and Shameless is no exception. In recent years, the series has felt a bit more ripped-from-the-headlines than usual. (“Every day you pick up the paper and there are 10 other stories you could tell,” Wells told The Hollywood Reporter last September.) Sometimes the show pulls off the balance of bringing current events into the Gallaghers’ distorted world; the arc dealing with #MeToo and #TimesUp felt like an effective piece of satire with something to say. Other times, though, this approach feels shoehorned and tonally off, and doesn’t quite square with what viewers have learned about characters over the years (and years, and years). Frank Gallagher has sounded increasingly, er, presidential this season, for example, and while it is believable that he might throw a frustrated “Drain the swamp!” in an unhelpful bureaucrat’s face, it’s jolting to hear a racist remark he makes to a hospital employee, given Frank’s libertine history of being almost pathologically open-minded.

Rossum’s departure from the show will be an enormous, unfillable loss; her performance as Fiona was, for years, the beating heart of the program. (Frank is the throbbing infection.) And her final scene was more schmaltzy than standard-issue Shameless, which is to say there was no sex, drugs, death, or dismemberment involved. But that doesn’t mean it failed to honor the show’s past. In an episode all the way back in Season 1, Fiona’s on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again boyfriend Jimmy (a.k.a. Steve), yells at her that she needs to put on her own metaphorical oxygen mask first if she wants to help others. “Yeah?” she shoots back. “Well, I’ve never been on a plane.”

In Rossum’s final scene, nearly a decade later, she settles into her seat on a plane for the first time. She may have lived the equivalent of several lifetimes as the de facto head of the Gallagher family, but as a result she has never taken flight. “It’s like a real-life family situation,” says Emma Kenney, whose character Debbie—a teen mom, a union welder—is now poised to step into the family matriarch role.

“You know, people grow and move on, and, like, shit happens.” The same is true for the cast. Kenney, like her castmate Ethan Cutkosky, is 19 years old; both of them have spent half their lives playing these utterly warped characters. (Cutkosky used to come hang out with Wells’s son on the weekends, and it was an odd feeling for the showrunner to come downstairs on a Saturday morning to see one of his actors watching Ren & Stimpy from his sofa.) Hampton was an actual bartender when the show began; now she just plays one on TV. When she became pregnant in real life with her first child, she approached Wells to tell him the news. “He was like, ‘Good, because you’re going to be pregnant with triplets and one is going to get eaten in the womb,’” Hampton recalls. White was still a teenager when he got the part; he recently had a baby of his own, at the same time that Lip might be expecting one on-screen. “It snuck up on me a little bit,” Macy says, reflecting on the march of time. “Just like my real kids did.”

It feels like that meme that was going around a month or so ago, the one encouraging users to upload a photo from 10 years ago and a photo from now. It might have been a way to dupe users into optimizing facial recognition software, sure. But even if it was, it was also a reminder about how much can happen in a decade: the job changes, the expensive weddings, the painful losses, the new babies, the gray hairs. All the while, Shameless has been there, being outrageous, being itself, lingering.

“The Catholics say you’re cooked when you’re 7, that that’s your personality,” Macy says. “I think people only change when there’s absolutely no other choice, when it’s life or death. Then you can change a wee little bit, and that’s it. I think life has to do with accepting who you are and figuring out to use it well because you’re not gonna change it.”

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