Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Frank Gallagher pulls on his waterskis

One hates to accuse a television show of jumping the shark, but after having watched the second episode of the new series of Shameless, I think the accusation's justified. Which is a shame: for a long time I really liked this show. It was well-written, it had an interesting and varied cast of characters; most importantly, though, it managed to walk the comedy-drama tightrope with an aplomb rarely seen in that portmanteau genre. Shameless could, at times, descend into moments of astonishingly broad (and frankly stupid) comedy, but it was always able to pull back enough that you genuinely cared during its more serious dramatic moments. Being able to pull off that technical feat on its own would be enough, but as an added bonus Shameless had a deep vein of humanism and egalitarianism running just below the surface. It took a social group - predominantly white, council-estate inhabitants, trapped in a world of petty (and not so petty) crime and low-paid work, if any - commonly dehumanised as chavs , and made them human without being patronising or bashing the viewer over the head with politically correct dogma.

So it's painful to say that it's gone past its peak now. Especially because there were moments before when I worried about it. When, in the last couple of series, the cast expanded significantly, I feared that the rise in numbers would turn the show into effectively just another soap opera, but the writers, led by the excellent Paul Abbott , did a fine job of making us care about the new characters, involving them in storylines which added to the drama of the programme and enmeshing them in the fabric of the show. But it now seems that the overload wasn't prevented, just postponed: because now, six series into its run, Shameless has finally fallen victim to the curse of the long-running show: what I call the character-occupation syndrome.

It works like this. You have a show that's been running for a few years, and which has accumulated a large cast of characters. Almost certainly, every one of those characters will be the favourite character of someone in your audience. So you need to ensure that there is at least some narrative focus on that character at least once in the series, and preferably once every few episodes. The trouble is, you've pretty much used up what narrative arc that character has, so what do you do with them?

And it's at this point that you find yourself uttering the words which spell death for your show. You probably know it, too. But damn it, you've got ten episodes of this bugger to write, you've got a hangover, you haven't had anything decent to eat for hours, the coffee tastes like ground-up roadkill, and if you just come up with something then you can finish the script meeting and go outside for a much-needed fag. So you say:

'Hey, wouldn't it be funy if...?'

Wouldn't. It. Be. Funny. If. Those five words kill comedies, because they mean that, in the desperate quest for something funny, characters wind up being shoehorned into ridiculous situations to get a cheap laugh from the audience.

So in last night's episode, we saw Mickey Maguire, son of the Chatsworth Estate's organised crime dynasty, enrol at college in an effort to make something of himself. Nothing wrong with that as a premise: in fact, you could probably explore some interesting issues about class and education in the process, maybe even work a spoof of Educating Rita into the plot somewhere (Shameless actually does parody quite well: witness the riff on Brief Encounter which was one of the highlights of the last series). Instead, however, while at college, Mickey accidentally came across some erotic fiction written by one of his lecturers, decided to have a bash at it himself, and in the process wound up having a lot more than a bash at his lecturer and her bisexual swinger boyfriend. Because hey, wouldn't it be funny if that happened?

Similarly, Norma Starkey, the lorry-driving lesbian ex-love of Frank's wife (a character who, it has to be said, has been essentially just hanging around the plot for a long time now) discovered what she took to be the skeleton of a baby while decorating the estate's local pub. Shocked by this discovery, she investigated and discovered that an ex-landlord of the pub had murdered his child, then spent a great deal of time ranting about how, unless she could find 'closure' for the murdered infant it would be 'in limbo' forever (which makes less than no sense, unless you assume that the child was unbaptised, and Norma is an extremely doctrinaire Catholic of the Archbishop Lefebvre school - an odd theological position for a lesbian) only to discover that - get this! - it was a cat's skeleton all along! Ha! Wouldn't it be funny if that happened?

Well, no, not really. Nor was it funy when local policeman Stan Waterman bonded with his partner Yvonne's son by way of a session on the Nintendo Wii. But it gave the characters something to do. It allowed the narrative focus to dwell on them for an episode, thus satisfying their fans in the audience. It passed the time.

And that's the problem. Both this show, and the characters in it, used to be tightly written. Now it's treading water, involving characters in unnecessary situations just to pass the time. Worst of all, in what's meant to be a comedy-drama, there's no drama in any of these situations. No risk to the characters; nothing to make us care whether they resolve their predicaments or not. And in a show whose chief virtue was that it did make us care about a section of society that's often demonised by the mass media, that's a serious problem.

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