I love living on an estate in east London. I can pretend I live somewhere gritty and urban, what with all the drugs and the tower blocks and the Eastenders-style market bustle. But, really, it’s nothing like that all. It’s so close to angular-haircuts-at-dawn Shoreditch that it’s just full of wannabe cool kids. There’s only just enough grit that I can indulge in a spot of poverty tourism without getting mugged.
That’s all fine in the head of a gently deluded fool, but when you put such things to TV then you need some hefty drama and actors to paper over the cracks. This has always been the problem that has blighted Shameless, letting bleeding-heart liberals like myself get a dose of ‘the poor’, balanced by some off-the-wall storylines about a colourful variety of characters.
After five series, we’re now seeing what happens those cracks start to show. The programme has lost a succession of fantastic actors and characters – James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake, Dean Lennox Kelly, and now Jody Latham. Now characters that were only ever peripheral sideshows are ramped up to being the main event, like (the largely de-) closeted Ian, and the Maguires, the neighbours-from-hell next door.
Similarly, the storylines feel either unconvincingly overdramatic (the Maguires’ patriarch nearly killing another man for calling his wife fat) or just plain annoying (Monica imagining she can see nursery rhyme characters, played by other members of the cast). Shameless used to do a fine line in absurdity – in the first series’ second episode, Steve dumped Frank in Calais – but that was back when absurdity was at least halfway anchored in reality. This is just plain daft.
There are decent episodes mixed in the general mediocrity. The first episode of this series sees Frank convinced he’s only got hours to live after urinating on a generator, allowing the slightly Jimmy Corkhill-esque Frank ramble about the meaning of life. We get to see much more of Lillian, an oodle of oversized facial features and Dick Emery facial expressions. And Carl’s graduation during series five from background kid to rampant teenager gives the show a much-needed replacement to Lip (now they just need decent characters to replace Steve, Fiona, Kev and Veronica).
But these are fragmentary highlights amid a lot of pantomime, particularly Monica. If anyone embodies what went wrong in Shameless, it’s Frank’s ex, Monica. Before her we had the delirious Sheila, a whirlwind of neuroses and concern for her detached concept of social norms by an agoraphobic dominatrix. That was downright hilarious, but she was also a precious character. By contrast Monica, who moved back in with Frank after Sheila left the programme, is a scrounging limpet who sucks the life and joy out of every scene she’s in. She’s neither funny nor to be cared for. She’s just… there.
The state of Shameless is a shame, but it’s not the first time this has happened in a Channel Four comedy-drama – just think of Teachers. But Channel Four are signed up for at least another two series of Shameless. It’s going to have to pull something out the bag to get the drama back.