Why Shameless’ Frank Gallagher Is The Nastiest Protagonist On TV…And Possibly The Best

Love him or hate him, Shameless' Frank Gallagher is one of the most challenging and fascinating protagonists on television.

***NOTE: This article was first published on April 4, 2014. But since the Emmys have finally decided to recognize at least one of Shameless’ great regular performances with a nomination, we thought it was the perfect time to raise another glass to William H. Macy’s Emmy nominated Frank Gallagher.

It is alive.

Against all the odds, and real world logic, Frank Gallagher defied his character arc for the previous season on Shameless when he got a new liver to destroy for an indeterminate number of future episodes of the Showtime series. Was it believable that he was graced with that last minute reprieve rush liver transplant? Nope. Is the concept of a lifelong drunk from this family, so deeply impoverished that they’re six feet under and then some, getting moved to the front of the line for a free liver at all realistic? Not in the slightest. But are we happy that it happened? We couldn’t be more overjoyed than if el gran canon smuggled our very own candy cane across the border right this second.

And it’s all because Frank is the most vile, repugnant, reprehensible, and all around irredeemable low-life who has ever had the nasty fortune to scurry across the TV screen in his own weekly series. And we love him for it.

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To make a point, Frank Gallagher is not a bad guy…at least not in the eyes of the Illinois and federal legal systems. No, Frank is rather the banality of despicability. He’s a victim of his own vices and addictions who happens to do terrible things, usually without the foresight or depth of feeling that so many of the golden age of cable drama’s complex protagonists are known for. That’s because Frank is not a hero or a villain, or even the ever increasingly ubiquitous anti-hero. He’s a schmuck. And that is why he is such a breakthrough for the  evolving television drama and comedy molds of which Shameless dances between like Great Aunt Ginger on St. Paddy’s Day.

The secret strength of William H. Macy’s annually convivial turn as Frank Gallagher comes from the fact that he is not quite the product of one TV culture but two. As much the American reaction to the original UK Shameless as a totally new character, Macy’s hard-drinker owes a great debt to the Frank Gallagher of Manchester: the David Threlfall creation. As the American reimagining of the character who held together 11 long seasons of the Channel 4 series, U.S. Frank is of course informed by that more directly out-and-out comedic series about the direst of poverty in a fictional council estate in England. Yet, this Frank is also a product of a newly evolving television culture that allowed the transfer. He came at what is increasingly looking like a zenith, or at least the next era, of amazing cable television shows in the U.S. that are unrestricted by censorship or good taste; they are allowed to explore the repellant. In fact, the grayer the character, the better the drama. The combination has allowed William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher to be part of both traditions and neither, providing a new third way.

The original Shameless is a groundbreaking comedy about the face of British poverty in a tiered class system, and those at the absolute bottom of said tiers. But it is primarily from my experience still a laugher about the shenanigans that Threlfall’s lovable sloth gets into. This is not to undersell the fact that the Frank Gallagher of the UK is a real piece of work, especially as most of the U.S. Frank’s storylines for the first season and a half were lifted directly from his British counterpart. However, due to the nature of British television, where actors’ contracts, commitments, and interests wane almost as often as the moon, it had to be a very different show than what creator Paul Abbott, who is also credited with creating and producing the U.S. series, may have originally intended. It is not really the story of one specific family behaving badly in an even worse world filled with injustice. Rather, it is the story of an entire culture with which Threlfall’s Frank passes through, one bummed couch at a time.

For those who have never watched the British series, consider that the original Fiona Gallagher (Anne Marie-Duff) ditched the family to run away with “Steve” (a very young James McAvoy) never to be seen again until the series finale in 2013 (she left in 2005). Due to the practicalities of British television scheduling, all of the “child” Gallaghers, even Liam, were gone by 2011, yet the show went on for two more years. It ultimately became “Frank the Cad’s” debauchery hour with a new family to milk dry instead of the ensemble about the Gallaghers that it continues to revolve around in the U.S. series. And it’s perhaps the spirit Paul Abbott wanted to capture when he created the original 2004 Shameless based on his own upbringing as the second youngest in a brood of nine, raised by his oldest sister who was 16 when both their parents abandoned the family for good. A U.S. market would allow a further exploration of that, and by the time Showtime adapted the Channel 4 series in 2011, two major events were in play to precipitate the crossover.

The first event that allowed a network like Showtime to seriously glance at adapting Abbott’s show was the economic downturn of 2008 and onward, facilitated by the Great Recession, which began in 2007 but really shook the country to its core in September 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. A major aspect of the U.S. version of Shameless is the American Dream, an intangible ideal sold to every schoolboy and girl from kindergarten on up. Unlike the more stringent class systems of the UK, which the 2004 Shameless mocked as unrelentingly as Abbott’s own take on Westminster with State of Play, the U.S. promises opportunity and ladders out of poverty. And yet, as millions of Americans were foreclosed on and evicted from their own homes just when the brokers that facilitated risky lending got their golden parachutes from the U.S. government, that dream seemed more unobtainable than ever.

Beyond the hope and change of that election year, a prevailing sense of cynicism about opportunity—be it trickle down or tax incentivized—overtook many in this country, particularly at the bottom. How can you climb that ladder when the first rung is pulled a dozen feet out of reach? That is a question that was much more easily posited in 2011 for U.S. viewers than it possibly could have been in 2004 when the UK series premiered. This coupled with the rise of the cable series anti-hero cultivated a new kind of “drama.” Or is that gallows comedy?

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It’s no mystery that we are living in the proverbial golden age of television. While reality dreck has consumed the attention of millions on networks and niche cable channels, the cable drama and its ilk has elevated long-form storytelling to a new height of respectability. It most arguably began in 1999 when HBO premiered The Sopranos. This landmark television program is noteworthy for many reasons, such as successfully telling a mob story worthy of Martin Scorsese on the small screen, putting HBO on the map (as well as at the top of the awards circuit), and making a star out of the late great James Gandolfini. However, it also set another legacy that has let premium cable shows flourish in the following 15 years. It reinvented the typical bad guy as the hero.

On most network television series, the idea of dealing with the mafia is a no-go. And for the few who did, whether as a cop procedural (NYPD Blue), a lawyer procedural (LA Law), or both procedural (Law & Order), the message is always the same. The mobsters played by Italian-American actors are villainous villains who our righteous protagonists must overcome.

Yet, Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano was our protagonist and he is clearly a bad person. He murders family members, business partners, and even surrogate sons. But he also openly challenges the viewer’s perceptions of morality and righteousness by being a very well defined human being whose perspective isn’t just given two or three hours of rebellious glory, but eight years of spirited defense of character. David Chase’s gangster drama never shied away from the wanton cruelty of Tony, preferring instead to embrace his heinous acts. However, he’s our protagonist, and we’re constantly forced to view the world from his eyes, which is the easiest way for a story to make us sympathize with him. But the more it displays Tony Soprano the husband, father and suffering man, the more uncomfortable it becomes when we see him lie to these people and slaughter even the closest of friends.

It was a show that opened the floodgates for how viewers perceived their (anti-)heroes in the medium, and sophisticated audiences wanted more. Over the next decade, we reveled in the barbarism of Al Swearengen on Deadwood, complicity supported the rise of a dictatorship and ultimately tyranny in Rome, rooted on a serial killer in Dexter, thirsted for more Lannister debt-paying on Game of Thrones, and waited with baited breath for the man who would be Heisenberg to say, “I won” on Breaking Bad. Almost all of these characters are inexcusably evil beings on the deontological scale, and yet we are invited to understand them, sympathize with them, and inevitably carry their water as enraptured followers in the later seasons, despite the child killing or preacher smothering crimes that they are all found staggeringly guilty of committing.

Frank Gallagher is not one of those men.

However, they and their ilk’s morally complex pop culture footprint left audiences thirsting for more nuance, which may be one of the many reasons Showtime and John Wells (ER) took interest in the Gallagher clan by the time 2010 was rolling around. An economically receding audience with a depressed morale could rally behind a new kind of anti-hero. Surprisingly though, the beauty of Frank Gallgher is that he is not complex, even if he is nuanced and complicated. Frank Gallagher is an alcoholic and in many ways a victim of his own addictions and circumstances just as much as his personal failings, but he is also an antagonistic lead character who doesn’t dare audiences to love him; he demands that they hate him at least as much as his oldest children do.

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The key differences between the UK and U.S. Shameless is that the core cast (more or less) sticks around in the one set in Chicago, and four seasons in, we haven’t lost a single Gallagher. William H. Macy is the biggest star and he plays Frank Gallagher as a magnificent bastard in the lead role; he is truly God’s perfect asshole. However, for going on five years now, we are constantly required to view him through the eyes of his children, through the eyes of lives he has utterly and irrevocably damaged in at least some major way. We don’t spend years living through the daily minutiae of Adriana’s family after Tony gives the order for the snitch to go on a ride into the country, and not one meth addict customer (in the most honest sense) is a regular on Breaking Bad. For the most part, Frank doesn’t kill people….necessarily (Dottie was on her way out!), nor does he scheme like a Machiavellian overlord planning revenge on his family’s oldest rival. He is just a bum who can’t give up the drink unless it kills him like it almost did this season, and one who wouldn’t mind getting high with his wife from this time until eternity ends.

But his kids are the ones who truly pay for his self-destructive sins. Wells, nor Abbott, nor Showtime, nor even Macy ever asks for us to absolve him of these debts: we can understand Frank, we can pity Frank when Granny psychologically abuses him, and we can even lament for Frank as his kids refuse to visit him on his deathbed. But there is no redemption for Frank Gallagher, because the show never bends the knee for a “one last favor” mea culpa like certain Arizonian entrepreneurs would. What Shameless does frequently insist that we do is look into Fiona’s eyes as she recounts the time she was 12-years-old and was left abandoned in a car with her younger brothers while Frank and Monica left to get stoned; it asks us to watch Frank steal his kids’ squirrel jar for another bender, and it reminds us constantly that he called social services on them after he abandoned them because he wasn’t given the master bedroom. The show doesn’t suggest it has a likable protagonist. It challenges us to hate him and watch anyway from week-to-week.

For a character actor like Macy, this has been incredibly liberating since he can turn off any sentimentality or warmth that he has demonstrated in the past in favor of inhabiting a character that simply is. This presents the opportunity for great comedy, such as any time Frank has a glass of the old country in hand and a slur, rant, or general profanity curling around the edge of his lips. It also allows Frank to do the ugliest things imaginable without any worry of alienating the audience. If he is willing to refuse Dottie a heart transplant on the off-chance for some extra beer money, why should we be so surprised that he’d try to seduce a daughter that he previously never met (Sammi) into thinking he’s a lover worthy of a piece of her liver?

Nevertheless, the double-edged sword for a “comedy” like Shameless to focus on the victims of Frank’s latest uncaring whim is that eventually it stops being funny. While I have written in several reviews that Fiona’s fall from middle class grace this season was somewhat contrived, there is still no denying that, at its essence, her self-implosion is in character for a creature born to a marriage of chaos and destruction in Frank the Deadbeat and Hurricane Monica. The vice with which Fiona destroyed herself (cocaine) is a little dubious, but a child of an addict becoming an addict in one form or another isn’t just thematically poignant; it’s statistically probable in a family of six kids. But any passion play about the sins of the father haunting the next generation will never be a barrel of laughs. Following this rabbit hole makes the comedy stop, but it engrosses the audience into the Gallagher plight all the more, illustrating a Frank at his most pathetic and weakest that is still somehow an unforgiving albatross for anyone who knows him to carry. Just watch the final two minutes this week’s episode, “Emily.”

The title of the show is named after a girl whom Frank meets after his miraculous liver transplant. She is about 10-years-old and she is so deathly pale that Frank’s brain-dead grandkid calls her a vampire. She is in need of a heart transplant that will never come, and she ultimately only had hours left to live. Following the surgery, Frank was loopier than usual. He mistook Sammi for Debbie, Sheila for his mother, and Emily…she was Fiona. Finally high on something other than alcohol or oxi, Frank is uninhibited enough to see that little girl he once abandoned in a parking lot; the little girl he failed again and again as a father until she reached the point where she wouldn’t cross the street for him, even if he were dying, a coldness that viewers by and large warmed to and applauded.

But here, Frank was stoned enough to face his past faults with a sober eye. He begs for Emily/Fiona’s forgiveness, and when she dies minutes later, he is doomed to relive his damnable deficiencies as a father, friend, and human being all over again. The sequence is crosscut with the actual Fiona forced into a prison shower. Like Frank, she made her own decisions that got her there, but there is also his prevailing hand too. He failed her as a father so completely that his little girl’s life is almost as broken as the one he watched die in that hospital. Forced to raise her siblings at the age of 16, she had more responsibility than anyone her age should have and she finally snapped in the way that Frank probably did decades ago. Hell, Granny’s influence on Frank may have been just as responsible in his case. Frank is very much a victim of a lack of opportunity in a class system that his neighbors and larger community likes to pretend doesn’t exist. Frank never had a chance at the American Dream. But now, thanks to his actions, neither will Fiona.

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Frank is an old man who almost died, drugged up in a hospital gown when he cries over the death of a small child he barely knew. And Shameless immediately reminds us what a burden and failure he is. It is hard to laugh, but it is also impossible to look away. William H. Macy’s unapologetic performance is crass, hilarious, and ultimately tragic. But it is never heroic in any sense. That is truly a brave feat in any medium, especially for a long-running television show. It’s also why I’m glad to have this oh, so unique character around for another year by whatever liver necessary.

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