Alec Stern: 'Shameless' is the best show on TV you aren't watching

By Alec Stern, Daily TV Columnist
Published February 19, 2015

Spoiler Alert: This column contains spoilers from the fourth and fifth seasons of Showtime’s “Shameless.”

There’s a running joke among some of my friends that I’m constantly raving about shows nobody watches or has even heard of. It’s frustrating. “Bates Motel” really is great. DirecTV’s “Kingdom” — yes, the one with Nick Jonas — was the biggest surprise of 2014. And don’t get me started on “Hannibal.” My recent Anthony Hopkins trilogy binge reaffirmed just how inventive and spectacular NBC’s imagining of the character really is. But of all the shows that are so aggravatingly underappreciated, Showtime has managed to put three of the best together all on the same night.

I can say with confidence: Showtime’s current Sunday night lineup — “Shameless,” “House of Lies” and “Episodes” — is the best night of television you aren’t watching.

“Shameless” has flown under the radar since its debut in January 2011, despite being an increasingly steady performer for the network. Though even as it’s amassed consistent acclaim and a loyal audience, “Shameless” lacks one critical ingredient: buzz.

“Game of Thrones” has buzz. “Homeland” has buzz. Hell, even “The Affair” has some. No matter how many people actually watch it, it’s talked about. Blogs recap it. It trends on Twitter. People argue that it was snubbed. That special X factor. But like “The Americans” or the aforementioned “Bates Motel” and “Kingdom” — all worthy series — “Shameless” is still struggling for everyone’s attention in an immensely crowded marketplace. And just as “House of Lies” and “Episodes” do on Sunday nights, the comedies have followed “Shameless” ’s quiet lead.

“House of Lies,” the Don Cheadle-led series, has been a consistent comedy force for four seasons. Along with Cheadle and Kristen Bell, his business partner and on-again-off-again love interest, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson round out one of the strongest half-hour ensembles on television. In its current season, more so than ever before, the chemistry among the four lead consultants is palpable. While you might know Bell from “Veronica Mars” and her scattered big-screen efforts, or Schwartz for his role as Jean-Ralphio on “Parks and Recreation,” all four of the principle actors have steadily been delivering their best work as key ingredients of “Lies” ’s consulting quad.

Following “House of Lies” is “Episodes,” or the closest we’ll ever get to another season of “Friends.” In the biting show business satire, Matt LeBlanc plays a fictional version of himself as he makes his return to sitcoms in the ill-fated “Pucks.” But there’s more to “Episodes” than its many references to NBC’s iconic comedy or Jennifer Aniston — though isn’t that really all it needs? Unlike “Shameless” and “House of Lies,” “Episodes” is a straight comedy, with each episode delivering laugh-out-loud one-liners and gags.

But no matter how good both comedies are or have been in the past, the story of Showtime’s Sunday nights is undoubtedly “Shameless,” a show that’s simply too good to be ignored. This year, “Shameless” did manage to finally make its way into the awards conversation with its controversial move from drama — where the series had been submitted for consideration for its first three years — to comedy, despite its fourth season being its darkest and most dramatic yet. This coincided with “Orange Is the New Black” ’s — another difficult-to-pin-down dramedy — decision to enter the race as a comedy after spending some time categorized as a drama. In 2015, “Orange” lead Taylor Schilling was nominated for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series at the Golden Globes, despite being nominated for the same role in the drama category the previous year.

But as with “Orange,” “Shameless” ’s category swap did manage to work some magic, landing William H. Macy an Emmy nomination, a Golden Globe nomination and a SAG Award win for his portrayal as Frank Gallagher. It had been a long time coming, not solely because Macy has shined in the role for years, but because all of these Academies and Associations and Guilds are usually very quick to honor Showtime’s leading actors. Claire Danes, David Duchovny, Mary-Louise Parker, Don Cheadle, Edie Falco, Matt LeBlanc, Toni Collette, Laura Linney, Liev Schreiber and Lizzy Caplan have all consistently been honored for their work on the network. But while William H. Macy’s name can now be added to that list, there is still one person who is sorely lacking the recognition she deserves.

As Fiona Gallagher, the Chicago-native in charge of caring for her five younger siblings, Emmy Rossum has been delivering television’s single greatest performance. More dimensional and complicated than Macy’s Frank, Rossum’s nuanced, natural performance stands at the show’s core — the battered, beaten, tough-as-nails, resilient heart of “Shameless.” Whether the series is funny or sad or serious (in reality, it’s all of these things), Rossum handles her scenes with dedication and care, masterfully weaving between genres as well as, say, Rose Byrne, an actress as great in the dark, dramatic television series “Damages” as she is in the summer blockbuster “Neighbors.”

But Rossum takes it even further than Byrne, with the pendulum of emotions swinging so quickly in “Shameless,” as if Byrne’s character in the Seth Rogen romp were meant to face off with “Damage” ’s Glenn Close at “Neighbor” ’s conclusion. In the season four episode, “There’s the Rub,” Fiona’s at-that-moment blissful exuberance comes crashing down when she discovers her toddler-brother unconscious, having inhaled the remainder of her celebratory cocaine. That shift in Fiona, exemplified with perfection by Rossum, should have ended the Emmy conversation right there. In an ideal world, Julianna Margulies’s second statue for “The Good Wife” would be on Rossum’s mantel. But this isn’t an ideal world, and Rossum’s performance went without even a nomination for the fourth year in a row.

This season, the emotional roller coaster of Fiona Gallagher hasn’t ceased to roar on — a shotgun wedding in one episode, the return of former love Jimmy in another. Even better, “Shameless” ’s surrounding action continues to shine as well: Frank’s attempts to remain sober, Lip’s struggle to balance his new life at college with his old friends on the South Side, Ian’s tragic surrendering to his bipolar disorder and Kev and V’s fractured relationship post-pregnancy. With each episode, “Shameless” accomplishes so much. It’s dramatic. It’s hilarious. It’s unique. But most importantly, it’s raw, real and relatable. “Shameless” is television at its finest. Why aren’t you watching?