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Shameless in America Part 1: Seasons 1 & 2

The American version of Shameless is great television and more importantly, it is superior to the utterly full-of-itself, The Wire, precisely because it is not pretentious and as the title suggests, it is without shame in the in-your-face honesty of its look into the realities of life in the economic gulag of contemporary America.

Shameless, the title, seems to suggest the lack of moral conscience in the Gallaghers the family at the heart of the series. But rather than a pejorative, the title implies the absence of shame because they have achieved an existential understanding of the utter failure of the moral compact between the government and the citizens.

What in sham important event television, like The Wire, is presented as outrage at the bankruptcy of the government, and the corruption of it, of a system that has failed The Hood, in Shameless is presented as matter of fact – the characters know the system is shit, they know it’s all hypocrisy lies and organized crime backed up by a hyperactive puritanical religiosity that merges perpetual moral outrage with a celebration of kapital as synchronized swimming under the gentle tutelage of the police, and an army of Wall Street lawyers and brokers.

In The Wire, the immoral and compromised vision is of The Hood as a foreign country, that exists on the edge of the rest of the world. The Hood is where you go for drugs, it’s where you go for violence and corruption – it is not where you live. Simon and his cheerleaders will counter and say the hard look into the education system and then the docks are examples of the show’s novelistic sweep. The truth is though that as we’ve discussed previously, the vision is a con because it fails utterly to show the integration of the drug trade and its place as the bedrock of the city’s economy and how it reaches into and is supported by the universities, the real estate market, the banks and the rest of the community’s pillars. In Shameless, without telegraphing the sociological importance of its sweep it punches the viewer in the face with the brute realities of American capitalism. This is no foreign country you can observe like a tenured sociology professor, this is your front yard.

In Shameless what is absent is the emotional arc of morality that becomes compromised through a painful recognition of corruption. The Gallaghers, like characters in a Jean Genet novel, but with humor, are already in the stream and have no sense that an alternative is on the agenda. None of the characters is morally compromised in relation to the system around them because the system is all about moral failure and compromise. When they fail it’s because they fail to live by the personal code of survival and survival and the moral code that they as a tribe possess, are all that matters. These are the united states of Gallegher and the state of the union is feral.

Is clan patriarch Frank a psychopath? Yes, but he didn’t lie about WMD (though he would if he thought he’d get paid for it). Is Carl a psychopath in the making? Yes, but his school principal can be bribed with good weed.  Is Fiona trapped and victimized by her parent’s insanity? Yes but, there are no moral alternatives only alternative ways of making money. And so it goes.

And all of this is presented, without shame in relation to the wider world.  Shame is dependent on a hierarchy of morality, on the idea that moral growth is possible. This of course is the archetype of the American myth – morality is synonymous with financial gain and financial gain is by definition moral.

In Shameless this formula is reversed because the corruption of the system (the government that is the drug dealers, the extortionists, the gangsters, the banks and predatory loan sharks disguised as mortgage brokers, the loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires who are the lords of the permanent under-class of wage slaves) is so ingrained, so manifest, that outrage is absurd. In the American myth, if you’re poor it’s because you’re lazy and have fallen from grace with god. In Shameless if you’re poor it’s because you weren’t born in the right place at the right time. And because you’re always playing with house money and the dealer is pulling cards from the bottom of the deck.

Instead, the Gallaghers, cut loose from the bourgeois banalities of conventional morality as defined by capitalism are strangely free, and the show presents a vision of America that is more honest and more significant than The Wire could ever hope to be.

In Shameless, in that Chicago, in the South Side of that part of America the critics don’t want to discuss outside of the narrative provided by the prefabricated liberal hypocrisy of David Simon or the equally authoritarian mouth breathing knuckle dragging conservatives, drugs and drug dealing are stripped of the tendentious nativity-scene lecturing that is the bedrock of The Wire. This is not about the trap of poverty, per se, or the hypocrisy of the poor being attacked by corrupt para-military police in an ever increasingly brutal surveillance state – this is about the habituation of people to the truth – America is a gangstorocracy, an economic gulag engaged in imperial conquest, driven by blind ambition, hypocrisy, moral superiority, ignorance, bigotry, and hubris. It is on a fool’s mission to shape the world while at home, the Gallaghers are existential heroes wallowing in a fetid side-room to one of hell’s rings but, except for the money, their contradictions make them no different from the jackasses running the empire though unlike those gangsters, they wouldn’t be caught dead preaching to the slaves about duty. As Lip Gallagher puts it (season 3, The American Dream): ” When you’re poor, only way to make money is to steal it or scam it, like Don King or Joe Kennedy.” Thus not only do we have a succinct summation of American reality, we also have the matter-of-fact statement of ingrained cynicism – we know the truth. This is a nation of gangsters and the successful gangsters are all hypocrites selling drugs or hooch or people, and themselves, as paragons of financial virtue while out of their asses comes the fragrant truth.

Like The Wire, there is drug dealing but no moral qualms about the ethics of it, no moral dilemmas about the effects it is having on the community because the “community” is not the ghetto, it is the whole of the country and these are the same poor Americans who have been poor since their ancestors came over to escape the Potato Famine and genocide and have never had more than a thread’s chance of finding an alternative. They are not dealing drugs to buy bling (until Carl dives into the game) they do it to get through the winter but even then there is no moral quandary – it’s economics and survival. If you told them they were shameless, without morality they’d laugh at you or hit you with a baseball bat while reciting the litany of morally corrupt institutions preaching hypocrisy out of their asses – pedophile priests and the church that shelters them, social service employees who take bribes, crooked, racist cops, an Orwellian surveillance state laundering money for drug dealers and terrorists, a government run by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy, stockbrokers who condemn the poor but exploit them and who were born on third base and act as if they just hit a triple.

Corruption ceases to be the immoral alternative to civic virtue when it is permanent and instead becomes the price of doing business and like a department store where everything is always on sale the sale is in fact just the regular price and in America, everything is always on sale. Thus in every instance and with matter-of-fact honesty and absolutely no indication that they view it as despicable or immoral, what we see are the Gallaghers interacting with crooked lawyers, corrupt university professors, doctors who used to deal meth and people who work the system every minute of every day and all of it without any preaching about the City on the Hill or the Promised Land or conversely no racist bullshit about The Hood. Versus the corrupt shallow vision of David Simon and The Wire where there are no corrupt doctors, no university professors at Johns Hopkins who buy drugs, no stockbrokers working in the new offices between Harbor East and Fells who are as much junkies as anyone West of MLK boulevard – even though we know they exist. In Shameless they exist, they buy drugs and the Gallaghers are willing to sell them and no one involved in the transaction is morally troubled by what they’re doing any more than a sane person would complain that water is wet.

In the British original Frank makes the case for the existentially neutral landscape when, on jury duty, he explains to the other jurors that the only difference between the black market designer purse and the genuine article is that the first one is made in a sweatshop owned by gangsters and the other is made in a sweatshop owned by the gangsters who own the designer label and the man caught selling the fake is not any way different than the pretentious punk selling the original.

The critique here is not just of hypocrisy but of capitalism’s inherent hypocrisy, of its essential hypocrisy, the hypocrisy without which it could not function, because the issue is not selling a counterfeit purse but the inability of the deliberately and permanently disenfranchised to purchase the license to sell or to have the credit required to secure a loan and all of those things require money which can not be obtained legally or without moral compromise. If Dostoevsky had been a genius humorist instead of a genius psychotic, Notes from Underground would have had a Gallagher as its anti-hero. Or, as Springsteen puts it: I got debts no honest man can pay.

But still this is not about romanticizing poverty. This is a litany of tragic events piled so high and so far that suggestions of anything to the contrary ring hollow. All attempts at escape are defeated by the inertia created by a system that is a massive pile of corrupt shit.

But don’t expect the Gallaghers to deliver a lecture about it (or at least in the case of Frank not without an ulterior motive) and unlike David Simon, don’t expect anyone to give them a Genius Grant.

They’re too busy being honest and trying to survive.

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