Rating: ★★

A typical case of a show that, captivated by its early success, slowly fritters away every element of its value, and ends its life as a feeble shade of what it was, having detoured through numerous confusing and inane plot directions with ever-decreasing justification.

The underlying thesis of Shameless that differentiates it from soaps like Coronation Street is that some people are just scum. In another narrative universe, the story would be that despite some unsavoury behaviour, benefits scroungers and low-level fraudsters are still basically kind and generous people, whom you'd want to have around in a pinch. That is decidedly not the message of Shameless. The main character, Frank, is an incurably bad person, and the majority of those who share the limelight with him are similarly thoroughly awful. Frank's case is made particularly clear by the oft-repeated demonstration that he has followed the same patterns of behaviour for many years, has always eventually shied away from any temporary improvement in his station, and repeatedly drags down any betters that fall into his company. Despite seeming harmless, and indeed being no more than a loudmouth and petty thief for most people who might encounter him, he is in fact evil. You cannot save him (the many women that try learn), he will not straighten up with a good example, he can only be painfully forced into things through his own short-term self-interest or outright intimidation.

So, the key question is: what do you do with him? Especially if, unlike passing associates who meet him in the pub, you are related to him by the bonds of birth and child benefit payments. The answer is: first, you manage him -- try to keep him out of your private financial reserves and the small joys you have, though it is a losing battle. If sated with a ration of alcohol and drugs, he can be kept relatively docile, so however unjust, this tax must be paid. And second: once you can, you leave. You get as far away from this monster as you possibly can, and you never come back.

This key question is essentially resolved in the second season of Shameless, with Fiona, our main sympathetic character, making the heartbreaking but necessary decision to leave her siblings with Frank and escape with her husband. Up until this point, I was quite happy with the series -- it had a certain raw, vivid feel to it that rung true (and I should note that I grew up not far from where the series is set, and it was quite a surprise how familiar several of the actors sounded). But what can the show do once it's handled this arc?

Well, it turns out that's precisely the problem.

In a slow, gradual decline, the series shows more and more of Frank's family leaving and, more importantly, loses many of its supporting cast. New cast members are recruited, with more fanciful backgrounds and quirks. We see focus shift to a tertiary-character prostitute, a crime family containing three sons all unsuited to physical intimidation, an ex-vicar, and a bunch of other people whose main defining features are that their lives are not going very well, and generally this is revealed to be because of their own character flaws. There comes a point where the family the show originally was entirely about barely features except for sometimes showing Frank continuing his everlasting rituals.

Basically, they lost the thread. There were other elements of the family that could have been developed into compelling storylines, and sometimes there were glimmers of attempts at this, but mostly the show just faltered in weird, sometimes surreal episodes. Occasionally the writing was so sloppy that major elements of episodes seemed to be skipped, key conflicts being resolved off-screen.

Not all of it is necessarily terrible material. In many ways the show succeeds at representing the view from the underbelly, authentically capturing underclass views on social issues, and particularly sex, which it rightly places in the forefront of many lives, including not only such middle-class titillations as infidelity but also the widely-held agnosticism on the age of consent, and the range of strange perversions catered for by prostitutes.

But occasionally interesting reflections of the subject material do not in themselves make for good television. Shameless was, as a show, broken, and even the final episode's attempt to lean on its former popular elements could not quite manage to dredge out a high to end on. If the whole thing had ended at Season 2, or even 3, it might've been worth some acclaim, but I can no longer make that case.