Dys­func­tion that doesn’t dis­ap­point

‘Shame­less’ delivers fresh­ness, while ‘Episodes’ is stuck in been there, seen that

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY HANK STUEVER

Even the quite shrewd pop-cul­tur­ists among us can mis­di­ag­nose the fevers of an­tic­i­pa­tion, get­ting all frothed up about one new­ca­ble se­ries and re­main­ing in­dif­fer­ent to an­other, when it should be the oth­er­way around. Suchis the caseSun­day night on Show­time.

The show I once thought looked so promis­ing — “Episodes,” a com­edy in which a Bri­tish cou­ple at­tempt to dumb down­their eru­dite, award-win­ning­com­edy se­ries for a U.S. net­work— turned out to be rather limp and dis­ap­point­ing.

And the show I didn’t think I’d be all that in­ter­ested in—“Shame­less,” star­ring Wil­liam H. Macy as a drunken, repro­bate fa­ther of a rag­tag brood liv­ing in a down­trod­denChicago neigh­bor­hood— quickly be­came, within the first few min­utes, one of the best things I’ve watched on TV in many months.

Such are the lessons of ad­ver­tis­ing and hype. Cer­tainly “Episodes” does have charms, in­clud­ing a grand lead per­for­mance by Bri­tish ac­tress Tamsin Greig and some laud­ably wry work by “Friends” alumMatt Le­Blanc, who plays him­self (in the role ofMeta Le­Blanc?).

But it is bur­dened with a crusty, over­done take on the va­pid­ness of the Hollywood ma­chine, a sub­ject al­ready strip­mined by the likes of the “En­tourage” boys, Garry Shan­dling’s Larry San­ders, Larry David’s Larry David and (an­other

“Friend” of sit­com yore) Lisa Kudrow’s un­for­get­table Va­lerie Cher­ish.

So in­stead, let’s crank up the kvel­ling for “Shame­less.”

At first glance, the ma­te­rial seems need­lessly fetid: Macy playsFrank Gal­lagher, a ly­ing sack of spit who whiles away his days and dis­abil­ity checks at the neigh­bor­hood pub. Once plas­tered and un­con­scious, Frank is usu­ally de­posited by the cops on the doorstep of his ramshackle abode, wherein his old­est adult daugh­ter, Fiona ( Emmy Ros­sum), tries to keep some or­der among her four sib­lings. The fam­ily is in per­ma­nent straits, low on gro­ceries and barely scrap­ing enough cash to­gether to pay the util­ity bills.

With as­ton­ish­ing con­fi­dence, the cre­ators of “Shame­less” leave Macy un­con­scious on the floor for the first episode or two, in­stead launch­ing an im­pres­sive set of mul­ti­lay­ered sto­ries that hinge on the show’s ex­cel­lent en­sem­ble cast. The last dys­func­tional fam­ily drama I can re­call get­ting off to such a good start was “Six Feet Un­der,” with which “Shame­less” shares a cer­tain vibe.

Af­ter Fiona, the next-old­est Gal­lagher sib­ling is Lip (Jeremy Allen White), a ge­nius high schooler who makes ex­tra cash writ­ing other kids’ term pa­pers and tak­ing their SATs for them. He shares abed­roomwith his brother Ian (Cameron Mon­aghan), a sen­si­tive teen pri­vately com­ing to terms with his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity — mostly by hav­ing an il­licit af­fair with his mar­ried boss, a Mus­lim con­ve­nience store owner.

Two younger chil­dren — Carl and Deb­bie (Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Ken­ney) — busy them­selves with petty crimes and a wide-eyed ob­ser­vance of their oldtv er sib­lings’ se­ries of grifts, cons and scams, which in­cludes steal­ing weekly milk and but­ter off a de­liv­ery truck and swip­ing mo­tel room hair dry­ers for ex­tra heat on win­ter nights. The youngest Gal­lagher, baby Liam, seems to be the prod­uct of an af­fair Frank’s exwife had be­fore she split.

In lieu of their fa­ther’s help, the Gal­lagher kids lean on the re­source­ful­ness of their young neigh­bors, bar­tender Kev and nurse/on­line porn star Veronica (SteveHowey and ShanolaHamp­ton), who are known up and down the street for their loud bouts of sex.

“Shame­less” comes cour­tesy of a pop­u­lar Bri­tish tele­vi­sion se­ries of the same name that has run for seven sea­sons, from which it has been adapted to U.S. sen­si­bil­i­ties — though lit­tle has been lost from cre­ator Paul Abbott’s com­pelling orig­i­nal, which is loosely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.

This ver­sion is ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duced by net­work se­ries im­pre­sario John Wells, whose cred­its in­clude “E.R.” and “ TheWest Wing.” Wells’s en­sem­ble projects don’t al­ways suc­ceed— Istill can’t muster in­ter­est in his cop drama “South­land,” which just be­gan a new sea­son on TNT — but the pro­ducer’s sense of pol­ish and mo­men­tum hits just the right spot here.

Liv­ing down to its ti­tle in ev­ery pos­si­ble way, the show’s ap­par­ent lack of moral cen­ter and a pruri­ent de­fault set­ting will cer­tainly put off some view­ers; the Gal­lagher teens are sex­u­ally ac­tive, smoke joints in their bed­rooms and walk aroundthe house with­open­beers. It asks for your full sur­ren­der of con­science; in­deed, shows like this bank on our un­com­fort­able am­biva­lence about be­ing en­ter­tained by ma­te­rial that can be so re­lent­lessly dirty.

Macy, scruffed out to a de­gree thaty­ou­canal­most smell his funk, man­ages a pa­thetic hand­some­ness. (Hand­some enough to un­wit­tingly se­duce his bizarre, ago­ra­pho­bic neigh­bor, who is played, in a wel­come sur­prise, by Joan Cu­sack, chan­nel­ing June Cleaver and anS&Mdom­i­na­trix.)

The char­ac­ters in “Shame­less” are each pow­er­less to re­sist a des­per­ate mea­sure or a crime of op­por­tu­nity. Even Fiona, work­ing sev­eral jobs at once at snack bars and mo­tels, falls for a car thief named Steve (Justin Chatwin), who can pro­vide such niceties as a new wash­ing ma­chine and a paid gas bill.

So al­though the Gal­laghers are bad peo­ple, in the­ory, they are oddly lov­able. To­gether their sto­ries form a deeply res­o­nant portrayal of what it means to be a fam­ily on the fringe.

Which brings us back to “Episodes,” in a way, be­cause it is a fic­tional take on the at­tempt to turn a suc­cess­ful, nu­anced Bri­tish show into a blunt Amer­i­can suc­cess as well. But watch­ing each half-hour episode of “Episodes” (seven in all) be­gins to feel more like a home­work as­sign­ment at Sit­comU.

This whole no­tion is well-trod. It be­gins when an unc­tu­ous U.S. net­work ex­ec­u­tive (John Pankow, cousin Ira from “Mad About You,” you’ll even­tu­ally re­al­ize, af­ter some brain­strain) lures Sean and Bev­erly Lin­coln (StephenMan­gan and Greig) to Los An­ge­les to recre­ate “Ly­man’s Boys,” their Bri­tish show about a lovelorn school head­mas­ter.

Of course it all goes wrong. Hor­ri­fied by a pa­rade of Hollywood de­ceit and en­sconced in a man­sion that has been used as a re­al­ity-show set, the Lin­colns are arm-twisted into pro­found rewrites and ca­pit­u­la­tions: The head­mas­ter is now a hockey coach, and the show gets a dumb new­name—“Pucks!” Per­haps the great­est in­dig­nity (and “Episodes’s” most al­lur­ing premise) comes when Matt Le­Blanc is cast as the star, against Bev­erly’s re­peated ob­jec­tions.

Le­Blanc — beefier, grayer and 43 — wal­lows hap­pily in the chance to play a vain­glo­ri­ous car­i­ca­ture (we hope?) of his post-Joey Trib­biani self, des­per­ate to at­tach him­self to a newhit show.

This was all greeted with roar­ing laugh­ter when a long trailer of “Episodes” was shown to a gath­er­ing ofTV­crit­ics in­Los An­ge­les last sum­mer, but once loosed from that echo cham­ber of hype, “Episodes” quickly sheds its charm.

The se­ries ral­lies near the end, es­pe­cially with some hi­lar­i­ous phys­i­cal com­edy in the fi­nale. By then the irony is too thick to bear: In at­tempt­ing to make a good TV show about a bad TV show, the peo­ple at “Episodes” have merely made a so-so TV show.

CLIFF LIP­SON/SHOW­TIME

RAG­TAG BROOD: “Shame­less” stars Wil­liam H. Macy as a repro­bate fa­ther of, among oth­ers, Liam (Blake and Bren­nan John­son) and Fiona (Emmy Ros­sum).

COLIN HUT­TON/SHOW­TIME

DOU­BLE TAKE: Matt Le­Blanc (as him­self) and Sean and Bev­erly Lin­coln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) round out the cast of “Episodes.”

SHOW­TIME

FA­THER DRINKS BEST: Wil­liam H. Macy plays Frank Gal­lagher, a ly­ing sack of spit who whiles away his days and dis­abil­ity checks at the neigh­bor­hood pub.

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