Exclusive: Early TV Review of Showtime’s New ‘Shameless’

William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum star in the Chicago-set drama


Showtime has announced it will preview the first 20 minutes of its highly anticipated new drama series "Shameless" following the season 5 finale of "Dexter" — but Deal Central has seen a rough cut of the pilot that was dated March 8, 2010, and offers this exclusive review.

(It has certainly been altered since, as Joan Cusack has replaced Alison Janney in a supporting role, so keep that in mind.)

I knew nothing about the John Wells-produced show besides that it's based on Paul Abbott's long-running British hit and it stars William H. Macy as the alcoholic patriarch of a dysfunctional, working-class family living in Chicago.

The show more than lived up to its title, as "Shameless" is one of the craziest shows I've ever seen. Imagine a raunchier "Arrested Development" as written by Charles Bukowski.

For starters, the star of the series, at least judging by the pilot, is definitely "Phantom of the Opera" star Emmy Rossum — not Macy. Rossum plays Fiona, a young woman in her early 20s who is counted on to run her family's household, which includes five other children.

There's Phillip, aka Lip (Jeremy Allen White), a troublemaking yet studious high school junior who tutors a sexually aggressive female classmate (Laura Wiggins). At one point, she performs oral sex on him (and later his gay brother) as her molysomophobic mother (formerly Janney, now Cusack) bakes cookies while pretending not to notice.

There's Ian (Cameron Monaghan), the gay, pot-smoking high school sophomore and ROTC member who works at a local grocery store. Ian is sleeping with his boss Kesh, an older Muslim man who is married and has two children with his white fundamentalist wife.

There's Debbie (Emma Kenney), a jaded 10-year-old who may be the most "normal" of the bunch despite her penchant for stealing from UNICEF. Meanwhile, her 8-year-old brother Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) enjoys torturing animals, stealing bikes and doesn't mind dipping into the collection plate at church in order to contribute to the family's income. He's shown taking a swig of beer during the show's opening voice-over.

Rounding out the family is little Liam, an African-American toddler who is the child of Macy's estranged wife and his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. The family can't afford child care so the other kids pass the baby around each day, which means that when it's Debbie's turn, she takes Liam to school for show and tell.

There are two other major characters, Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and her boyfriend Kevin. Veronica is Fiona's best friend and Kevin is a bartender at Frank's favorite watering hole. Of course, they're introduced during a quick scene in which Kevin has a ball gag in his mouth while Veronica uses a strap-on on him.

As for Macy, he plays Frank Gallagher, a teacher of sorts who is first seen fleeing from the police at a community bonfire. Macy is seen sparingly in the pilot, and usually either sleeping or completely drunk.

The family's day starts at 7:15 a.m. with Fiona waking everyone up. Immediately, it's off to the races for the first hot shower. The household calendar is full of reminders to pay various bills, and at the breakfast table, each of the kids contributes what little money they have to make ends meet and keep the lights on. The Gallaghers can't afford proper health care, they carefully count the minutes left on the family cell phone, and instead of washing their clothes, the kids turn them inside out to save on costs. Even when Fiona finds the money to buy a new dress, she has to leave the tag on it so she can return it after she wears it.

In addition to a part-time job as a maid at a motel, we learn that one of Fiona's jobs is working at a stadium concession stand, where she promptly takes issue with a customer who warns one of his friends that "project girls don't abort." Clearly, Fiona thinks that her family's financial situation could impact her chance of finding a nice boyfriend.

Speaking of which, the final piece of the Gallagher puzzle is a mysterious young man named Steve (Justin Chatwin, right), who meets Fiona when her purse is stolen at a club. The young lovers promptly engage in a steamy sex scene in which Rossum appears topless. Fiona thinks that Steve is just another one-night stand, but she's surprised to learn that he's actually interested in dating her.

Fiona feels unappreciated, as Frank never thanks her for stepping up and basically raising all of her brothers and sisters while her father drinks himself into a stupor. Steve shows her the attention she desperately craves, and seems to really listen to her and care about her problems. Fiona is hesitant to start a romantic relationship, because she feels like she isn't good enough and her dysfunctional family will be a burden. But Steve isn't quite the safe choice she thinks he is.

After an intriguing bit of information about Steve is revealed at the end of the episode, the character establishes himself as a major presence in the Gallagher household; he assumes the open place at the head of the dinner table while Frank sleeps one off on the kitchen floor.

While "Shameless" features several racy scenes that could potentially spark controversy, they develop organically and feel quite natural, as opposed to crass. The series deftly deals with issues of race, class, alcoholism and sexual politics.

Rossum makes for an excellent dramatic anchor and her performance will likely only continue to get better once Frank wakes up and she's able to verbally spar with Macy, whose sad-sack nature is well-suited to his mess of a character.

Chatwin has failed to make much of an impression on me in his past work (which includes "War of the Worlds" and "The Chumscrubber"), but "Shameless" has finally given him a worthwhile character to play. Steve represents the audience, as he's introduced to the Gallaghers and decides to stick with Fiona even if he can't make heads or tails of her wacky family yet. I look forward to seeing where his and Fiona's romance goes.

Aside from its raw energy, the most promising aspect of the series has to be the complicated relationship between brothers Lip and Ian. Monaghan delivers one of the most realistic depictions of a gay teen ever seen on television. He's a fully-realized character with plenty of dimensions that help us understand what he's going through. Meanwhile, White delivers my favorite performance in the pilot as he struggles to come to terms with his brother's sexuality.

Janney was forced to pull out of the series when the producers decided to make her character more prominent than originally planned, and the actress was already committed to star in ABC's "Mr. Sunshine." With that in mind, the more comedic Cusack will probably a better fit, and I expect her character to befriend Macy in future episodes.

Hopefully "Shameless" will continue to feature a very hip soundtrack, as the rough cut of the pilot included music from Spoon and other popular rock bands.

All in all, "Shameless" is unlike any TV show I've ever seen before. It's funny, it's sad, and it all feels surprisingly real. Rossum is in peak form and I look forward to seeing a more coherent Macy over the next 11 episodes. The series has serious potential, and those looking for a jolt on Sunday night would be wise to tune in when "Shameless" debuts on Jan. 9 at 10 p.m.