Thursday 11 August 2011

Not nearly Shameless enough

Every once in a while you witness something that causes you to have a visceral reaction. It holds you in the grip of a strong emotion and you feel compelled to shout your view over the roof tops, either championing it or condemning it. The latest thing to cause such a reaction in me is a TV show. In fact, quite often it’s a TV show or a film or a book or some other form of art because let’s face it all of these distractions form a daily part of our lives. Despite the fact that these things are fictional, ultimately, our response to them and opinions of them can be as all encompassing as anything else ‘real’ going on in our lives. Or maybe I’m just a massive geek!* In any event, the TV show that I going to climb onto my soap box over today is the US version of Shameless.

Over the last few years, some absolutely outstanding television shows have come out of the US. I am thinking specifically here of shows such as Deadwood, Terriers, Breaking Bad, Firefly, The Good Guys, Arrested Development, Better off Ted, Community… to name but a few. But there is one American institution that tends to set my alarm bells ringing, and that is the ‘American Re-make’. There appears to be a consistent need in Hollywood to take a popular foreign film, or TV show, and re-package it for American audiences. From my perspective, this process normally involves watering down the more complex and obscure elements of the plot and slotting in an attractive young cast, presumably with the aim of achieving greater recognition and success Stateside. A recent example of this is Rec and its American re-working, Quarantine. Rec is one of the best horror films that I have seen for years, so it is bizarre to me that it was felt a re-make was warranted. Were the subtitles too much of an inconvenience for an English speaking public? The problem I find is that quite often much of the quirkiness and charm of the original is lost in favour of eye candy and predictable plot changes.

But not all American re-makes hit the wrong note. The American version of The Office has found its feet by taking the essence of the original – that feeling of the hum drum everyday depressing normality of working life – and applying it to the American work place. It has become its own beast and no longer aspires to be like the Brit version – it’s very much its own show now, and it works really well.

So… The US version of Shameless hit our TV screens the other week, and, despite past disappointments, I was actually quite hopeful. I mean, William H Macy is in it for Christ’s sake! He’s an American institution! And I was keen to see what he had done with the role, how he had made it his own. But unfortunately, the first episode let me down so badly, that I’m just not willing to bear with this one. There are so many awesome shows vying for our attention, that I don’t see the justification of giving this a few more chances, or at least, not when I was so wholly unimpressed with the pilot.

A few things stood out to me, the introduction was odd and arrogant, with Frank Gallagher declaring himself a ‘philosopher’. This just did not happen in the UK intro. It is of course implied that Frank Gallagher is a whimsical observer of life, a modern day Rab. C. Nesbitt. But it does not need to be said, does it? Shouldn’t the viewer work that out for themselves rather than being spoon fed it? Isn’t that part of the point of show? The whole episode just left me with a bit of an empty feeling. In fact, whether you would call it perversity or a cleansing exercise, my partner chose to put on the first episode of the original afterwards, just to double check that we weren’t looking back through rose tinted spectacles. But we weren’t, far from it. The comparison was embarrassing, especially given that the US version was almost a word for word replica. With that sharp juxtaposition, it just didn’t hold up at all.

The American versions of Fiona and Steve and their budding romance were a big sticking point for me. Every moment of their interaction felt over dramatised, with ‘Party of Five’ style melodramatic music playing in the background. The sex scene was art fully shot and sexed up, and whilst they seemingly tried to recreate the humour of the British version, it once again fell flat. If there is one thing that Brits do well in the world of television, it is awkward, mucky, back-of-the-postcard-humour sex. If you have ever seen Shameless, or Ideal, or almost any British drama comedy of that ilk, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. But maybe the harsh lit nature of it, the jerky camera angles, flabby bums and gurning faces, just aren’t something that American audiences will tolerate! Perhaps they prefer the romantic fantasy? Or at least this seems to be the assumption made by the producers. That is all well and good, be as discreet and artful as you like with the shagging, just don’t call the show Shameless! Also, the actor playing Steve looks like a Hollywood ‘hottie’ in the making. Presumably they have kept in mind McAvoy’s rise to stardom which shortly followed after his appearance in Shameless. But McAvoy’s star was in ascendance anyway and whilst it was undoubtedly fueled by his performance in Shameless, he would have found his feet sooner or later, mainly because, the boy can act. For me, MacAvoy’s appeal as an actor is not in his looks, it lies in his ability. His intense performances put me in mind of the likes of Gary Oldman and Sam Rockwell, actors who are attractive because of who they are and what they can do as opposed to how they look.

But the main disappointment for me is Macy. Don’t get me wrong, in the right part Macy is awesome, as films such as Fargo and Bladerunner are testament to. But, evidently, his range is limited. He cannot portray a character like Frank Gallagher. The American viewers feedback on the likes of IMDB (possibly the most infuriating aspect of the whole thing for me) defend Macy by saying that the character, being an alcoholic and a drug addict and bastard, is almost impossible to play as a likeable person … Urm, hello? Did any of these people actually see the original? David Threlfall manages to make the character likeable and appealing and interesting whilst being no less of a bastard which such ease that I don’t think we could have really appreciated how good he is at without the comparison.

In the first episode, Threlfall makes his presence felt despite barely doing more than staring into the front of a washing machine! There are endless threads of Americans on the internet movie database asking whether they should like a character such as Frank, whether he is a suitable role model for the hearts and minds of Good Americans, whether his influence is a dangerous one. What is wrong with these people? Seriously? Is the concept that someone could drink, take drugs and be in many ways a horrible person yet still be interesting and engaging really so hard to grasp? Does every fictional character have to be moral and worthy before being deemed suitable for our viewing pleasure? A protagonist, for me, has to fulfill one essential duty and one alone, to be interesting! As long as their story is one worth telling, the context of their character is irrelevant. Hannibal Lector is an extreme example of this. Most people would admit that they like Silence of the Lambs for Anthony Hopkin’s performance in it. Using the same logic, this would imply that all of those people both approve of and admire the actions of a serial killer! Which is utter nonsense, of course it is. So by that logic (the logic which actually contains logic) we know that to like Frank Gallagher is not necessarily to approve of his morals or actions, but to approve of clever writing and good acting.

I think perhaps it is the upsettingly high score on IMDB for the US Shameless, as compared to the original, accompanied by that feedback, which sent me into the biggest spiral of reproach. Lots of comments regarding how the US version of Fiona, played by Emmy Rossum, is so much better looking than Anne Marie Duff. To which I ask again, what is wrong with these people? How is that even relevant? Again, call me old fashioned, but what draws me to a character is how interesting and appealing they are, not simply how good they look in a vest top and hot pants! The main difference between the two shows as far as I am concerned is acting, pure and simple. With every line spoken, everything about the British version, every subtle nuance and inflection, was superior.

I’m not going to sit here and say that this is because it is an American version. I refuse to make such a sweeping unsubstantiated statement, mainly because, there are so many brilliantly scripted, acted and produced American TV shows out there. Not all of them of course, there is some dross. But then there is dross in the British broadcasting schedule, more so in many ways. Shameless, however, and certainly the first couple of series of it, is an example of British TV at its best. The fact that Paul Abbot is actually involved with the US version makes it even more of a mystery to me as to why it’s so markedly different. I do think that the subject matter, alcohol and drugs, is perhaps somewhat more distasteful to American audiences, so maybe in that sense we should look at the very fact that they have responded to a show that deals with these issues as a positive thing. But I feel that is a patronising view to take. I do not believe in pandering, either audiences will engage with Shameless or they won’t. Fair enough, set it in America, make it relatable. But the changes that have been made feel in conflict with the soul of Shameless, which I think is both insulting to the original and insulting to the viewers. Even the Maths tutoring scene has been changed so that Karen’s reasoning for giving sexual favours is because she is just horny, as opposed to it being in trade for the tutoring. My spidey sense tells me that this has been altered to avoid connotations of prostitution. But is it really that much better to portray the character as some horned up sex bag? Well, I suppose that is sexier and less gritty. And I guess that’s the point really, Shameless US is just that, sexier, slicker, worthier and despite being word for word the same as the original, could not be more different in its essence. I think that Macy and the rest would do well to make the characters their own, because it cannot live up to the original for me. Although the inclusion of Joan Cusack as Sheila Jackson could produce a very enjoyable performance, there is just too much wrong with this one for me to stick with it. It would feel somewhat masochistic, and a detraction from all of the other TV shows that have already won me over with their charm and intelligence, to do so.

For those of you who are fans of the original, I’ll leave you with some recent words from the man himself, the man who can put his soap box ranting far more much eloquently than I ever could…

‘Anyone watching thinking we know fuck all about knowing fuck all about owt needs to watch their back.

So you've had your Labour reclassifying skunk sending prices sky high literally, literally taking the grass off its own roots.

Now you've got your condemnation, Liberals noshing Tories like altar boys picking dim sum.

Have we had a national fucking stroke or what?

Is revolution a word or was it never?

Anybody watching needs to know we cope better than average with irony in Chatsworth.

Well for fuck sake we live in Manchester and they charge us for water.

I wandered lonely as a cloud necking mushrooms rarely found. Green and pleasant land in ancient times…

Yap, yap, yap, yap, yap, yap, yap, yap.

It's not theirs anymore. This is our England now.’

(Shameless: Series 9: Episode One)

*And proud of it!

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