Poverty on Television: “Shameless” and the American Dream

The Showtime drama, which was just renewed for an eighth season, offers a brutally humanizing portrayal of lower-class American life.

It’s not television’s responsibility to question our culture. On occasion we are blessed with art that entertains through consideration of American ethos. The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men deconstructed the American Dream, while Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, and The Sopranos revelled in its lingering fantasy. Few shows have attempted to situate themselves in the living nightmare of poverty—the country’s quiet shame, the marginalized that the middle and upper classes don’t want to see next to the numbing comfort of Modern Family. Television ignores the poor just as Americans do.

Showtime’s Shameless is an exception, and its depiction of the struggling class in Chicago is a most honest and accurate dissertation of urban abjection in popular culture. The show is not for the faint of heart. It is an unapologetic discussion of urban poverty in America—raw, honest, and dark, employing humor to offset the bleakness. Its aesthetic is filth. The audience can practically smell the fetid marsh of its setting through the screen. Winters are dog-piss yellow and cold; summers sweated and dank. Vomit, shit, and secretion are featured characters. This isn’t the blue collar authenticity of Roseanne. The working class is a step up from the universe of the Showtime series, which just completed its seventh season.

Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), the alcoholic, drug-addled, part-time-grifter patriarch is representative of the lineage of poverty that pervades the country’s poorest communities. He was sexually and physically abused as a child, and inherited a predisposition to the therapeutic chaos of self-medication. Somehow he was able to provide a home on Chicago’s South Side, where he fathered six-plus children. His wife, Monica (Chloe Webb), is a bipolar addict who drifts in and out of the series as she does her family.

There is no free healthcare for the Franks and Monicas. No effective public school system that fosters or supports growth. No reasonable tuition. No community outreach. There’s drugs and alcohol and sex and barely getting by. The family is held together by Fiona (Emmy Rossum) and Lip (Jeremy Allen White), the eldest Gallagher children. Rossum’s character has quiet aspirations to make a better life for herself and the siblings she has inherited as children, but is more often than not left victim to the folly of easy vices. Lip is a brilliant, caring, committed (if deeply flawed) character who has the capacity for a better life but lacks the support—familial, local, national—to escape the cycle of addiction and despondency. As season seven comes to an end, Lip has lost his scholarship and been kicked out of school, failed his rehab, lost his girlfriend, and returned to the broken nest. Lip was Shameless’ only hope—hope asphyxiated by the weight of its responsibility and the archetype of poverty.

Mental health as a plague of the poor is also at the center of Shameless. Another son, Ian (Cameron Monaghan), has inherited his mother’s bipolarism and his community’s inability to manage disease. Ian is also gay, and the earlier seasons address the deep closet of poverty, where tolerance is often lacking. His sexuality also allows Shameless to highlight the perceived conservatism of the poor—ignorance tempered by the absence of education—in Ian’s (and others’) fear of being outed in ways that more socially and economically wealthy demographics might allow or encourage.

Poverty, seen through the filter of Shameless, isn’t simply indicative of an inability to move beyond socioeconomic status through accessible education, tolerance, or social programs. Marginalization and ostracization prevent growth as well. Debbie Gallagher (Emma Kenney) embraces the stasis of scarcity. She gets pregnant at fourteen, refuses an abortion, and drops out of school. Debbie perpetuates the system of her poverty and revels in it. Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) is a delinquent by nine, drunk by ten, dealing by eleven, in juvie by twelve. Liam (Brenden and Brandon Sims), the somehow African American Gallagher toddler, drifts through the periphery, prescient of a life already damned.

Poverty, seen through the filter of Shameless, isn’t simply indicative of an inability to move beyond socioeconomic status through accessible education, tolerance, or social programs.

As the series evolved, it aspired to challenge more socioeconomic issues, confronting gentrification as the South Side becomes fertile ground for yipsters to invade and invest in inexpensive homes and properties, forcing out the poor for neighborhoods of free trade coffee hubs, raising property values and rents. Not only have the poor been robbed of the American Dream, but they’ve been asked to move aside so that privileged classes can realize theirs.

There is a futile longing, a resting beauty at the core of Shameless. There is a sense of community that breaks through the cold crust of despair. Small victories are fêted with smiles and jubilation tempered by drink and drugs. Every once in awhile, a character experiences some level of happiness, some moment of bliss. Perhaps it’s Ian waking up in a lover’s embrace or Fiona accepting a marriage proposal or Lip in a four-way with a gaggle of sorority girls or Carl getting into military school or Debbie looking at her newborn or Frank when he scores a free hit. It is these moments that allow Shameless to indict American apathy toward poverty in ways that reportage or documentary can’t, in that the series is able to delicately balance its argument, humanizing plight with sentimentality, but also in developing characters who are at once authentic and identifiable. A feature on poverty can be compelling, but is limited in its singularity. Shameless allows the vicarious experience of an entire class. It fosters not just understanding, but empathy.

But instances of Gallagher victories are fleeting, and their inherent finity make each all the more heartbreaking. And that is the essence of the show’s understanding of urban poverty in America: it presents the US as a country that refuses to provide the social programs needed to end generational narratives of poverty that breed addiction, abuse, and mental health issues. Shameless is a criminally underappreciated series, a rare dramedy that is able to balance the bleak and the bawdy, whimsy and weight. And in its solitary confrontation of socioeconomic issues it illustrates the great flaw in the deceit of the American Dream: no one cares about the poor. But in caring about the characters of Shameless, the series aspires to change that. FL

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