Don Draper, meet Frank Gallagher. The latest in cable’s lineup of dissolute dads, Frank (William H. Macy) may once have been a rakish party dog, a greasy force of nature; these days, he’s more like Nick Nolte’s mug shot, 24/7. While Frank is out drinking the electric bill, his six kids—from a toddler to a 19-year-old—keep their family afloat with piratical graft and subsistence gigs, overseen by oldest sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum), an Angelina Jolie look-alike in tight jeans.
Showtime’s zippy pilot for Shameless—a carbon copy of the acclaimed British series by Paul Abbott (and adapted with John Wells)—sketches each kid with compassion and dirty humor, from Fiona, her skinny hip perpetually cocked against the family’s broken washing machine; to dry-humored Lip (stealth-sexy Jeremy Allen White), who tutors his classmates for cash and blow jobs; to closeted Ian and angelic Debbie; as well as the Gallaghers’ sex-crazed neighbors Kev and Veronica. In many ways, the series fits neatly into Showtime’s by-now-familiar dysfunctional wheelhouse, leaning hard on black humor and pornographic set pieces. (This is the second Showtime series to feature a woman paid for webcam sex, and if you throw in Desperate Housewives, it’s also the second TV show this year to feature one who caters specifically to men with an ironing fetish.)
But Shameless also has a rough and original charisma of its own, emphasizing as it does the freedom and not merely the deprivation of its family of quasi orphans. The nearby bodega is called the Kash & Grab; the bar is the Alibi. When Frank goes missing, the kids search the funeral home, the laundromat, and the sperm bank. As with In Treatment, which is based on an Israeli series, there may be minor gaps in the cross-cultural translation (it’s been transported to blue-collar Chicago), but none that alters the series’ force. The next two episodes hit a few more sour notes: One glibly stylized S&M sequence had the cynical naïveté that infects off-brand sex-sitcoms like Hung. Still, with such a juicy ensemble and four seasons of the original show to mine plots from, I’ll take this bet. If Shameless lives up to its pilot, it could fit nicely among cable’s many have-it-both-ways dramas, the ones that wink at rock bottom while making you crave a drink.
Lights Out starts slower but has an even more intriguing anti-hero dad: Patrick “Lights” Leary (in a beautiful and subtle performance by Holt McCallany), a retired heavyweight champion with itchy fists. Has there ever been a television show that explored the soul of an adult athlete? Leary isn’t a drunk, but he’s got cravings; he misses the glow of fan worship, the catharsis of fist in face. Instead, he’s stuck in a suburban McMansion, brooding over private-school tuition. Like many a working-class hero, he’s blown his earnings and maybe his health, while the fancy world he’s entered regards him as a curiosity.
When Leary gets the chance to frighten his daughter’s boyfriend, he glowers with pleasure, swelling up like a cartoon wolf without saying a word. Lights needs cash, but he also needs release. The first offer he gets seems a little implausible (can you really use a famous athlete as hired muscle?). But as episodes go by, and the ensemble expands (including his brother and father—played, respectively, by Pablo Schreiber and Stacey Keach—who have their own sketchy relationship to Lights’s fame), the show gains depth. It’s yet another entry in TV’s ongoing meditation on masculinity and the double life, and as with Tony Soprano’s and Dexter Morgan’s, Lights’s fatherhood at once softens his character and gives weight to his potential for cruelty.
Let’s hope neither of these promising shows goes the way of Californication, whose once-charming contrarianism has gone utterly rancid, leaving us with the unpleasant spectacle of David Duchovny straddled repeatedly by jailbait. In the show’s early seasons, the story, about a horny West Coast writer with a teen daughter and a forgiving ex-wife, had an acrid punch, a Philip Roth–ish aggression, that overrode its ickier aspects. If you liked that show, I recommend you avoid the new season, in which the misogyny is cut so pure it has stamped out my decades-long Duchovny crush. Like late Entourage, Californication is a fun-suck. It’s less Philip Roth than Two and a Half Men, except that the boobs and the self-pity are more openly displayed.
It’s also possible that I’ve simply raised my standards for anti-heroes. Scoundrels and thugs and addicts are what made the last decade of ambitious TV possible, after all, operating as Trojan horses for moral ambiguity. But post-Tony, post-Don, post-Dexter, some clichés are less forgivable. You could make a very boring taxonomy of Hank’s conquests, from eager-to-learn students (so aggressive no one can say no to them) to power broads in black bodysuits (a role Carla Gugino has performed on both Entourage and Californication, for which I hope she got a very nice house). As the seasons pass, I’ve begun to suspect that on the worst such series, the writers may get Stockholm syndrome, having mainlined their particular charming bastard’s brand of bullshit. Hank screwed an underage girl, but she wanted it—and he didn’t know her age. On Entourage, a cabal of lady executives threatens Ari, but it’s all a big misunderstanding. On Big Love, Barb never, ever, leaves Bill. These days, I’ve learned to look for that watermark of a real TV anti-hero, one that I can believe in: consequences that stick.