Looking for a hero is an exercise in futility right now on television—which may be one reason why NBC’s earnest superhero drama, The Cape, feels so bizarre. After years of Don Draper and Tony Soprano and Dexter and Hank Moody and Patty Hewes, clearly delineated good guys just seem passé. Which is why Showtime and FX have given us Shameless and Lights Out, respectively, two more shows focusing on anti-heroic patriarchs.
The trend may be winding down, however, because these two shows feel sloppiest when they proudly present their men behaving badly, like schoolchildren bringing home blurry finger paintings. Shameless, based on a hit U.K. TV show (Showtime may be the only network with the audacity to air a reworking of a British hit paired with Episodes, a comedy about the painful attempt to rework a British hit for American network television) revolves around the lovably déclassé Gallagher clan, led by Papa Frank (William H. Macy, acting his ass off). The Gallaghers, you see, are poor but proud; they’ll steal motel hairdryers for heat before accepting charity to pay their gas bill. We’re also supposed to find their rallying around the truly awful Frank to be touching, when outsider Steve (Justin Chatwin) tries to step in and rid them of the man who rails against them for working after school to make enough money for groceries.
When Shameless steps away from Frank (the show’s sole awkwardly written character), there’s a punchy comedy to it. Older sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum, shedding her prim image forever), who serves as the substitute mom, is both sexy and exasperated; within three episodes, she’s had sex with two suitors. And the rest of the kids are equally oddball. Middle son Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is gay, and having an affair with his married, Muslim boss. Oldest son Lip (Jeremy Allen White) takes the PSATs for cash, in between tutoring his girlfriend for fellatio. And daughter Debbie (Emma Kenney) just wants to live in a Martha Stewart-ordered world.
Toss in Joan Cusack as a sexually adventurous housewife and Steve Howey and Shanola Hampton as horny neighbors, and Shameless is a dirty good time. Unfortunately, the tone varies wildly from episode to episode. The pilot makes it feel like a gritty dramedy; the second episode veers into slapstick. If it can find a comfortable groove, Shameless could take the place of Desperate Housewives as a recession-friendly soap. Otherwise, it will be consigned to the rejected remakes of foreign shows, where Coupling and Kath and Kim are languishing.
Lights Out, however, is a tightly constructed boxing drama about former heavyweight champion Lights Leary (Holt McCallany), who finds himself broke after some bad investments. We’re supposed to sympathize with him as he struggles to pay his daughters’ private school tuition in his McMansion, reduced to calling out Bingo numbers and accepting work as muscle to get a friend of a friend’s debt paid. The trappings are new, but the core premise is the same: a complicated man is trying to navigate a world in which he doesn’t quite belong.
McCallany and co-stars Pablo Schreiber and Stacy Keach, as Lights’ brother and father, respectively, make the script sound even better than it is. But Catherine McCormack, as Lights’ wife, is almost ludicrously bad. At times in the pilot, she loses her American accent completely (McCormack is British), before adopting a vaguely Jersey dialect. If British actors continue to be hired for American television (and the list goes on and on), then can’t casting directors at least find more Hugh Lauries, who can believably fake an American accent?
That’s my pet peeve peeking through, of course, but the bottom line is that Lights Out is a handsome genre show that is a little late to the party. Audiences already have their favorite anti-heroes, and whether there’s room at the table for Lights and crew remains to be seen.
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