Despite frequent attempts, many hit British TV series haven't been able to make a successful transition across the big pond to American television. For every success like NBC's "The Office," there's a bomb like the same network's "Coupling." Or, on a variety of channels, "Cracker," "Cold Feet," "Eleventh Hour," "Life on Mars," "Teachers," "Viva Laughlin!" and "Touching Evil."
Which only compounds the ruddy miracle that is "Shameless," the improbably excellent Americanization of a quirky British hit of the same title premiering Sunday, Jan. 9, on Showtime.
Originally created by Paul Abbott and based on his own off-kilter upbringing, the dark, rude and sidesplitting comedy -- which executive producer John Wells ("ER") has transplanted from Manchester, England, to Chicago for this new version -- revolves around the large and raucous Gallagher family, a close-knit clan headed by booze- and drug-addled patriarch Frank (William H. Macy). Abandoned, somewhat understandably, by his wife after the births of six children (one of them of dubious paternity), Frank lives on his disability checks, which he squanders recklessly at a bar run by a neighbor, Kev (Steve Howey, "Reba").
Forced to become a surrogate parent, oldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum of "Phantom of the Opera" in a breakout performance) selflessly cares for her five siblings, each of whom pitches in to help out with cash-raising gambits that include the odd bit of petty larceny.
Fiona's stressed-out routine gets a much-needed boost when she catches the eye of Steve (Justin Chatwin), a nice guy whose bankroll likewise comes from some shady dealings. Frank, meanwhile, begins to crash at the home of Sheila Jackson (the sublime Joan Cusack), a local divorcee who suffers from profound agoraphobia and assorted other mental and emotional disorders but offers Frank shelter, gourmet cooking and more sexual kink than he can handle.
Wells has taken an ensemble comedy that at first appearance seems too distinctly British and place-specific to be adapted and somehow given it a very credible American accent while retaining the richness and emotional resonance of the original. Certainly it helps immensely that he was developing "Shameless" for American TV at the same time that Macy, who played the kilt-wearing Dr. David Morgenstern on "ER," was looking for a TV series role.
"I am absolutely thrilled," Macy says of the Showtime series. "It's not dissimilar to our British brethren, but it is distinctly American, and the translation has been flawless. In some ways it's deeper, funnier, while in other ways it's consistent with what they were doing. We met Paul Abbott when we were working on the pilot, and then he came by and hung out for a couple of weeks when we started episode two, so we all got to meet him and talk with him. It was very gratifying to see he couldn't have been happier.
"We're sort of picking and choosing, so in the broadest sense we are following the template of the British series, and the writers have written some new scenes that are specific to our episodes. They've mixed it up a bit and taken some great bits from one episode and put into another. But by and large we are following the British show."
Rossum, who previously usually had been cast in girl-next-door or "princess" roles, had to fight for the part of the gutsy Fiona, auditioning four times before she was hired.
"Fiona steps in and takes care of everyone, including her father," the 24-year-old actress says of her character. "You'd think there would be a lot of anger and resentment underneath, but she never shows that, especially not to her brothers and sisters, whom she loves more than anything. She is fiercely loyal to her family and even to her father, no matter how much he screws up. She may get angry and want to beat the (crap) out of him, but in the end, they are a family, a real kind of modern American family.
"We're showing the struggles they go through, with the economy and everything else that is happening now. I just think it is very admirable that they don't give in to self-pity. They have a very strong get-up-and-go attitude."
Weirdly, the time-slot neighbor of "Shameless" and premiering the same night is "Episodes," a new sitcom that chronicles the painful experience a pair of married British comedy writers (Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig) endure when they are brought to Hollywood to Americanize their hit Britcom "Lyman's Boys" for a U.S. network run by a boorish executive (John Pankow).
While they keep hearing assurances that everyone loves "Lyman's Boys," their show about an avuncular English headmaster, Sean and Beverly Lincoln watch in horror as their classy jewel of a series is overhauled with a vulgar new title ("Pucks") and a new lead character, now a hockey coach played by former "Friends" star Matt LeBlanc, starring as a vain, self-serving version of himself.
"I was a little skeptical at first about playing 'Matt LeBlanc,' but (series creator David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik) said, 'Well, it's not really you,' " the actor explains. "This Matt LeBlanc (is) the public's perception of a celebrity. He's very manipulative. He has his agenda, and he's going to pursue that agenda. He's not a monster, but he definitely is not too concerned about what people think of him personally.
"There is a lot of fun to be had in this, a lot of fun cliches to puncture. I don't want to give too much away, but we had a really fun time doing it. I think it's a real smartly written piece."
And LeBlanc gives a smartly calibrated performance in the show, which one suspects gave Crane and Klarik a chance to settle some old scores from their earlier days in network TV (while it is set in Hollywood, "Episodes" actually was filmed in England). Showtime has ordered seven episodes of the series, with an option for more, but this initial short season offers some closure at the end if renewal isn't in the cards.
Showtime welcomes new comedies 'Shameless' and 'Episodes'
"Shameless" premieres Sunday on Showtime.
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