Tuesday, May 31, 2011

SHAMELESS: When Shows Try Too Hard To Be Good

I wasn't going to write a blog post about Shameless (Showtime), as I felt the show didn't really deserve one.  I don't say that being positive or negative.  It just didn't leave me with enough of an impression to want to continue watching it.  This blog post originally started out as a facebook status, but I've decided to expand it a little bit*.  I'm not going to get into a full show breakdown, but I will talk about the things that I think were noteworthy.

I'm not sure I ever mentioned this, but I am a "Pilot Freak".  What I mean by that is that any time I am trying to decide whether I want to watch a show, I immediately watch the Pilot.  If the Pilot is fully formed, then you can basically decide if you would like to continue watching the show from that point forward.  When it's not fully formed, and sometimes crappily done, but shows enormous potential (House is a great example of this), that can also help you decide.  Sometimes, pilots are not fully formed, and also not any good, but most that are done even decently well, will give you a good idea of what the show is trying to accomplish.  There is a big reason why most drama pilots are directed by movie directors.  They are trying to give maximum impact to the story and characters, and tell it in a compelling enough way that makes viewers want to come back for more.  When this doesn't happen, the TV show will usually fail.

I believe that Shameless was definitely a fully formed pilot, and upon first viewing (should you choose to watch it after what you read here), you should have an excellent idea of whether you will want to continue with it.  This will deal specifically with the Pilot, as I have not watched any other episode. 

First of all, I had pretty high hopes for this show, going in, because my twisted friend (I say that with much admiration), Katie L., had heartily recommended it.  Based on her recommendation, alone, I knew this show had to be pretty whacked out.  And whacked out, it was.

Unfortunately, the whacked out nature of this show is what I feel ultimately doomed it, for me.  I know it was based on a British show, but to me, it's almost like someone just took the idea of what it would be like living as a "family" in the projects, and tried to make a show out of it.  I don't know what life is like in the "projects", which in this show is basically a 2 story house, in what looks like a kind of dilapidated neighborhood.  They have a washer (kind of jacked up) and dryer, in the house, which definitely is a sure sign of a believable poor family.  While the washer ended up being quite an important MacGuffin, it's just not believable at all, to me, that this family would have a washer and dryer (no matter what state of disrepair), in their house.  Families like these go to laundromats, in my opinion.  It sure is what I did, in college.

The introduction to the characters was handled nicely, in what was basically the opening title sequence.  It was pretty shocking, in some instances, but handled very nicely.  If the show continued on that path, it would likely have fared much better with me.  Ultimately, the biggest problem the show has, in my opinion, is its length.  I think this show just absolutely does not work as an hour long show.  I think this show could be great, if it were the standard 26 minutes of shows such as Nurse Jackie.  I watch Nurse Jackie, and I think it's a really good show, but I think there is no way Nurse Jackie would be successful as an hour long show.  These types of shows need to have a quick beat, and if they don't, they fail.  Like how I imagine a junkie would feel waiting for their next hit, Nurse Jackie gives you a palpable "it's over already?? Now I have to wait another week...damn."  If the show were longer, it would not have that same feel, it would feel too long, and it would fail. 

When executives are watching a show like Shameless, while it's going through the pilot process, I think it's important to figure out whether it has enough "substance" to be an hour long show.  In my opinion, while there are plenty of characters to mine into an hour, it just doesn't work being an hour.  The editing pace of the individual scenes is very quick and creative.  However, the overall script is kind of slow.  It literally felt like I had been watching the show for an hour and a half, while only being 52 minutes in.  That's not a good sign, for pace.  There were at least three places I felt it could have ended, yet another scene began.

Nearly every scene played out with some sort of shock value.  If you're interested in seeing guys' butts, occasional "man parts", and the upper half of "lady parts", this show has plenty of that.  Two of the main kids, I believe, are supposed to be in high school.  You will see both of them receiving "oral pleasures" under a covered kitchen table, by a female high school student, with the girl's Mom, in the kitchen, less than 10 feet away.  Eventually, this is discovered by the girl's father, due to a most unfortunate dropping of an apple (a falling cherry would have been more appropriate, no?).  The father chases the boys out, presumably hoping to kill them, and we later see him gathering up at least a dozen items with clowns on them, as he leaves the family household.  It is with that little piece of business that we know the girl and her mom aren't messed up (clearly both are very messed up), it's the Dad with the problem.

In the next scene, we are greeted with a close up of the first boy with a damp spot on his drawers after his first receipt of the "oral pleasures".  Then, we see his butt, as he takes the underwear off and tries to hide them in the dirty laundry.  We see a different scene where one woman, dressed in what appears to be an S&M costume, appears to be having sex (upper lady parts visible).  We then see the man's face emerge, with a ball gag in his mouth, who then says something to the effect of, "I thought that would hurt a lot more".  In another scene, we see a very clumsy "sex" scene, with more guy butt, and upper lady parts.  In another scene, we see a guy punch out a bouncer, and, while running away, he moons the area where the bouncer was.  We see yet another scene where one of the teen boys, who we presume is gay, sees a naked man laying in a bed with his "man parts" visible, when the guy wakes up, thus apparently adding to his sexual confusion.  Then, in the final "sex" moment of the show, it turns out the one teen boy is, in fact, gay, and is having sex with an older, married guy in a convenience store.  This is not shown, though you do hear noises at the beginning of the scene.  Oh, and in the last scene, while two of the characters are apparently in bed, naked, there is a baby sticking his head up under the covers (more shock value).  Just writing all that makes it sound like there was way too much sex and nudity in the show.  So, I guess there was.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of this stuff was played solely for shock value.  I find it hard to believe that anyone could have found any of it titillating.

There are plenty of more "shocks", if you look for them.  We have teenagers smoking, teenagers doing drugs, adults doing drugs, and lots of drinking, in general (the father of the house is always drunk, and probably always high).  It also turns out the love interest to the main character runs a chop shop.

Stylistically, I liked the kind of gritty shooting style.  It almost looks like 16MM film, to me, though I don't think it was.  It had an interesting soundtrack, with a lot of alternative, almost punk type, music.  There was a lot of creativity shown in the editing, though I'm not sure that was necessary.  The whole show felt too polished to be raw, and too raw to be polished.  Then, when I saw John Wells's name in the end credits, I knew that it was too polished to be raw.  The two closest things I can think of to Shameless are the movie, American Beauty, and the TV show, Six Feet Under (HBO).  Those products were also trying to deliver maximum shock value.  Both were received exceptionally well, critically, with American Beauty winning the Oscar, for Best Picture.  I think Six Feet Under delivered shock value more deftly than both Shameless and American Beauty, but it was no more believable, to me, than American Beauty.  I know many people love both of those, and I am not one bit mad at you, for it.

For me, I think the way to deliver maximum shock value is to not show us much, and most especially not all at once, in the opening episode.  The best way to deliver maximum shock value is to talk about it, to drop little pieces of plot, here and there, and to see bits and pieces in the Production Design (the fallen collage/scrapbook of pornography is a perfect example of this).  You don't have to hit people over the head with it.  To me, when a show has to show you why everyone is screwed up, it's not doing it right.  Have something happen, and we say to ourselves, "wow that's messed up."  Don't say, "here's so and so, he's really got some issues, seeeee."  That's called trying too hard.  I know it's a pilot, and you have to show a lot of exposition, but the exposition in the opening title was absolutely perfect, and ALL we needed to know about the characters.  Just start telling stories, since you set up the exposition nicely, in the opening title, and I won't accuse you of trying too hard to be good, cool, or whatever it is you're trying to be.

I think I can be convinced to watch another episode, but I need to know why I should.  I'm not going to watch another, without a compelling reason.  If you think you can convince me to watch another episode, let me know.

*Quite a bit, damn it!

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