ALCOHOLISM AND THE WORKING CLASS IN SHAMELESS        

Alcoholism and the Working Class in Shameless 

McKenzie Lowe

        Shameless, which premieres Sunday nights on Showtime and is currently in its seventh season, deals with family life and the ramifications of poverty in a way that had previously been untouched by television production. It follows a family consisting of six kids, ages 3 to 21, an alcoholic and deadbeat father, and an unpredictable and often missing mentally ill mother. The children are basically left to raise themselves in the difficult circumstances that their parents have bestowed them, but their family ties run strong and they will often do what they can to help their parents in the end, too.  The show attempts to portray poverty through the lens of both a comedy and an intense drama, so it has many hilarious moments and many heartbreaking ones. It has been lauded for its often realistic and gritty portrayal of working class and poor urban neighborhoods, but it has also been critiqued for the same portrayal, with statements that the comedic and disturbing images are both condescending and making light of a dark situation, risking a loss of meaning.

        An undoubtedly major theme in the show is drinking. A dive bar, The Alibi Room, is a prominent setting in nearly every episode, as it is Frank’s regular establishment and some of the characters work there. It explores underage drinking and selling alcohol to minors, the partying and clubbing scenes of the city, alcohol in relation to sexual acts, and the topics of alcoholism and addiction. Alcoholism and poverty are inextricably linked due to lifestyles that stem from living in poverty, as well as a lack of healthcare or resources to avoid or treat the addiction. This show highlights the lifestyle choices that may lead and contribute to the harm done from alcoholism, as well as the effect that alcohol addiction has on everyone involved.

        One of the show’s main characters, Frank Gallagher, is a complex portrayal of how alcoholism can tear apart a family and destroy one’s own life, compounded by the family’s poverty and hard financial situations. He also fills many stereotypes that are so pervasive about the unemployed and poor. He neglects his kids, scams the government for unemployment and disability, steals money from his friends and family, and has suffered from both alcohol and drug problems throughout his whole life. Frank suffers greatly from his lifestyle, having no friends who will trust or help him, and is often thought to be dead when he goes missing. The children have accepted that this may happen one day, which is shown in an episode where a homeless man’s body is found, and they worryingly make phone calls to everyone they know trying to find Frank’s last location. This worry and fear is a common thought for people that have family members that deal with addictions. There are also many instances in the show where Frank begs his kids for help, and because they ultimately love him they do, even though they know that he will disappoint and hurt them again.

        In the show’s first season, there are two episodes that turn the focus to Frank and his ability to tear apart his family with his flaws and cause them pain. The first is the seventh episode, “Frank Gallagher, Loving Husband, Devoted Father.” Frank owes money to a couple of men because he borrowed a car and sold it. He claims to not remember this, due to drinking. They make death threats and threaten to hurt his family. At the Alibi Room, when he is lamenting his sorrows, a fellow bar patron tells him about a friend who faked his own death to get out of owed money. He enlists his family to help him fake his own funeral. Merely the week before, he had refused to attend parent night at the kids’ school, but been talked into going as the “father” to the girl of the woman he is currently seeing. When they ran into him, they were extremely hurt and angry. However, even after this most recent betrayal, they are still willing to help him, because deep down they love him, even if they know that he will hurt them again. So many parts of this episode are due to his alcoholism and directly caused by it, from his theft of the car to the inability to have funds to pay them back. I also deals very deeply with the way that his kids are willing to help him, and displays their complex, painful relationship.

        The next episode in the series, “It’s Time to Kill the Turtle” is a direct contrast to the previous episode. When Frank ends up in the hospital due to a night of drinking, he is offered $3,000 is he can complete a study in which he remains sober for two weeks. The money is so enticing to him that he returns home and declares his plans. The episode then follows his sobriety and the pain that his alcoholism has caused his kids, including in the knowledge that he will not remain this way, reading them stories at night and helping around the house, for long. The younger kids are willing to accept him back and trust him, but the teenagers and oldest are aware that he will just leave again, and are unwilling to let him gain their trust. The episode ultimately ends with the youngest daughter forcing Frank to drink and end the study when his ankle monitor goes off, because she has learned that it will be less painful to cut the ties with him after a couple days than a full two weeks.  

        The strange thing about Shameless is that it makes you think about these deep issues of poverty, struggles that lower-class families face, and alcoholism in a way that is often more than just laughing or gawking at the expense of people less fortunate. It shows very realistic relationships and dynamics that stem from being in this hard situation, and you really feel for the characters. Some of the situations and conversations between the kids struck me as too familiar, something I had almost exactly experienced growing up in a dysfunctional family of 8, with both parents unemployed by the Great Recession. There is a truth in the show’s portrayal of family, poverty, and addiction.

However, it also includes and displays many harmful stereotypes about people in poverty, namely that they are all alcohol-abusive and deviant, which may further contribute to the negative status that poor people receive in society, viewed as at fault for their situations and morally compromised. Sometimes, it does feel like things are just done for shock value and, as a writer for thetvcritic.org stated regarding the Season 2 episode “A Great Cause,” I also felt that there may be “contempt for the working-class subjects of the show and a desire to exploit the worst behavior of people for comedy and convenience.” Over all, I find Shameless to be a culturally important show that may be worth watching to consider and understand the effects of alcoholism on lower-class families, but it is important to watch with a critical eye and consider the harmful stereotypes, rather than just blindly taking them to heart.


Media Synopses:

Shameless, Season 1, Episode 7: Frank Gallagher: Loving Husband, Devoted Father: Frank is hunted by two ruthless thugs after he fails to follow through with an illegal money-making scheme, and he must repay them $6000. The Gallagher family helps Frank fake his own death to convince the thugs to leave town.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shameless_(season_1)

Shameless, Season 1, Episode 8: It’s Time to Kill the Turtle: In the hospital, Frank is offered $3000 if he can stop drinking for two weeks. This pleases Carl and Debbie but Lip doesn't believe Frank can stay sober for even two weeks. In the end, Frank starts to wreck the Gallagher's home, so Lip tasers him and forces liquor down his throat, ending the experiment.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shameless_(season_1)

Resources:

Frankel, Etan. 2011. “"Frank Gallagher: Loving Husband, Devoted Father.” Shameless.

Frankel, Etan. 2011. “It’s Time to Kill the Turtle.” Shameless.

Room, Robin. 2005. “Stigma, social inequality and alcohol and drug use.” Drug and Alcohol Review 24(2):143–55.

Rowles, Dustin. 2014. “The Only Show on Television That Honestly Understands What It's Like to be Sh*t Poor in America.” Pajiba. Retrieved April 23, 2017 (http://www.pajiba.com/think_pieces/the-only-show-on-television-that-honestly-understands-what-its-like-to-be-sht-poor-in-america.php).

Samarasinghe, Diyanath. 2009. “ALCOHOL AND POVERTY: some connections.” FORUT.

Taylor, English. 2012. “How 'Shameless' Reinvented the Working-Class-Family TV Show.” The Atlantic. Retrieved April 23, 2017 (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/how-shameless-reinvented-the-working-class-family-tv-show/252851/).

Walsh, Connor. 2014. “Why Do Poor People Have More Alcohol Related Deaths Than Rich People?” MCA Legacy.