'Shameless': Poverty Gets The TV Treatment, But What Message Does It Send?

'Shameless': Making Poverty Sexy?

Poverty and the lights and glamour of Hollywood wouldn't seem to mix. But plenty of small screen shows have taken on the issue in the past -- from "Sesame Street" unveiling a poverty-stricken muppet in 2011 to a WE reality show called "Downsized" about a Brady Bunch-like family that fell on hard times to numerous sitcoms, like "Roseanne," "My Name is Earl" and CBS' current controversial comedy, "2 Broke Girls."

But often times, in scripted, non-educational programming, the class issue has been used as a source of humor, instead of an opportunity to depict the abuse, violence and darker side of poverty that is far from funny.

One of the most recent shows to portray a working-class family is Showtime's "Shameless," adapted from a UK series of the same name. "Shameless" centers on the Gallaghers, a family of seven living in poverty in the South Side of Chicago, with an fall-down drunk dad Frank (William H. Macy) and eldest daughter, Fiona (Emmy Rossum) at the helm.

The Gallaghers are a level of poor we've never been exposed to before on the small screen. We're talking steal-from-UNICEF, con-Social-Security-to-get-a-dead-aunt's-money levels of poor. "It's not 'My Name Is Earl' or 'Roseanne,'" Paul Abbott, creator of the original "Shameless" told The New York Times. "It's got a much graver level of poverty attached to it. It's not blue collar; it's no collar."

US showrunner John Wells (formerly of "ER" and the later seasons of "The West Wing") said he looked for writers who could relate to the Gallaghers. "I don't want to give specifics, but one of the writers' father disappeared really early on and mother had a lot of mental illness to deal with," Wells told The Times. "Another writer comes from real serious, deep, 'What are we eating tonight?' poverty."

And though the show, which has been renewed for a third season on Showtime, does boldly go where no other show has gone before, there's debate as to whether or not it does so respectfully.

In Salon, Thomas Rogers wrote that the UK version of "Shameless" is "worth a look -- not only because it's one of the best comedies ever made about urban poverty (ha!) but also because it's terrific, naughty fun."

But economic struggles are, as many who've lived them would say, far from "terrific fun," naughty or otherwise. And that's part of the problem with "Shameless."

"'Shameless' depicts poverty in far more than a quantitative sense. The show plays on so many stereotypes as to be white-trash porn," Joel Hendel wrote for The Atlantic. "To portray poverty as so comic and so kitschy runs the risk of condescension, especially when you consider the idiosyncratic style of the show and the affluence of Showtime's demographics."

The demographic its appealing to and the constant nudity also has some wondering whether or not "Shameless" is doing a service or just prettying up poverty.

"'Roseanne' did just fine without making poverty seem 'wacky' or 'fun,' or by relying on sexy stars that appear naked in every other episode," one HitFix commenter said earlier this year in response to a "Shameless" recap. "If anything, it's a little bit off-putting that the writers seem to think that viewers will be so turned off by the poverty onscreen that they need Emmy Rossum's bald m--- to carry them to the end of the hour."

But, as the saying goes, you can't put lipstick on a pig -- and perhaps that's Hollywood's problem, or at least TV's, in its portrayal of poverty.

"Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing," Roseanne Barr wrote in New York magazine in 2011. "That's why you won't be seeing another 'Roseanne' anytime soon."

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