Image via Showtime

On Frank Gallagher of ‘Shameless’ and Loving Deadbeat Dads

I’m not sure that you can call him a patriarch, but Frank Gallagher is the fictional character whose sperm made most of those wayward kids on Shameless, the craziest ensemble on TV, which returned for its eighth season last night — Frank spending most of the season premiere in a meth haze that saw him casually pull out a loose molar, itch incessantly and offer amends to all of those he’d wronged over the previous three or so decades. (The list of names — and offenses — is epic; the Buddhist monk robe he wore while smoking his meth , insulting).

The show is a loosely autobiographical tragicomedy from creator Paul Abbott, who adapted it for Showtime based on the original series he made in the U.K. As detailed in the Independent, Abbott “was deserted by both parents, raped at the age of 11 and attempted suicide twice before the age of 16.” And like in both the British and American versions of the show, he and his siblings were primarily raised by their teen sister.

Unlike Abbott’s real life, however, Father Frank sticks around, never veering too far from his family’s South Side Chicago homebase (in the Showtime adaptation, obviously), even when they wish he would. William H. Macy plays Frank perfectly, somehow transmitting a silly warmth even when his actions are heinous.

It would take far too much space to list out all of his misdeeds, but here are a few:

  • He fucks his son’s teenage girlfriend and lets that girlfriend’s mother peg him in return for her doting on him like Ward Cleaver.
  • His kids routinely find him passed out in the street — even his youngest children are used to bathing or clothing him when he’s strung out on just about anything (heroin, crack, pills, and of course, booze).
  • He encourages his pregnant 15-year-old daughter to seduce the dad she babysits for — in order to score her, her baby and him (though mostly him) permanent lodging.
  • He slides a wedding ring off a sick woman’s finger after he literally fucks her to death.

But sometimes he saves his kids, too — even if he does so in the shittiest way possible. Sure, he crashes his eldest daughter’s wedding to give a public, slurred speech about her husband-to-be’s secret heroin addiction, but at least he lets her know what her fiancé couldn’t.

“The whole show is out of control, but not unlike a lot of families I’ve known in real life, so I relate to it,” offers my own dad, who like me is a big Shameless fan. “I don’t fully relate to Frank, but I do relate to the family struggle to mop up his bullshit. Family mops up each other’s bullshit.”

My mom and I have mopped up plenty of my dad’s bullshit. He knows this all too well, but he also knows that, metaphors aside, he’s the only one of us who’s ever mopped the actual house.

And mop or no mop, my dad is my tender, complicated, unhinged muse. Unlike those “strong, silent type” dads who hide their secrets to “protect” their kids, I’ve always known way too much about my dad. I knew about his mood swings. I knew about the child he had before me that we pretend doesn’t exist. And I knew about the workplace injury that left him with lace-thin strands of fiberglass permanently wrapped inside his fingers and hands. (I’m used to seeing him regularly balance a Marlboro Light 100 in his mouth while using an X-Acto knife in an attempt to remove those chunks of painful glass.)

All the while, I’d mock his dreadful, existential, “why me” mutterings, speeches I constantly heard from my bedroom window as he worked on stuff in the front yard. By the time I was 10, I could determine his mood with a quick look at his face, its curvatures contouring differently depending on which blip on the bipolar spectrum he was experiencing that day. Nor was he afraid to let me see him cry — a fact I greatly resented.

Growing up, I was relentlessly critical of my parents. I felt like it was my duty to motivate them to ascend to the same heights to which I aspired — whether personal, financial, creative or otherwise. To do so, I’d call out a lot of what I diagnosed as their apathy and depression, or the more familiar term “bad habits.” More specifically, my dad’s hoarding, chain-smoking and love of pot, and my mom’s sympathy for my dad’s hoarding, habit of eating hot link sausages for breakfast and equally strong affinity for weed.

I repeatedly told them that if our life was a TV show like Shameless, they were stuck in Season 1, which was my best attempt at describing what I considered the malaise that plagued us.

“How could this just stay the same forever?” I moaned, expecting my parents to endure the same coming-of-age transformations I was, given that they’d always acted like teenagers.

To put a more positive spin on it, I simply always wanted them to be better. But now that I’m older, I’m glad they’re exactly who they are (most days, at least). Now that I’m older, I realize they were always the best they could be, and that “best” was incredible. Now that I’m older, I realize that anything I have today is precisely because of my parents and the sort of life and outlook they helped me build.

As Shameless executive producer John Wells puts it, “We seem to be attracted back to situations that we’re familiar with even if we know that they’re not necessarily good for us.”

Truer words could not be said about the Gallagher children: They might mature over the years, but they never lose the dysfunction that makes them fundamentally Gallaghers. And although this mirrors real life way more than the fast-paced redemption and ascension narratives more commonly found on TV, it makes it too depressing for people who lack the patience for enduring such human reality.

That’s why I believe Shameless’s place in the era of prestige TV has too often gone unmentioned. Or as one critic has pointed out, “Perhaps its greatness is easy to overlook because the Gallaghers and the people they associate with aren’t always likable people, or because they’re constantly making bad decisions. Perhaps people don’t like to talk about how the Gallaghers are poor because they don’t like being reminded that there are plenty of poor people out there, dealing with some of the very same issues and problems.”

Personally, I think people who ignore/dismiss/hate Shameless are classist. I mean, plenty of dads suck, but we only call poor ones deadbeats. We stigmatize these poor bad dads the most because at least rich bad dads fulfill the manly expectation of putting food on the table for their families (something Frank definitely doesn’t do). The same goes for TV families. I wouldn’t exactly consider the family ethics of the Waldorfs and Basses or the Sopranos and the Bluths or even the mother-fucking Coopers and Cohens admirable. Evil is less disgusting if it’s glamorous, I guess.

When we meet Frank’s mom, it becomes easier to understand that Frank is a result of his upbringing just like the rest of us. His mother, who the kids called Grammy, got out of drug charges in prison early due to bad health and immediately swindled Fiona into making a meth lab out of the family home. She ridicules and demeans Frank, whose pouty reactions pull at my heartstrings, conjuring images of him as a sad little kid desperate for love from his preoccupied mother.

So while Frank is bad, he’s real, too. Visceral. Human. Dimensional. His horrifying magnificence takes up too much space and his presence ruins any aesthetic.

And so, Sunday’s episode marks a new beginning for Frank. Or at least a new start to the same old cycle. In his own words, Frank’s an asshole. But at least he’s an honest asshole. As my own dad puts it: “He’s a conniving, crazy fuck.”

He screams and cries. He shits in public and scams cancer patients. He’s an honest mess in a sea of pretty liars. He’s Frank Gallagher.