Much hay is often made of how Showtime wants to become HBO, to be the ones who put out the big, respected shows that earn both watercooler buzz and awards season accolades. They've come almost close to this with shows like Dexter and their biggest critical success to date (besides perhaps Brotherhood, but that barely made a ripple in the pool), Homeland. You're getting there, Showtime! You really are! Well, actually, not so fast. It's one step forward and two steps back if, a few weeks after Homeland ends its first season on a creative high, a pair of aggressively déclassé shows like Shameless and House of Lies start mucking up the joint.
Well, to be fair, one of these shows actually sorta works despite its effortful crassness. In its first season, Shameless, based on a British series of the same name, seemed bound and determined to put people off. The characters, mostly members of a scraggly Chicago brood often bothered by their wastoid patriarch (William H. Macy), were highly unlikable — drunks, liars, weirdos, all selfish and mean — and the situations they found themselves in were somehow both flimsy or cartoonish and also vaguely offensive. What world were these people supposed to live in, where poverty and alcoholism and child abandonment could be dealt with with cheery mordancy and a few middle fingers pointed in the right direction? It was trying to be gritty and yet seemed scared, in a juvenile way, of making anything too tough.
And yet, somehow, there's a strange gravitational pull built into the equation. Perhaps it's largely curiosity about what unpleasant and silly/stupid (a thin line) place it will take us to next, but for whatever reason we found ourselves devotedly watching all of last season and, if we're honest, strangely excited for the show's return last night. And on the inanely grimy front it did not disappoint — in the first hour we got people tasering each other in bars, underground fights, sordid gay cruising done in burqa disguise, children tending to huge marijuana plants, and an abundant amount of Emmy Rossum's bare upper-frontal region. The premiere episode made little to no sense and had everyone behaving almost unconscionably, and yet here we are, already somewhat eagerly anticipating next week's episode. The show's cruel charms are small but effective, it has odd dashes of thoughtfulness (best evidenced in the plotlines involving the gay teenage son played by Cameron Monaghan) that push the rest of the gunk into forgivable territory. Shameless is utter garbage, but we swear we can hear a heart beating somewhere at the bottom of this heap, and we don't mind sifting through the pile to find it.
The series premiere of House of Lies, on the other hand, eventually succumbed to the weight of its own utter disgustingness. A truly repugnant show, about a team of high-powered image consultants led by an amoral jerk played Don Cheadle, House of Lies came across last night as if it was written by giddy college students who just found out they could swear on television. You need look no further than The Wire, The Sopranos, or Deadwood to see that the permissive linguistics of premium cable are often put to good use, but when a cheap show like House of Lies comes along and lazily throws fucks around like it's a paintballing party, you almost start to wish nobody was allowed to.
Curse words aside, the show mostly seems like an afterthought. "Let's get Don Cheadle, oh and Kristen Bell too," some Showtime executive said, and then they were gotten. And only then, at something like the last moment, did anyone realize that they had to, y'know, create a show for them. And so this sloppy, half-assed thing was born. Cheadle pauses the action and talks to the camera as if he's first-season Carrie Bradshaw, or worse, occasionally magical teenager Zack Morris. His character has an effeminate young son whose perhaps gender confusion (he's a little young for any of that maybe) exists merely to be some sort of cosmic joke on Cheadle. Everyone on the show is an asshole and we're supposed to love them for it, find them cool and fresh and funny and fun. They are none of those things. They are borderline sociopathic weirdos who live in a version of the modern world that no actual human being would want to live in (save, perhaps, for the borderline sociopaths).
That fine actors like Cheadle and Bell are so wasted here only adds to the insult. The show is so undercooked that halfway through the first episode you almost feel as if they might still just scrap this whole thing and start anew next Sunday. "Oops, sorry guys," says that now sheepish Showtime exec. "Let's start over and get this thing right." Only, of course, that kind of thing doesn't happen in the real world. It might in the fantastical junktopia of Shameless, it might in the acid-burned realm of House of Lies, but out here, where everyone's mostly decent and a little less of the world is on fire, we're stuck with what we're given.