The Inescapability of Poverty as Demonstrated by Showtime’s Shameless Nolan Adams

Showtime's comedy-drama Shameless brilliantly contrasts the light-hearted, comical feel of the show with the heavy and disconsolate theme of the inescapability of poverty. Poverty is a very real and important issue in this world, especially in the United States. Demonstrating that poverty is an issue the country needs to work on can be difficult because much of the middle and upper class that would be able to help make real change have never experienced poverty or even seen people going through the trials of poverty. Without having seen or experienced this they do not understand why it can be so difficult to break out of. They think that these people are not working hard enough and bring this upon themselves, when in actuality the majority of the middle and upper class would not be able to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty if they switched shoes with those that are in it right now. All the odds are stacked against a person attempting to escape the lower class, this is what Shameless seeks to demonstrate. What is so powerful about the show is that its audience is the middle and upper-class. Customers of Netflix and Showtime (mostly the middle and upper class) are entertained by a comical and exaggerated account of a poor family from the South Side of Chicago trying to move up in the world, but beneath the comic relief they are exposed to the real issues that people living in poverty face. Through use of a television show as the medium, the producer, John Wells, creates a much lighter tone allowing this theme to be received and absorbed by an audience who in most cases would disagree and be unreceptive to the statement: "Society's lack of assistance in its current state makes escaping and moving out of poverty nearly impossible."

Characters and Context

Showtime's Shameless details the life of the poor Gallagher family growing up in the South Side of Chicago, meet the characters...

The father of the family, Frank, is a unreliable alcoholic that is constantly dragging the family down. He is a very poor role model and cares for little besides himself. In this still promoting the show one can see that Frank always has to be in the middle and wants to be the center of attention.

The mother of the family, Monica, has bipolar disorder and left the children at a young age. She returns to the family throughout the show, always sure to cause more problems for the children. This particular shot is from a scene in which she attempts to retrieve Debbie's baby with a baseball bat, demonstrating she does not always make the most sound choices.

The eldest daughter, Fiona, has been left in charge of running the family since she was a teen, but she is in her twenties now and acts as the head of the household, finding it difficult to make time for her on problems. Fiona has stepped outside the house in this shot, trying to get a moment of silence from her responsibilities inside.

Phillip, known as Lip, is the oldest son, a brilliant teen that struggles to balance high school, and eventually college life, with his hectic family life, alcoholism, and difficult upbringing. He is in class in this picture, wearing a shirt that accurately describes his mood much of the time.

The next oldest is Ian, a homosexual and bipolar teen who struggles constantly with relationship issues and his illness holding him back. He has finally secured a job he likes in this shot, he has to fight for it, however, because of his mental illness.

Debbie Gallagher is a young girl, becoming a teen in the show. She is constantly struggling with wanting to be older and more mature than she actually is. This is seen in this shot from the show in which she has just learned she is pregnant at age 15.

The next youngest is Carl, an adolescent boy that becomes a teen throughout the show and struggles with his cultural identity. After going to juvenile detention for a year he is obsessed with changing his identity to African American and does everything in his power to fit the stereotype of this culture. This shot demonstrates the new look he has adapted to try and fit in.

The final Gallagher child is Liam. Liam is a young half-white, half-black child that begins school in the later seasons of the show. He does not have many lines in the show but plays a crucial role in demonstrating the effects of growing up in the Gallagher household. This shot shows Frank carrying him around to different corners of the city, in an attempt to get more money while begging.

The interesting dynamic of each of the characters are what set up and allows the producer to demonstrate the theme of the show. While all a part of the same family, each of the characters are different in that they have their own personal issues that are holding them back. In creating characters that have such a wide range of problems the producer, Wells, is able to portray to the audience how many different issues there are that can arise and prevent a person from escaping poverty. Having such a diverse character cast is also effective because they are facing problems that are prominent in all classes, not just the lower class. This allows the possibility for empathy because the audience can connect with the characters as they may have faced some of the same struggles.

The characters and the struggles they face bring about three sub-themes in the show, all of which connect to the prominent theme that "Society's lack of assistance in its current state makes escaping and moving out of poverty nearly impossible."

Theme 1: The lack of resources, education, and good role models/parents that exist in impoverished communities can lead people to make decisions that prevent them from being able to rise out of poverty

Resources, education, and good role models are essential to the success of any person. Children need to be taught the appropriate ways to act and one of the easiest ways for children to learn is by having a good role model as a parent. In the Gallagher household, good parenting is extremely lacking as seen in the dialogue below between Frank and Fiona.

Both visual effects and irony are implemented in to this clip in order to demonstrate the lack of parenting that exists in the Gallagher household. Frank is holding the youngest child while he and Fiona are having a conversation, and the visual effects surrounding him are slowed down and blurred to portray how a person sees when they are drunk. This, along with the beer in his hand, is too emphasize the fact that he is an alcoholic and unfit to take care of the children. Along with the visual effects in the scene is verbal irony in the dialogue between he and Fiona. Frank responds to Fiona with the exact opposite responses of what any good parent figure would say, and does not even know how many kids he has or which one is which. The combination of the visual effects and verbal irony in the scene portray Frank for exactly what he is, an alcoholic man who has little regard for taking care of his children or being a good role model.

While Frank's character as a terrible parent is exaggerated in the show for comedic relief, the message that it gets across is one that is very real in today's society. Often times children being raised in impoverished communities do not have good parents, teachers, or any sort of role models to learn how to act and be an adult from. This poses a real problem for these children in trying to escape poverty because it is impossible for them to get jobs and move up in the world if they do not know how to act, and do not have the knowledge required for higher paying jobs. Not only this, but a lack of good parenting can cause them to make poor decisions while they are teens that are harmful to their chances of rising up out of poverty. This is something that is seen through Carl in the show.

Bad role models, especially Frank, lead Carl into trouble all throughout the show. He is arrested for dealing drugs after listening to Frank's advice, and is constantly in trouble at school for living out the values he has been taught by his father. In season 4, episode 8, Carl has gotten into trouble for bullying at school, and so he is forced to bring a parent in with him to talk to the principal or he will be expelled. The scene below, highlighted by Frank's monologue, emphasizes the lack of role models in Carl's life and how it leads him into trouble.

The sarcastic tone of the entire scene demonstrates to the audience what a poor role model Carl has as a father. Frank's son is sitting right next to him and he should be setting a good example of how to act in a professional meeting, but instead he begins by making sarcastic remarks to both principal and other parent in the meeting. This initially sets the tone of the scene which is further emphasized by verbal irony and audio effects in Frank's monologue at the end of the scene. Frank's view on bullying is absurd. He says the exact opposite of what anyone would be expected to say in this situation, and with so much confidence that he is able to add to the sarcastic tone. The audio effects of adding the music in the background while he talks, as if he were giving a motivational or moving speech, also enhance the tone by demonstrating how confident he is that his son should not be in trouble and that they should be giving him praise for what his bullying. This scene and the sarcastic tone that it portrays demonstrate once again how lacking a good role model is in Carl's life and how it is leading him into trouble.

Carl is trying to go to school to learn and hopefully be able to get a job one day that will help raise him out of the lower class, but the crooked values that he has been taught by his father are preventing him from succeeding in school and almost get him kicked out. While Frank's crooked values are heavily exaggerated in the show, they do portray an underlying message that it is not uncommon for children living in impoverished families to be taught values that will get them in trouble later in life. Children look to their parents or parental figures for guidance and it affects their actions all throughout their lives, especially in their teenage years. Carl is a symbol for many real children who face setbacks in their chances to escape poverty because of the lack of role models and education in their communities.

Theme 2: Mental illness and poverty are linked closely together, and society's treatment of the mentally ill make escaping poverty nearly impossible

According to the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, ''In all racial/ethnic populations, persons with low socioeconomic status were at least twice as likely to have frequent mental distress as those with high socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status shapes a person's exposure to psychosocial, environmental, behavioral, and biomedical risk factors that directly and indirectly affect mental health." The added stress of living in poverty is not good for a person's mental health, and not only this, but serious genetic disorders, such as bipolar disorder that Ian has in the show, are much more prevalent and are passed on to children more often in these communities. Treatment for these kind of disorders is not cheap, they require medications, counseling, and other treatments that can total up $19,000 in just the first year according to mentalhealthtreatment.net. This is money that families living in poverty do not have, especially if they do not have insurance, and so, often times, the disorder goes untreated and has even more negative effects on the person. Society today is hesitant to assist mentally unstable people in need, and as is seen in the show through Ian, this just makes it all the more difficult to rise up out of the poor living conditions.

Late in the sixth season of Shameless Ian is finally able to secure a reliable job as an EMT. He has been through a mental rehabilitation center, has his medications in check, and has been doing his job well for the past few weeks. One day he comes in, however, and his boss tells him that she has run a background check on him and seen that he was checked into a mental hospital and lied on the mental illness section of his application. She fires him for this and the following scene ensues when he shows up to work the next day.

The kairos of this scene makes it successful in demonstrating the difficult battle that people with mental illnesses face in getting jobs and living their day-to-day lives. The audience has seen how well Ian has been doing with his job and keeping his disease in check, and then he gets fired solely because he has a disease that is not even preventing him from doing his job properly. Pathos is also implemented, as the audience feels sympathetic towards Ian because they know how much losing this job could set him back. In creating this sympathy, Wells puts the audience on Ian's side. The side of someone with a mental illness, and a side that many of the viewers have probably never supported. This is effective because the kairos and pathos allow the audience to see from a perspective that many have never seen from before, and it helps to show how difficult dealing with a mental illness can be. The dialogue in this scene is also utilized in order to demonstrate society's treatment of the mentally ill. After his boss asking if she should call the police Ian responds with "Sure. That's what most people do when they see someone with a mental illness." His sarcastic response is brilliant in that it accurately describes how majority of society feels about mental illnesses. They are afraid of them, and would much rather report a person with a mental illness to authorities than make any effort to help them, even if they are under control.

One of Ian's primary roles in the show is to demonstrate society's treatment of the mentally ill. His life is a constant battle against keeping his illness in check, while also dealing with all the stress that comes with trying to get a job and living in a low-income family with very bad parenting. He is unable to even keep a job, solely because he has a mental illness, it had nothing to do with his job performance. Ian is a representation of the many people that are actually living in poverty and struggling with mental illnesses, and what he portrays is the message that society's fear of the mentally ill prevents them from controlling their illness and living a normal life, and in turn reduces their chances of rising out of poverty.

Theme 3: The rich and middle class are so concerned with their own best interest and personal growth that their actions work to keep the lower class and impoverished down.

There is a consequence for every action, and unfortunately in today's society many of the actions of the middle and upper class have negative consequences on impoverished communities. Whether inadvertently or on purpose the lowest class is being restrained and kept in place by the actions of the higher classes. It is difficult to demonstrate just how the upper class is doing this, as often times the people performing the actions never see the consequences, but Wells allows the audience of Shameless to see the consequences through the lens of the lower class in an attempt to demonstrate that more thought needs to go into economical and political decisions and who they affect. Shameless demonstrates the difficulties that the lower class faces as a result of the upper class all throughout the show. Gradually the neighborhood is bought out by wealthier families that are driving the cost of living in the area up and taking away jobs, in turn causing the life long residents of the neighborhood to be homeless and jobless. One particular scene that is especially powerful in demonstrating this theme involves Liam on his first day of school. He is very excited to learn and he runs to his school only to learn that the public school in the neighborhood has been closed because there are "not enough poor kids in the neighborhood to keep the doors open." Liam will be forced to go to a school that is an hour bus ride away, as his family cannot afford the new private school that all the other kids in neighborhood are attending. Liam takes this news to Frank, who then along with Liam pays a visit to the new private school to see what has happened. The following scene ensues.

The analogy that Frank opens up with in this scene, "This is just a 21st century form of segregation" perfectly demonstrates the theme that the actions of the upper class work to keep the lower class down. The upper class have built their own school, that they know only wealthy families can afford, so their children will not have to attend public school and learn along side children from poor families. It is not as direct as segregation in the past but Wells' use of an analogy in this situation is effective in showing that in building this school they have separated the schools as low and high class.

The theme of this analogy is then compounded by the monologue and metaphor that the producer utilizes at the end of the scene. Frank's over the top and sarcastic response to Liam's question is that he cannot have a chicken because the rich have "spent thousands of dollars a year, so that they can buy up all the chickens in the whole world so that you will never, ever, get a chicken in your whole life." This is brilliant because while it is somewhat comical in that Frank is being so dramatic, it also portrays the very real issue that the actions that the upper class take for self improvement and gain can work to keep the lower class down. The majority of the upper class spend their money and time looking to better themselves, and most times it is with little regard of who is being affected by their actions. Pathos is also utilized in this scene as the audience wants poor little Liam to get a chicken, but see that he is not allowed to have one because he is not in the upper class.

Building the private school that only the upper class kids could attend was not intended to hurt the lower class kids and force them to go to a school that was much farther away. It was intended to get their children a better, and perhaps safer, education. It did, however, indirectly end up hurting the lower class by causing the public school to be closed. This is exactly what the producer is trying to portray in scenes like this one throughout the show. The upper class have their right to do what they like with their money and time, but what needs to be understood if the disease that is poverty is ever going to be cured is that all of their actions have an effect on the lower class. In the wealthy's personal gain is also many people losing out so that they are able to have this personal gain.

The comedy-drama Shameless is genius in that the medium of a television show, and in particular a comedy, allows the producer to talk about real and dark issues in a much lighter tone. In the case of Shameless, the show reveals several important issues such as mental illness, alcoholism, homosexuality, and poverty. Very few people are willing to sit down in groups and talk about deep issues like these, but there is a huge portion of people who are willing to watch a television show that will make them laugh. There is great opportunity in this in that producers can work in important messages in to these comedy shows without turning off the audience, which in turn make audiences that would never have been receptive to certain views in a formal context, be receptive to them. This is what Shameless and a few other comedy shows such as Blackish, which talks about racial issues that still exist today, have begun to do. Not only have they begun to do this, but they have begun to do this with great success. Shameless has been nominated for a "Golden Globe Award" and received an 8.7/10 iMdb rating, along with Blackish which won a "Golden Globe" and received 7.1/10 iMdb rating. Clearly there is a market for comedy shows with a much deeper message, and while producers have begun to explore this market, there is much more potential. A wide range of social issues, immigration for example, have yet to be given much attention in this market. Netflix users and television junkies are always looking for new shows, and there is no reason these other social issues could not be implemented into popular comedy shows just like Shameless and Blackish. The opportunity in this market is great. Not just to make money and receive awards, but also to bring awareness to important issues and promote social change.

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Created By
Nolan Adams
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