Take Me Back To Chicago: How The City Is The Star of Shameless

In a well-produced television show the setting acts as a character of its own, becoming essential to the fabric of the story. Imagine Entourage without Los Angeles, Gossip Girl or Sex and the City without Manhattan, Batman without Gotham. The director and writers work together to weave a location in and out of viewer’s consciousness through visuals, sounds and plot. Making the setting auxiliary will insist a viewer watch from the surface, but layering a location into all aspects of a show envelopes the fan, bringing them deeper into a character’s world. Shameless boasts a stunningly talented cast, great writers, and top notch cinematography, but the commitment to make the South Side of Chicago the show’s true star is where the genius lies. The South Side’s socioeconomic landscape shapes and defines the Gallaghers, acting as both protagonist and antagonist in their stories.

Across the Pond

David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher on the fictional Chatsworth Estate
David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher on the fictional Chatsworth Estate in Shameless UK. Image Credit:

Before traveling to Chicago we must take a look at the place where Shameless got its start. Creator Paul Abbott introduced Shameless to the United Kingdom in 2004. For 11 seasons, Frank Gallagher and an ever-changing cast of family and friends lived on a council estate in Manchester, England. Similar to the projects in the United States, council estates are stereotyped as being rough and tumble. They are often referred to as “sink estates” or the “ghetto” and have a reputation for crime. What a gift it was to Frank Gallagher, who relished all the seediness the fictional Chatsworth estate had to offer.

When, American producer, writer and director John Wells decided the United States needed its very own version of Shameless, the important question was: Where could the show be set that would give an air of the Chatsworth estate, but resonate and challenge American views on poverty and class?

Born in Chicago

It was a long process for show-runner Wells to bring Shameless US to fruition. He struggled to find a network willing to honor the content and grittiness that made Shameless such a hit in the UK. After Showtime picked up the show, a pivotal decision had to be made: Where would the Gallaghers live? In an interview with the New York Times Wells divulged:

When we first started pitching, everybody kept gravitating towards the South or putting it in a trailer park, and I kept saying, ‘Well, no,’ We have a comedic tradition of making fun of the people in those worlds. The reality is that these people aren’t ‘the other’ — they’re people who live four blocks down from you and two blocks over.

The decision to bring Shameless to Chicago was an additional vehicle for its success.

On the South Side of Chicago

Ask one of the Gallaghers where they are from and they will square their shoulders, lift their chin, narrow their eyes and tell you that they’re “South Side.” They will say it like they’re challenging you, making it clear that they are not someone to mess with. There will be pride in their inflection, because growing up on the South Side of Chicago has given them backbones of steel, a necessity to survive their challenging lives.

Gentrfy (Gentrify) this. Image Credit: Showtime
Gentrfy (Gentrify) this. Image Credit: Showtime

The South Side is made up of an array of neighborhoods, each with their own identity and flavor. Though many residents rebuke stereotypes that surround their neighborhoods, poverty and crime have propagated the South Side’s reputation.

The Gallaghers reside in Back of the Yards, a neighborhood in the community area of New City. According to the Chicago Tribune’s most recent Crime in Chicagoland report, New City ranks 11th out of Chicago’s 77 community areas for violent crime, 39th for property crime, and 24th for quality of life crime. Like the Gallaghers, 30.6% of households live below the poverty line, with 12.2% living in crowded housing. Like Fiona and Ian, 42.4% of residents do not have a high school diploma.

Season 5 of Shameless examined the theme of gentrification of the South Side. Tensions were high as investors and new, affluent residents renovated and renewed the neighborhood to suit their middle class aesthetic. Urban gardens, white picket fences, yoga studios and coffee shops began to pop up, leaving South Siders feeling uneasy.

“Laugh. You won’t be laughing in a year when you won’t be able to afford to live here. They move in, they take over. They kick the homeless out of the park, as if they don’t have a God given right to sleep there. We are dinosaurs, my friend. And a big, fat comet is headed for our sweet slice of Earth. And that comet is a Starbucks.” — Frank Gallagher

Shameless’ exploration of gentrification was responsible and timely storytelling. Like the South Side, neighborhoods throughout America continue to undergo changes that increase property values and make it difficult for residents to afford their homes. This study on gentrification was another example of how Shameless used the show’s setting to discover relevant narratives.

Crosstown Traffic

Fiona and Jimmy/Steve

Throughout its seven seasons, Shameless has drawn comparisons to privilege on the North Side of Chicago versus disadvantage on the South Side. Fiona’s relationship with Jimmy/Steve was a reflection on how different the two worlds could be. Unlike Fiona, Jimmy/Steve was from an affluent family that resided in the North Side. He had opportunities handed to him, but chose to live a life of crime. When he could no longer steal cars, it was clear Jimmy/Steve did not possess grit or drive like Fiona. He thought himself to be above the dirty jobs Fiona took to keep her family afloat. Jimmy/Steve showed his cards when he admitted that living on the South Side with Fiona was “slumming it.”

“I got sucked into your world. I bent to your rules. I just assumed that we’d eventually decide how to move together like normal couples do. But there never was a ‘we.’ What have I been doing? Cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry and living together in a goddamn slum.” — Jimmy/Steve Lishman

It’s easy to see why this relationship didn’t pan out.

Lip and College

A truly fascinating story-lines on Shameless was Lip’s college experience. Lip was a fish out of water. Though he was a genius, he realized that his low-income South Side high school hadn’t prepared him adequately for the rigor and expectations of college. At first, he struggled to relate with his peers, finding more in common with the employees at his work-study job rather than his classmates.

One of Shameless‘ most poetic scenes was when Lip ended up in the middle of a “freeze” flash mob. It perfectly highlighted Lip’s anatopism. Due to Lip’s upbringing — his poverty — he never had the luxury of worrying about things that didn’t matter. While other college students were worried about what party they would be going to that night, Lip was concerned about bills, childcare for Liam, putting dinner on the table and Fiona falling apart. The fact that his peers could waste time and mental energy in participating in something as trivial as a flash mob, blew his mind. The scene was class stratification in motion (or lacking motion as the case may be).

Windy City Blues

Being that Shameless is a dramedy the characters are sure to be face further challenges and heartache in the city by the lake. As the Marshall Tucker Band sang in “Windy City Blues,” “Look around there’s snow on the ground, what a cold hard life that I’ve known but my love still glows like the city below, because of all the love she’s shown.” Regardless of how difficult the Gallaghers’ lives are, the heart of the South Side beats and breaks within them through all they endure.

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