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‘Shameless’ From the Start

1 Dec, 2011 By: John Latchem

Executive producer John Wells discusses preparing the Showtime series on Blu-ray, due Dec. 27

Adapting the British TV series “Shameless” for American audiences was no easy task. For one, no network was interested in depicting the plight of a poor family struggling to make ends meet. A mix of drama and comedy, the series stars William H. Macy as Chicago boozer Frank Gallagher, and Emmy Rossum as his responsible yet randy daughter Fiona, who takes on the task of caring for her siblings.

“There was a general belief that there isn’t a real underclass of people really struggling in this country,” said executive producer John Wells, who was instrumental in bringing the show over from Britain.

That perception changed after the 2008 economic meltdown, and eventually Showtime expressed an interest in the show, but wouldn’t commit until a noteworthy performer was attached to the pilot.

“At the top of the short list was Bill Macy,” Wells said. “I had worked with him on ‘ER,’ and I thought he’d be great in this pilot. He read the script, and that night he said he was interested.”

Casting the key role of Fiona was not as clear cut, with the role eventually going to Rossum after some initial reservations.

“I had known of her from Phantom of the Opera, but I thought she was much too glamorous for this part,” Wells said. “Her agent kept calling me and insisted that I see her. She has just been terrific from the beginning.”

When audiences finally got a chance to see the American “Shameless” in early 2011, it was one of Showtime’s highest-rated new series in years. Warner Home Video releases the first season of the American version on DVD and Blu-ray Dec. 27.

While maintaining some resemblance to the original show was important, Wells said, practicality would soon force the American version to find its own distinct flavor. 

“We use many things that were wonderful in the British show,” Wells said. “But many things wouldn’t have worked on our version because Britain has a different type of support system. And, once we cast the show, there were substantial changes brought on by the way the actors were interacting.”

One prime example, Wells sites, involved an off-screen situation on the British version.

“We’ve already done more episodes with Fiona and Steve because in England the actor who played Steve fell in love with the actress who played Fiona and they left the show and got married,” Wells said. (Steve in the British version was played by James McAvoy of X-Men: First Class fame.)

The show makes an effort to grab the audience from the beginning of every episode, as Frank introduces a recap of the previous episode by insulting the viewer.

“I was so tired of that typical voiceover ‘last week on ER’ kind of thing, so we wanted to fool with it,” Wells said. “It’s like that for the same reason the main title is the way it is. It gives us a laugh right off the top, but it’s aggressive. We wanted people to know exactly what they were getting into when they watched this show. If they watch it and are shocked, then they haven’t been paying attention.”

Part of rawness involves the show’s notorious sexual content.

“This is not just a case of getting attractive young men and women to take off their clothes,” Wells said. “We felt it was important to show the human condition, and that intimacy is a part of that.”

Wells said the production team is upfront with the performers about what to expect from working on the show, especially in regards to the nudity and sex scenes.

“They have some concerns, but then they see how we do it,” Wells said. “We have closed sets. It’s very earthy. We’re not doing ‘Red Shoe Diaries.’”

Exteriors for “Shameless” are filmed primarily in Chicago, with some scenes filmed around Los Angeles and matched to interior stages filmed at the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood. The grittiness of the show created some concerns with how it would be shot.

“The HD digital cameras reveal all the imperfections,” Wells said. “I find it gives more of that you-are-there feel. We had a lot of conversations about whether we should desaturate the image, or add grain. But I just thought, we have this world that’s right there. You can smell it. You can taste it. So I didn’t want to put a filter on anything we’re seeing. I think the show looks beautiful. We don’t have to degrade it.”

The two-disc Blu-ray ($49.99) and three-DVD ($39.98) sets include all 12 episodes from the first season, plus a behind-the-scenes documentary about adapting the series, a featurette about the casting, another featurette about the show’s sex scenes, commentary for the pilot and another episode, deleted scenes and a preview of the second season, which premieres Jan. 8, 2012.

Wells said he is glad the Blu-ray includes an UltraViolet digital copy of the show, allowing fans to re-watch episodes any time on their computers and mobile devices though a cloud-based delivery system.

“I think it’s a great idea, and I hope it works,” Wells said.

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