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Meet the new Gallaghers

As the American version of 'Shameless' premieres, Sarah Hughes asks if US audiences will be able to warm to the rowdy clan and alcoholic, work-shy dad

A harassed young woman struggles to bring up her siblings in a chaotic household that's just about keeping it together.

Her mother's long gone, no one is quite sure where, and her father prefers to spend his days either horizontal or ensuring that he later ends up that way. Despite, or possibly because of, this, the family remains close, relying on an "us against them" mentality to get them through each day.

Sounds oddly familiar? Welcome to the US remake of Shameless, which started last night on the US cable channel Showtime gaining mixed reviews, with Entertainment Weekly calling it "a charmless, pretentious show designed to make the viewer feel uncool if he doesn't dig how 'realistic' it is", even as The New York Times hailed it as "deftly adapted and surprisingly appealing, crude, funny and also touching.".

That the show has already divided critics should come as no surprise. Remakes rarely have a straightforward time of it and American television is littered with failed attempts to re-imagine British shows, from the critically panned Coupling to the swiftly cancelled Viva Laughlin. Even flawed but interesting takes, such as the recent Life On Mars, have struggled to escape from the shadow of their original; and fans are up in already up in arms about the new versions of the teen hit Skins and BBC3's Being Human, which debut on US television later this month.

That said, the new version of Shameless is a very different type of show. For a start the very fact that it is on cable rather than network television means that little if any of the original flavour has been diluted, which will come as a relief to fans fearing that the original's anarchic humour would be lost in translation. Indeed Paul Abbott, who worked closely with executive producer John Wells on the pilot, recently declared himself "pleasantly surprised" with how the remake has turned out.

It's certainly true that the show's roots are rigidly adhered to in a well-paced first episode, which pretty much follows the plot of the original, from the nightclub scene in which our heroine Fiona meets Steve, her tarnished Prince Charming, to the moment when their back-home tryst is rudely interrupted by the police dumping daddy dearest, a suitably dishevelled William H Macy, unconscious on the floor.

Yet for all that the first episode faithfully establishes the Gallagher clan and their loving if fraught relationships, it manages to do so in such a way that, despite the similarities, you never feel that this is merely a remake.

In part that's down to the bleak Chicago-projects setting. Shameless US creator Wells, best-known as the man behind long-running medical hit ER, has admitted that he had to fight to convince people that Chicago's West Side was the best equivalent to the original's Stretford. "When we first started pitching, everybody kept gravitating towards the South or putting it in a trailer park," he said. "I kept saying, 'Well, no'."

Wells's objection was due to shows such as My Name Is Earl and, more recently, Raising Hope, which have ensured that the trailer park is commonly associated with broad sitcom-style comedy, whereas he was aiming for something more complicated. "The reality is that these people aren't 'the other'," he added. "They're people who live four blocks down from you and two blocks over."

With that in mind Wells, who took eight years to convince executives that the humour and style of Shameless could and would translate, has been careful in assembling a writing group who had a strong understanding of either growing up in poverty or in difficult family situations. "I don't want to give specifics," he told The New York Times. "But one of the writers' fathers disappeared really early on and [the] mother had a lot of mental illness to deal with. Another writer comes from real serious, deep 'What are we eating tonight?' poverty."

Yet, while that insistence on authenticity, coupled with Wells's clear understanding of the importance of setting, has undoubtedly helped the remake (although it's worth noting that there's a certain irony in a show about poverty airing on a subscription-only premium cable channel), not everyone is so convinced.

Variety's reviewer complained about the show's lack of soul, adding damningly that while Shameless "isn't entirely devoid of worthwhile moments, this adaptation... wallows in dreariness without offering enough dramatic compensation in return", while a number of bloggers and fan forums have queried why they're being asked to get behind a "deadbeat dad" and condemned the show as "not funny". Even those such as Maureen Ryan, of the influential website TV Squad, who enjoyed the remake, have wondered if US audiences will really tune in to watch a show in which the father goes out of his way to abuse the welfare system in his attempts to avoid employment.

And this is probably the biggest problem faced by the US Shameless: American viewers are neither used to nor particularly fond of watching failure. In contrast to the UK, which has a long history of shows about people failing at life, from the misery of EastEnders to loser-coms such as Peep Show, American television tends towards the aspirational. Its soaps are glossy, high-octane affairs featuring immaculately turned-out beautiful people with unbelievable problems; its dramas centre largely on people who, for all their flaws, are generally in high-paying, successful jobs as lawyers or doctors.

As blogger Dan Owen recently noted on his site Dan's Media Digest: "Even shows that do show the uglier side of life have caveats. The Wire may feature lowlifes and criminals, but they're balanced by cops and politicians; Breaking Bad's lead is a middle-class chemistry genius; The Sopranos were gangsters, but they were successful and lived a decent lifestyle." Most recently the wonderful Terriers, which centred on two damaged drifters working as private eyes on society's margins, was cancelled after poor ratings, and despite rave reviews.

That's not to say that there haven't been hit US shows about working-class Americans, but the crucial difference, apart from the fact that they were sitcoms, is that the families in Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Hates Chris might struggle to get by at times, but the parents all actually worked or tried to.

By contrast Frank Gallagher's complete abjuration of any responsibility has caused some viewers to struggle. "It's not by any stretch of the imagination traditional television," Macy admits. "I can understand the networks would have some trepidation before doing something like this but it seems perfect now with the economic meltdown. It seems timely."

And if viewers failed to tune in – whether because of a dislike of the subject matter, or because of confusion as to whether the show is a drama, a comedy or that dread hybrid a dramedy – then it would be a great shame for, in contrast to the original which too often seems like a cartoonish retread of former glories, the new Shameless is pretty good.

It helps that the casting is uniformly excellent. The children for once resemble ordinary kids rather than polished TV brats, and Emmy Rossum's performance as Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff's role) is startling. Rossum, generally best known for her porcelain turn in the horrible film version of Phantom of the Opera, is a revelation in Shameless; careworn yet sexy, a sharp-eyed projects princess smart enough to know that her hero will always fall just short of her dreams yet romantic enough to still give him a chance.

Then there's Macy himself, the man who made his name in films like Boogie Nights and Fargo as the loser's loser. His hangdog, crumpled features are perfectly suited to the role of Frank, while his perennial air of vulnerability arguably gives the character a greater depth than the original. For where David Threlfall's Frank is essentially a joker, a once and future E-head, whose (lack of) parenting is largely mined for laughs, Macy's Frank has a desperation which seeps round the jokes making you both angrier at the way in which he treats his family and yet, paradoxically, more involved.

Best of all, however, is the complicated but close relationship between brothers Lip and Ian. Always one of the highlights of the early seasons of the UK show, the pairing works equally well in the US version with Cameron Monaghan, who plays Ian, giving one of the more nuanced depictions of a gay teenager to be seen on US TV.

Will that be enough? It's worth noting that the one remake consistently held up as having worked is The Office: An American Workplace. Yet it's arguable that the sitcom's success is entirely down to the fact that, initial scenario apart, it bears next to no resemblance to the original. Where the British Office follows a bunch of largely dislikeable losers as they struggle to work in a soul-destroying place which they hate, the American version features a bunch of jokers who might quarrel at times but, at heart, basically, you know, love each other.

That small but very real difference may well turn out to be crucial to Shameless's success, or lack of it, in America.

'Shameless' starts on More4 in the spring