'Shameless' review: The British hit travels well

shameless-review-320.jpgThe first couple episodes of the American version of "Shameless" are near-exact replicas of their British counterparts. And while there's a little something lost in translation, the show retains enough of the core of the original that -- bolstered by strong performances from top to bottom -- it's as good a remake as any import since "The Office."

The series, which is about to start its eighth season in the U.K., is an intensely personal effort by creator Paul Abbott ("Cracker," "State of Play") about his upbringing in Manchester. John Wells, who's executive producing the American series for Showtime, is just as passionate about the adaptation, but the change of place and level of remove from Abbott's creation take a way a little bit of what made the original so special.

None of which to say the adaptation of "Shameless" is not worth watching, because that's not the case. It's one of the best new series of this season, and through the first three episodes it only grew on us.

The show tells the story of the Gallagher clan: Mom is out of the picture, and dad Frank (a fearless William H. Macy) is a drunk, leaving the six kids pretty much to fend for themselves. They're far from perfect, but they're all survivors and, given the circumstances, remarkably functional.

That's due in large part to eldest daughter Fiona ( Emmy Rossum, doing the best work of her career thus far), who keeps her younger siblings (mostly) on track. Fiona is barely an adult herself but has been playing both mother and father for a long time. You can feel her chafe at the role she's been forced into, but she's never not there.

Younger brother Lip ( Jeremy Allen White) is a straight-A student who hopes his brain will carry him away from his situation; Ian ( Cameron Monaghan), a year younger, is struggling with his identity; preteens Debbie ( Emma Kenney) and Carl ( Ethan Cutkosky) do what they can, in their own petty-larcenous ways, to help keep the family afloat; and toddler Liam is, well, a toddler, but awfully cute.

And then there's Frank. Macy is actually in very little of Sunday's (Jan. 9) premiere episode, but even when he's not around, he looms large in his kids' life. Macy dives into the role with abandon, and at times Frank is practically a monster. But there's just enough humanity in him, some of which is reflected in his children, that as a viewer you're willing to stay with him. A new guy in Fiona's life ( Justin Chatwin of "War of the Worlds") also pulls something on him in the second episode that also puts you a little more on his side.

Aside from the fine performances, the most striking thing about "Shameless" is that it doesn't look down on its characters. Especially in the past 10 or 15 years, television has not done well by working-class people; when they are on screen (which is not all that often), they tend to be treated unsympathetically. That's not at all the case here, and it's occasionally heartbreaking and hugely rewarding to watch the Gallaghers make their way through the life they've been dealt.

"Shameless" premieres at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on Showtime.
Photo/Video credit: Showtime