Apr 07, 2021

As the Emmy Award-winning Showtime series ends its 11-year run, the executives who brought it to the small screen reflect on its legacy.

It’s not often that a television show runs for 11 seasons—especially now, when there is so much TV to choose from. But from the start, Shameless had what Gary Levine, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks Inc., refers to as the ideal ingredients for success.

“It comes down to great characters, great actors, great writing, and great filmmaking,” says Levine. The series follows the dysfunctional lives of the Gallagher family, led by their alcoholic father, Frank, played by William H. Macy. Not shying away from controversial themes, like class and addiction, Shameless was hard to sell at first. Before it landed at Showtime, the show went without a home for nearly seven years. Now, it claims the title of the premium network’s most-watched and youngest-skewing comedy.

“It gives such a raw look at the human id and ego,” explains Levine. “It’s refreshing, it’s honest, and it’s compelling. And people have come to expect that audacity at Showtime. It's become our signature.”

At a network known for pushing boundaries, the Shameless team had the creative freedom to produce hard-hitting satire that wasn’t prevalent on television when the show debuted in 2011.

“The only condition from Showtime was: ‘You can’t steal library books,’” says John Wells, showrunner and executive producer. “I don't think there's been a single storyline that we've done where Showtime has said, ‘Don't do that.’ We've gotten: ‘Are you sure?’ But never: ‘Don't do it.’”

This Sunday, the series will end with a final episode followed by a live virtual event with the cast at GallagherHouse.com. To honor the show’s run, ViacomCBS spoke to Levine and Wells about the comedy’s undeniable impact on television, the challenges of a global pandemic, and why the Gallaghers will remain part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Not a ‘normal family show’

John Wells, showrunner and executive producer: It took us seven years to find a home for Shameless, because everywhere we tried to sell it, people would say: ‘This world doesn't exist in the United States.’ Showtime was the place that knew that world and was prepared to go there with us.

Gary Levine, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks Inc.: You never can see a guaranteed hit. Those are always wonderful surprises. But what I did see was a pitch and script for a really unique, special show that begged to be on screen.

Gary Levine Gary Levine

"It struck one hell of a chord."

Gary Levine

President of Entertainment for Showtime Networks, Inc.

Wells: We set out to do something that was funny and a little outrageous, but our real purpose was to illuminate a whole group of people in this country that nobody pays much attention to.

Levine: Showtime wouldn't do a normal family show—there are plenty of those around. But Shameless took the family show genre and just turned it on its ear. It dealt with class and poverty. It dealt with sex and sexuality. It dealt with greed. It dealt with love. And it did it all without ever pulling a punch, in what felt like the real world with real people.

Wells: We got through that first year, and we had an audience behind us, we knew it worked. And from there it continued to work.

Levine: It struck one hell of a big chord.

‘We had to be fearless.’

Wells: Before every season started, before we would even answer the question of where the characters were going to go, we would talk about issues. Everybody on the writing staff comes from what I like to refer to as complicated backgrounds. We would bring in stories about where we were all from—we’d talk about what was happening with our families, our friends, and we’d make long lists of the common themes that we could satirize.

Levine: One of the most enjoyable—and scariest—meetings of the year for me, every year for the past 11 years, has been the meeting where the writers tell us the plan for the season to come. There are always a ton of questions: Will it be as good as last season? Where do the characters go next? Will Gallavich make a comeback?

It's been remarkable to see the talent and the resourcefulness of our writers on full display. They found all those different avenues in the story. The show has grown every season, which is incredibly rare.

Wells: It’s a high-wire act, right? And we've tried all kinds of things to see if we can stay up on that high wire, especially in an era with a lot of sensitivity. How can we talk about, for example, police brutality in a humorous way that still makes a statement?

We had to be fearless. But we've only been able to be fearless because Showtime was willing to be fearless with us.

A real-life pandemic

Levine: When we heard what they were initially planning for Season 11, we were very excited. In true Shameless fashion, there were some outrageous things that were going to happen. Some lovely, happy endings, and some ugly, raw, real moments. Then, right before we started shooting, we had to shut everything down in mid-March 2020.

Wells: Because of the pandemic, interestingly, a lot more people are aware of how a large chunk of the population lives—this is the same population that has been at the center of our show for over a decade.

At its core, the show’s a satire. All we do is talk about current events, so the pandemic was something we couldn’t ignore. We had to rewrite the whole season.

Levine: Then the question was: When do we go back into production, not just with Shameless, but with all the network’s shows? It was a really difficult question.

Wells: The biggest challenge was just providing the safest workplace possible. Everyone had to be masked every second they weren’t on camera, and fewer people had to be on set, with reduced hours to make sure people got plenty of sleep, etc.

Tragically for us, we couldn’t go back to Chicago to shoot. There was just no way to do it safely, so we had to build the front of the Gallagher house and some of that neighborhood in the backlot of Warner Bros. studios and do some CGI. We didn't get a chance to have a final goodbye with our Chicago crew and the neighborhood we filmed in—that was hard.

John Wells John Wells

"This family loves each other. That’s how they survive."

John Wells

"Shameless" Showrunner and Executive Producer

Last call

Levine: John wrote the final episode and stuck the landing. He knew exactly where he wanted this to end, and it ends, I think, in a very powerful way.

Wells: It was emotional for me. I've done shows before that have lasted a long time. ER lasted for 15 years. And in the end, you mostly miss your friends—the friends that you write, the characters themselves.

Levine: It stayed true to itself in its final season. It's been such a good run that we wanted to end on a high. We didn't want it to peter out.

Wells: And series finales can be tough because there's a lot of pressure. I think the danger, particularly for shows like this, is falling into this idea that everything needs to get all tied up in the end. It would be completely inauthentic for this family to have everything tied up.

There was never going to be an ending like: ‘And suddenly the Gallaghers win the lottery, and now they're fine.’ That has nothing to do with Shameless. The central tenet of the show is that this family loves each other. That's how they survive! So, with the finale, we wanted to reinforce that and not provide an ending where something happens that solves all their problems.

Levine: I think the Gallaghers, as characters, will live in our minds and our hearts well beyond the series.

Wells: Honestly, we got lucky. We had a fantastic cast, a group of writers and directors who got the tone, and we had the support of Showtime. But, most importantly, we had a good time. We had a hell of a good time.


The ‘Shameless’ series finale airs Sunday, April 11 on Showtime.

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