Current Affairs

The End of TV’s Lumpenproletariat

For a decade, ‘Shameless’ has painted a picture of American life rarely seen on screen. That’s about to end.

In an episode of the 11th season of Shameless, Ian Gallagher (played by Cameron Monaghan) experiences wage theft at his new “shitty ass minimum wage job hauling boxes around a warehouse.” He discovers that management has paid him for 39 hours when he worked for 45, deducting money for locker fees, safety vests, and bathroom breaks. “Welcome to the working man’s America,” a co-worker tells him. Two episodes later, Ian quits the job to run drug money instead. 

Shameless, Showtime’s tragicomic study of the ever-expanding American lumpenproletariat, ends this year after over a decade of being the only series of its kind on television, an anti-Horatio Alger tale that lays bare the gaping maw where our social safety net should be. The Gallaghers, a dysfunctional South Side Chicago family, are different from other working-class TV families like the Bunkers from All in the Family, or the Connors from Roseanne. As show creator Paul Abbot told the New York Times, “it’s not blue collar, it’s no collar.” 

The show’s characters are driven by their basic material needs—nobody has the luxury of becoming self-actualized. They rotate between manual labor and food service jobs, prisons and homeless shelters, supplementing minimum wage or government aid—both insufficient—with mooching, begging, theft, fraud, and several varieties of sex work. Shameless is uncouth, grotesque, and abject where other premium cable hits of the past 10 years have been slick, aspirational fantasias populated by the wealthy. The series is an indictment of a system in which both political parties have abandoned a desperate underclass. When it ends, we’ll lose a realistic reflection of the ways that a growing number of Americans get by. 

Such reflections have always been hard to find in mainstream mass media. Early Hollywood’s system of self-censorship, known as the Motion Picture Production Code, forbade depictions of crime on film, unless the criminals were unsympathetic characters who suffered for their sins. Code rules also discouraged portrayals of illicit drugs and the “selling of a woman’s virtue.” While the code officially ended in 1968 and didn’t apply to television, its spirit haunted the small screen for decades, clashing with audience appetites for stories about drugs, prostitution, and other types of crime—the vicarious experience of watching characters violate social norms. The challenge for TV writers has been to give viewers what they want, while simultaneously reinforcing the traditional middle-class values that have undergirded the genre since the 1950s. How to do this? Make crime ubiquitous, but poverty invisible. 

At the dawn of the 21st century, a study revealed that one-third of all prime-time TV shows revolved around crime. Curiously, it also found that TV writers gave the majority of criminal characters professional or managerial jobs, or else left unknown the matter of their work and socioeconomic status. The same holds true today. The fictional criminals we watch on shows like Billions or various “copaganda” programs are frequently white collar, or they’re rendered somehow class-less. The narratives focus much more on individual pathology than on material conditions. Television is also more likely to portray violent crime—e.g., rape and murder—over the more quotidian crimes of survival, like shoplifting, petty drug dealing, or offering the occasional hand job for cash, the small informal ways of making ends meet in an era of suppressed wages and skyrocketing rents. Few television programs have engaged, politically and ideologically, with issues of class and labor. Fewer still have explored how (and why) poor people are pushed into criminalized underground economies.  

Enter Shameless, which debuted in 2011, adapted from a British series of the same name. When showrunner John Wells pitched network executives, he had to fight suggestions to set the series in the American South or in a trailer park, those well-worn tropes used to telegraph deprivation in pop culture. Instead, Shameless takes place in a multi-racial city whose denizens have been left behind by gentrification but who see survival—against all odds and by any means necessary—as a point of familial pride. The Gallagher offspring are neglected by their chaotic parents, a mother with bipolar disorder and a father with chronic alcoholism, and so must fend for themselves in a crowded ramshackle home. Nearly every move they make in hopes of bettering their lot is thwarted by a byzantine public welfare system and an indifferent neoliberal state. They have no bootstraps, no boots, and for one character who suffers a workplace accident followed by a DIY amputation, not even a full set of toes.

You couldn’t find a better illustration of the concept, theorized by Marx and Engels, of the lumpenproletariat, the prefix of which translates to “ragged” or “rabble.” In 19th century Europe, the lumpen were those with “questionable means of support and of dubious origin,” like beggars, gamblers, pickpockets, and prostitutes, who inhabited the streets or urban slums. This so-called “surplus population” lived on the “crumbs of society” in part because their drug and alcohol dependencies made them unsuitable for traditional labor. In contemporary America, members of the lumpen fall through the cracks of a system that happily starves people with disabilities and deprives the poor of mental health and drug treatment services, leaving them cycling in and out of formal employment and underfunded institutions. They’re depraved, as the Sondheim lyric goes, on account of they’re deprived.

Nobody really likes the lumpenproletariat. They offend bourgeois liberals with their vulgar sensibilities. Conservatives see them as idling, lawless thugs. Capitalists have no use for anyone who cannot consistently produce profit. And many leftists find members of the lumpen unreliable as revolutionary subjects. It’s a wonder, then, that they ended up on television at all. 

Another storyline on this season of Shameless involves Lip Gallagher (Jeremy Allen White), Ian’s older brother and a recovering alcoholic, who makes money fixing motorcycles. When the repair shop where he works switches management, the new owners—obvious trust fund kids with smug, punchable faces—cut his hours and his pay, and then fire him when he pleads for mercy. With a looming eviction and a new baby, Lip runs out of options. He breaks his sobriety and sneaks into the shop one night to steal all the bikes and parts. The episode follows the template for many of the show’s subplots, in which a character urgently needs money and must do something illegal or undignified to acquire it. This thesis that crime is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism, and addiction is a social disease, distinguishes Shameless from “poverty porn” like Hillbilly Elegy

Still, Shameless is not Springsteen or Steinbeck. It contains no sentimentalized, romanticized working class heroes. Fans love Lip and Ian, but generally find the other characters unlikable— especially the Gallagher patriarch, Frank (William H. Macy), whose money-making schemes and drunken antics, while played for laughs, are often amoral. The relationship the characters have with the rest of the working class is complicated and sometimes antagonistic. Debbie Gallagher (Emma Rose Kenney) spent a few episodes as a scab, and this season, Carl Gallagher (Ethan Cutkosky) joined the Chicago Police Department. As Marx warned, the lumpenproletariat can easily become “the bribed tools of reactionary intrigue,” lured by whichever forces will feed, clothe, and house them. Without political education, they have little sense of solidarity or comradeship. Like almost all of us, they exercise limited agency under constrained circumstances. 

The most significant thing about Shameless is that the behavior of the characters is not in fact outrageous (as the show’s marketing has hinted at over the years) but routine, happening all around us in real life. It’s no surprise that a country with negligible class consciousness, dwindling union membership, and stagnant wages produces a population of people who anesthetize themselves with various substances, do crimes, and sometimes betray their fellow workers. Who does it serve to pretend that the poor are always noble and virtuous, or conversely, that they’re to blame for their own immiseration? Responsible media representation need not always be positive, flattering, and crafted to solicit maximum respect from those with power. It can simply expose the multitude of grim and coercive bargains the downtrodden masses make to keep the lights on. 

What is the future of the lumpenproletariat on television? The other major scripted series to showcase an ensemble of struggling outcasts, FX’s Pose, a story of trans sex workers and performers living on the skids in 1980s New York City, will also end this year after its third season. Hopefully, new programs that feature the have-nots in ways that don’t feel exploitative aren’t far off. The three Oscar nominations for the Hulu film Nomadland suggest that realistic stories about the down and out can generate critical acclaim; the question of audience response is less clear. Sometimes viewers just want to escape into glossy fictions that don’t remind us of our own precarious conditions. But other times we look to entertainment for the comfort of the familiar, to feel less alone. This won’t happen if we’re left with the usual cast of TV characters, currently replete with politicians, billionaire corporate executives, hedge-fund managers, and royal monarchs—the real refuse, the actual parasites, the classes that have been truly shameless all along. 

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