Poverty on Television

This last year, I’ve started watching Shameless, a Showtime television show based on a UK series by the same name. As we’ve progressed through this class, I’ve drawn a lot of similarities between the show and the books we’ve read in class, mostly because television is usually so allergic to depicting poverty that Shameless feels like a revelatory premise.

Shameless is a comedy-drama that centers on a poor family living in the South Side of Chicago. A review by The Boston Globe notes, “The Gallaghers of Chicago are poor, so the kids steal milk from a dairy truck and coupons from neighbors’ newspapers…While Frank blows his disability checks at local bars, his kids scrounge together money like Fagin’s crew from ‘Oliver Twist.’ To be sure, ‘Shameless’ feels like contemporary Dickens, portraying a forgotten underclass living close to the streets and the world of nonviolent crime.”

There is a lot of satire and comedy found in Shameless, just as there is in Oliver Twist, but I find the varying types of morality in the characters in both works to be the most intriguing. I would argue that the characters in Shameless are good in their intentions and sympathetic but continue to commit morally questionable actions because of the situations they live in. This type of contrast allows for a critique of the systematic deficiencies that make it hard to break the cycle of poverty. In Oliver Twist, Dickens offers a similar critique, making Oliver inherently good and Nancy complex but still likeable, in order to contrast with the harsh industrial life.

Show creator, John Wells, recalls, “‘When we first started pitching, everybody kept gravitating towards the South or putting it in a trailer park…We have a comedic tradition of making fun of the people in those worlds. The reality is that these people aren’t ‘the other’ — they’re people who live four blocks down from you and two blocks over.” Wells’s words also suggest at the upper middle class audience of his show, similar to the audience of novels in the Victorian era. People who can afford to subscribe to Showtime are not the ones living in poverty, so the social problems of the show are clearly directed at the upper middle class. Similarly to Dickens’s novels and novels like Mary Barton, the realism of the depiction of poverty aims to educate those not in that socioeconomic class.

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