How to Turn a Drunk Into a Poet
What Makes Great Writing #003 - Featuring Shameless (The US television show)
You can’t watch Shameless with your mother.
In fact, you probably can’t read this analysis with her.
An HBO show known for cringy plot lines and horrifying anti-heroes, Shameless didn’t strike me as particularly poetic. At least, it didn’t until six weeks ago.
That was the day I revisited Shameless’s opening monologue, which is mumbled over a montage by the main character — Frank Gallagher. Frank is always at least half-drunk, and since William H. Macy pulls off the character so well, it’s easy to believe the speech is slapped together.
That’s far from the truth. Strip away the racy scenes and wobbly camera work, and Shameless reads more like poetry.
Let’s dig in.
Source: Shameless, US Version, Episode 1
Writers: John Wells, Paul Abbot
Rhetorical Devices used:
Tricolon: a phrase or sentence using three elements
Diazeugma: a single subject governing multiple verbs
Diacope: repeating a word after an interruption for emphasis
Alliteration: repetition of the same consonant sounds
Assonance: repetition of the same vowel sounds
Simile: making a comparison with the word “like” or “as”
Litote: affirming an idea by denying its opposite
“Nobody’s saying our neighborhood is the Garden of Eden. Hell, some people say God avoids this place altogether.”
The lazy way to say Frank’s opening line is: “This place is Hell.”
But why do that, when you could instead use an litote? “It’s not the Garden of Eden” is not just an understatement here, it's an extreme understatement.
Also, notice Frank’s interjection at the beginning is “Hell” as opposed to some other expletive. This first couplet is planted firmly in the afterlife.
“But it’s been a good home to us, to me and my kids, who I’m proud of. Cuz every single one of ‘em reminds me a little bit of me.”
The second half of this line previews the tool which carries this entire speech - a device called diazeugma. Look closely. That second phrase is not actually a complete sentence. The subject is actually at the end of the previous sentence.
Thanks to this, Frank’s character starts to take shape. He’s drunk. Erratic. Speaking in half-sentences. Slurring words.
“Fiona. My rock. HUGE help. Has all the best qualities of her mother…except she’s not a raging, psycho bitch.”
The diazeugma is continuing here. Only half sentences. “Fiona” is the subject of each one.
This allows the subtle alliteration: “huge help” to continue through to a harmless helping verb, “has,” without needing to bother telling us WHO has done what.
“Lip! Smart as a whip. Straight A’s in the honor roll. Boy’s definitely going somewhere.”
The simile at the beginning is a cliche we’re all familiar with, but it’s no coincidence that Lip is “smart as a whip” instead of “sharp as a tack.”
Even though William Macy slides over the sneaky rhyme in his performance, it hooks your attention.
“Ian. Industrious. Conscientious. Ambitious. Incredible work ethic… don’t have a clue where he got that from. Wants to be a paratrooper. Knows how to disembowel an enemy with a roll of dimes in an old gym sock.”
This is my favorite paragraph.
The diazeugma continues, allowing Frank to launch into a nice tricolon here at the beginning. (Industrious. Conscientious. Ambitious.)
As a bonus, each element rhymes.
As a BONUS bonus, they are all assonant... and not just with each other. That “ee” sound at the beginning of “Ian” shows up at the end of the three adjectives his name. (In-dus-tree-us. Con-shee-en-shee-us. Am-bi-shee-us.)
As a BONUS bonus bonus, these three adjectives mirror Ian’s military characteristics, lining themselves up like little soldiers.
You can almost hear the snare drum rapping in rhythm.
Finally, a prepositional phrase should typically only be added to a sentence if it adds to the sentence’s meaning. The two at the end of Ian’s summary add visceral surprises. Not only can Ian disembowel an enemy, he can do it with a roll of dimes. A roll of dimes in an old gym sock.
”Carl. Um. I don’t really know that much about Carl. OH! Loves animals. Always dragging home some poor stray he found and taking them up to his room.
Debbie. Sent by god. Total Angel. Raises money for UNICEF year round. Some of which she actually turns in!
Liam. Gonna be a star. I’m no biologist, but he looks a little bit like my first sponsor. He and the ex were close.”
I’ve lumped these three to look at two patterns.
First, this group of children is described with verb phrases: “Loves animals. Sent by god. Gonna be a star.” That gives this section some rhythm where otherwise there might not be. (And surprising nobody who keeps up, there are THREE repetitions).
Second, although Frank is capable of using big words, he almost always ends sentences with a single syllable. His sentences don’t wind down so much as crash to a halt.
I’ve noticed this pattern so often that it must have a name, but I don’t know what it’s called. (Respond to this and let me know if you do).
“Kev and Veronica. Fantastic neighbors. There’s nothing they won’t do for each other… or to each other! I never realized how little sex I was having ‘til Vee and Kev moved in next door.”
The big device here is the diacope. Repeating “each other” here both reinforces that Kevin and Veronica are a couple, and it injects the scandalous nature of their relationship.
From sweet to saucy in the blink of an eye.
“And me, Frank Gallagher. Father. Teacher. Mentor. Captain of our little ship. We may not have much, but all of us, to a man, knows the most important thing in this life. We know how to fuckin’ party.”
This passage is dripping in irony. Do “fathers, teachers, and mentors” really call their child’s mothers “raging, psycho bitches?” Do they proudly claim to “not know much” about one of their kids? Do they really assume the “most important thing in this life” is partying?
The final nail in Frank’s character is driven home here. His self-delusion, common in the worse type of addict, launches this show into its pilot, and subsequently the 11 seasons that followed it.
Mad love to John Wells and Paul Abbot for creating such a poetically miserable main character.
Much love as always <3