Shameless

You hear the bickering the second you enter the soundstage.

"Sing it already," he says.

"Oh, quiet," she says.

"No, you."

"No, you!"

If it weren't for William H. Macy's impish grin and the huge laugh Emmy Rossum lets out, you'd think the actors might actually come to blows. But that's how they roll on the set of Shameless, Showtime's energetic dramedy about life inside the downtrodden Gallagher household. The cast acts like the characters they play on TV. With mom out of the picture and papa Frank (Macy) too sauced to watch over six kids, it's every misfit for him- or herself. As Rossum, who plays oldest daughter Fiona, says, "Think of the poorest, most off-kilter family you know, multiply the intensity by 10 and stick them in a claustrophobic house in Chicago. That's the Gallaghers."

Turn up the heat and you get Season 2, which premieres Sunday. After a discontented winter, the Gallaghers are struggling to stay cool in the broil of a Chicago summer. Still, it might as well be snowing on set today in Los Angeles. The entire cast is on hand to make a Christmas music video/promo that's more like an excuse for the actors to fake-fight with one another. At one point in the middle of the song (a parody of every earnest Yuletide carol), Macy's cellphone starts chirping.

"Are you kidding me?" Rossum yells. Macy just glares at her. Afterward he says, "As actors, we take our responsibility very seriously to come off as completely family-crazy."

To bond, the cast lived like real Gallaghers at first, with mini-golf outings and forced rehearsals inside the cramped living-room set. "Everybody had to make their own lunch out of the set refrigerator and do their own dishes," says John Wells, the ex-ER exec producer who adapted Shameless from a British series of the same name with original creator Paul Abbott. "It didn't take long for true dysfunction to set in."

It's working. The Shameless finale last spring was the highest-rated season ender for a new Showtime series in 10 years (new drama Homeland recently beat Shameless' finale numbers). Overall last season, the program averaged more than 3.7 million viewers across various platforms (including On Demand and replays), right up there with Showtime's Dexter, Weeds and now Homeland. And Joan Cusack earned an Emmy nomination for her role as kooky shut-in (and Frank's love interest) Sheila Jackson, whose husband Eddie's suicide last season hangs over the new episodes.

"Season 1 established Frank as a guy who'll do anything to stay drunk and not have to work to support his family, even if that means siphoning off Sheila or sleeping with her daughter," says Wells. But when Eddie's body turns up this season in Lake Michigan with a cinder block tied to his ankle, Frank, as Cusack says, "is going to have some 'splaining to do."

The other Gallaghers aren't much better off. Fiona is in major denial about how much she still loves Steve (Justin Chatwin), her cad-tastic boyfriend who ran off to Costa Rica to avoid being arrested for car theft. Now, "Fiona is cocktail waitressing but spends a lot of time thinking about calling Steve and dating guys she shouldn't," says Rossum. Adds Wells, "We'll see Steve again, but it's a little different because he comes back to town married to a Brazilian girl."

Fiona's brother Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and Sheila's daughter Karen (Laura Slade Wiggins) are still hooking up, even though Karen has a boyfriend she met in Sex Addicts Anonymous. For cash, Lip teams with gay brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and bartender-neighbor Kev (Steve Howey) to sell stuff out of an ice- cream truck. "A little ice cream, a little pot," says Monaghan, whose character's true ambition is to get into West Point. Then there's rebellious squirt Carl Gallagher (Ethan Cutkosky), who makes money watching people's houses and stealing from them. "Perfect job for a 10-year-old," Wells says.

Frank, meanwhile, gets points for merely standing upright. Not that getting off booze is in the cards. "Some people, when you sober them up, you wish they had a drink again, and I think Frank's one of those guys," Wells says. To stay catatonic, Frank moves in on a butter-faced barfly from local pub The Alibi Room. "The woman's awaiting a heart transplant and Frank, God bless him, is awaiting her demise so he can move in on her pension," says Macy.

Back on set, the Gallaghers are finally in harmony. Well, at least the Christmas song sounds good. Until someone — it's hard to tell who — hits an off note. Macy throws up his hands with exaggerated disgust: "You people can drive a guy to drink!"

Shameless airs Sundays at 9/8c on Showtime.

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