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Healthcare in America – A “Shameless” Retrospective

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There’s nothing funny about poverty, addiction, bi-polar disorder and six kids desperately in need of love, guidance and a hot meal, unless you’re talking about the fictional Gallagher clan of Showtime’s hit series, “Shameless.” When it comes to hitting rock bottom, it seems like that’s where the Gallaghers started and, like a train wreck, it’s nearly impossible to pull yourself away from watching the aftermath.

But what draws so many viewers to gawk at the misfortunes of this South Side Chicago family each week is more than morbid curiosity. “Shameless” shines a spotlight not just on the bad behavior of a struggling lower-class family; it also highlights the very real healthcare challenges being faced by millions of Americans every day.

When despicable Gallagher family patriarch Frank receives a veritable death sentence after years of liver abuse thanks to a lifetime of alcoholism the unemployed, uninsured wayward father is desperate for a liver transplant. Not surprisingly, Frank discovers that it’s going to take over $100,000 and a willing, compatible donor to even get his name on a waiting list that could keep his selfish heart beating. Faced with imminent death and the realities of no insurance, Frank does the only thing he can; he asks his son to break his leg so he can sue for damages to cover the cost of his much-needed liver transplant.

Such measures may seem extreme, but when faced with the grim specter of death who’s to say what is going too far? What “Shameless” does is give a face (albeit a fictional face) to a very real issue that literally could be the difference between life and death for millions of Americans. And, even though there has been an ongoing battle in the healthcare arena for several years, we still don’t seem to be getting it right as a country.

While it might be fine to sit back on your sofa every Sunday evening and empathize with (and vicariously enjoy) the struggles  the Gallagher family is facing, it often doesn’t really hit home until it’s your family being denied care or it’s your second opinion doctor visit that gets denied any coverage because the condition is considered pre-existing. The heightened reality of “Shameless” puts these everyday healthcare concerns in the forefront, as nearly every viewer is reminded of either their own experience or a story relayed by a friend that helps them walk a mile in a Gallaghers’ shoes.

The saving grace of the show is that it is just that – a show. We know that the challenges faced by the Gallaghers are exaggerated and, ultimately, put forth for our amusement. The brilliance of “Shameless” is its ability to tell such sordid tales, painted in poverty and debauchery, that simultaneously make the viewer acutely aware of the societal injustice at play and the ridiculous hilarity of the outlandish and often unredeemable predicaments the against-all-odds Gallaghers get themselves into.

You can’t help but cheer on the antics of this every-man family who magnifies both the worst and the best in all of us at the very basest human level. And it’s so easy to find yourself laughing at situations that simply should not be found funny. That is the genius of “Shameless.” When big sister Fiona finally lands a regular nine-to-five gig, with all the bells and whistles including health insurance, it is a riot to watch the Gallagher children being subjected to the joys of immunizations and regular physicals – things which so many average Americans take entirely for granted.

It’s not a tribute to the state of healthcare in America that the supposedly exaggerated picture painted on “Shameless” seems to resonate so deeply with mainstream viewers. However, it may be one of those rare lights at the end of the tunnel that so many seem to relate to the image of healthcare portrayed on the show. Perhaps “Shameless” is a safe, if somewhat silly, way to dialogue about what has been a polarizing topic for this country. Maybe if Congress could just settle in for a weekend and binge-watch “Shameless,” we’d be able to find some sort of mutual ground on which to begin a real conversation that could make a difference with not just the fans of “Shameless” but with the under-represented families who truly live that life every day.

Have you found yourself relating to some of the healthcare issues featured on “Shameless?”

Photo Courtesy of Showtime

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Rebecca Edwards is a pop culture junkie who loves watching, reading about and riffing on her TV addiction du jour. She has been a writer for over two decades. Her current TV obsessions include "Shameless," "True Detective" and "American Horror Story."

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