I’d heard good things about Showtime’s Shameless over the years, and it certainly sounded relevant to my interests (Chicago boosterism and William H. Macy fandom). But there’s only so much time and DVR space in the world, so it slipped past me for a while. Its critically lauded 2014 season finally convinced me to get caught up prior to the season five premiere on January 11.

Shameless follows the Gallaghers, a no-collar family of seven living in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood. Macy plays Frank, the wastrel father of five. Frank’s an alcoholic and a manipulator, which means the kids are effectively orphans (their mom walked out a while ago). His eldest, Fiona (Emmy Rossum), dropped out of high school to raise her siblings Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam. Frank’s shameless and Fiona’s selfless (though hardly beyond reproach), and the rest of the characters fall somewhere in between.

In “Milk of the Gods,” we see how the Gallaghers are dealing with the fallout of last year’s dealings. Frank was near death for most of season four; now he’s got a new lease on life thanks to a new liver and wife, Sheila (Joan Cusack). But healthy Frank is still negligent Frank, so he spends most of the time working on his “130-proof” homemade beer, the titular milk. This leaves newlywed Sheila to deal with her rival-turned-stepdaughter, Sammi (Emily Bergl), who is trying to get Frank’s attention (as a father, not a lover anymore) by having sex with strangers and his new wife’s sex toys.

Fiona is now a parolee/diner waitress, who’s again flirting with her boss (and possibly disaster). She’s spent most of the show’s run en loco parentis, so she’s experiencing oversight for the first time in her life (even if it is courtesy of Big Brother). Fiona is, remarkably enough, faring well under the circumstances. But while she’s not yet chafing at the collar or ankle monitor, she dabbles in her old ways throughout the episode; she “forgets” to charge her family for pie when she waits on them, and she considers hooking up with someone who’s all wrong for her.

As for the rest of the Gallagher clan: Lip picks up a summer construction job after finishing his first year of college; Ian’s cobbled together another unconventional family for himself; and the younger kids appear to have some woes of their own. Luckily, little Liam has recovered well from his brush with cocaine (which is what landed Fiona in jail).

Most of this is played for laughs because Shameless is now a comedy (Showtime switched gears last year to increase Emmy nod odds). It’s definitely reminiscent of shows like Roseanne and Malcolm in the Middle, with their imperfect parents and often off-putting offspring. But its prime cable home means Shameless gets to magnify the ugly in its warts-and-all depiction of a flawed family. And boy has this show ever gone for it: its unflinching look at the Gallaghers’ class struggles has prompted the coining of terms like “poverty porn.”

The Gallaghers (well the kids) aren’t entirely bowed by destitution and bad decisions. Lip has finally made it to college, and he seems to be rejecting his old life by focusing on gainful summer employment. Fiona’s slipping, but she’s not too far-gone. And while they have their issues, the younger siblings are intelligent enough to inspire some confidence.

The way the show mitigates the constant threat of failure with the possibility of success is what sets Shameless apart from its predecessors, and what reminds us that it was once a drama. The reason these kids find it so hard to do the right thing is because they’ve never seen it done before. It’s too late to say this is something we (the audience) haven’t seen before, since Shameless has been on for over four years. But now that I have seen it, I can’t look away.

Shameless, Sundays at 8 PM on Showtime