This weekend many cable providers will offer a free preview of Showtime, and the channel has two new Sunday night shows, "Shameless" and "Episodes," as well as an old favorite, "Californication."

This weekend many cable providers will offer a free preview of Showtime, and the channel has two new Sunday night shows, "Shameless" and "Episodes," as well as an old favorite, "Californication."

"Shameless"

Showtime's latest foray into the hour-long drama is the story of the Gallaghers, a working-class family struggling to get by in Chicago.

Billed as a showcase for the venerable William H. Macy - his character, Frank, is the patriarch who spends his disability checks at the local pub - the show, adapted from a hit British series, has the potential to be something special. While Macy is good, he's not the reason "Shameless" is so captivating.

Its success stems from a focus on a family left in the wake of a worthless drunk. Diligent eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) - filling in for a runaway mother - gives her five younger siblings somewhat of a happy childhood.

That doesn't mean these kids don't have serious issues, and "Shameless" doesn't shy away from the painful reality of life in a messed-up family.

Most of the kids, even the 9-year-old, have picked up on their dad's addictive personality and are already sucking down beers and smoking joints.

But it's not all sad-sack drunks and troubled kids - Fiona's seduction by the charming Steve (Justin Chatwin) is a never-boring romance, and her two oldest brothers, Lip and Ian, are fantastic.

Lip (Jeremy Allen White) is the intelligent overachiever who still manages to find trouble, and Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is closeted. When Lip discovers Ian's secret, there's a very impressive combination of teenage angst, humor and pathos.

It's early, but "Shameless" could be the best new show of 2011 thanks to an excellent young cast (plus Joan Cusack) that outshines even the great William H. Macy.


"Californication"

"Californication" has received its unfair share of criticisms, mainly because star David Duchovny's personal troubles have seemed to parallel his character Hank Moody's sexual appetite.

But the laughs have always been consistent - something not every so-called comedy can claim - and accompanied by some heartfelt moments.

Hank's a talented author, but he can't seem to reclaim his glory days on the page as easily as he can in the boudoir. It's problematic as he attempts to reconnect with his love, Karen (Natascha McElhone), and daughter Becca (an excellent Madeleine Martin).

It all came to a head in last season's finale, when Hank's exploits with an underage girl were discovered. Now he's fighting to win back his family and maintain his freedom from prison.

Thank you, "Californication," for portraying your lead in an unflattering light. It turns some people off but suits me just fine.


"Episodes"

This comedy - about a British TV show getting revamped for America with Matt LeBlanc as the star - relies heavily on the stereotypes of vapid Hollywood and stuffy Brits, resulting in a few worthy snickers early on, but no gut laughs.