Previously at Inverse, we’ve rounded up certain series — definitively of the peak-TV era — that it’s hard to believe anyone watches. But more curious, perhaps, are the shows that persist for upwards of four or five seasons in this ever-saturated and competitive climate. Perhaps no hanger-on is harder to diagnose than Showtime’s Shameless, the provocative hour-long drama centered around an oversized, debaucherous lower-class family on the outskirts of Chicago. Its biggest weapon? Mostly, William H. Macy, one of the first and more notable major-film-star-come-to-premium-cable case studies — now, this is a pervasive trend — as the deviant and always-inebriated patriarch, Frank.

Shameless has traditionally gained excellent reviews and solid ratings since its debut in 2011. Commercially, it peaked in its third season with two million viewers for its season premiere, but held quite strong after that, never dipping below the viewership of its first season. Macy and supporting actress Joan Cusack have been regularly nominated for Emmys throughout the show’s run, even as recently as last year — for the shows sixth season.

That’s right, sixth. Chances are you don’t know anyone who still watches Shameless. My colleague Lauren Sarner and I certainly don’t. Yet with the premiere of its seventh season this fall, Shameless’s run will extend beyond that of almost all of TV’s most iconic and popular prestige dramas: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Big Love, to name a few. Only water-cooler series like True Blood and The West Wing — and of course, popular primetime sitcoms and WB shows — have been able to match Shameless’s stamina.

Today, Lauren and I will speculate about why, while so many greater and culturally ubiquitous shows come and go, Shameless still persists. Who is the diehard Showtime viewer base that keeps this boat afloat?

Winston: I must admit that I have only sampled Shameless, but I think I basically understand the appeal — at least theoretically. I understand that Californication was a popular show — also, seven seasons! The crass, shock-value-humor ethos of Shameless can best be linked to the skeezy appeal of the Duchovny-core sex drama.

In the pilot of Shameless, you have full frontal and — I guess — dorsal male and female nudity. There are people fucking in sinks, getting head under tables, drug use, car theft, and a slew of anal sex jokes. It is redolent with the same perverse, “Did they really just do that?” appeal which no doubt attracted so many people to Californication.

You watched the first three seasons, Lauren, so can you speak to why you think people are attracted to this show? I know you are, to some extent, as baffled as I am.

These kids are Shameless

Lauren: Usually when I watch a show, I either stick with it until the bitter end or I rage-quit if it does something egregious. Shameless is unique in that I didn’t stop watching it for any reason in particular — I just didn’t care enough to continue and hardly noticed that it was, in fact, continuing. It’s the definition of an average show in Peak TV: Its acting and production values are high quality, but its plot is essentially an extended meditation on Nothing Matters. There’s nothing wrong with the show, but there is also no logical reason on planet earth it is seven seasons deep. That, plus the overabundance of the crass sex humor you mentioned, make it not just the sum of all parts of Peak TV, but of Peak Showtime.

Each of the major cable networks — HBO, Starz, Showtime — comes with its own flavor. HBO is the effortlessly cool older brother everyone looks up to, but lately he’s been showing that he’s human. He showed up to your party in a puka necklace and a Mastadon shirt, and you don’t really know what to say to that. Starz is the younger child nobody knew what to make of, but then he grew up, invented an app, and became improbably wordly. And then there’s Showtime. Winston, as someone who has extensive experience thinking about Showtime shows, what are your thoughts on all this?

Winston: By these standards, Showtime is probably the class clown who stayed in your hometown and tends bar at the place where everyone goes after high school reunion and the night before Thanksgiving. It’s largely dramatic-but-vaguely-trashy programming that never broaching anything as outright experimental as what you may see on other premium channels. Some of it I like because it’s kind of insane (Dice) and some of it is plain unnecessary (Roadies). Sometimes, brilliance crops up; I’m mostly referring to Billions here. Originally, I thought was a roided-up, David-Mamet-core farce at the beginning; then as I got into it, I thought it was one of the more rewarding, well-acted, and delightfully unpretentious dramas on TV.

I think Billions definitely speaks, however, to the audience of Showtime diehards who I picture watching Shameless in 2016. Your ideal Showtime-head likes their high-concept dramas full of steamy, apropos-of-nothing sex scenes, snappy and f-bomb-filled dialogue, and shock value plot twists dropped like the sub-bass in some industrial-grade EDM jam. These tendencies are everywhere on premium cable, but Showtime embraces them full-on, making provocativeness almost a genre unto itself.

I think there’s a whole cross-section of TV addicts who are just shoe-ins for family dramas, and Shameless is like some Satanic take on Parenthood. I see Shameless’s target audience being “cool” young grandparents who let their 16-year-old grandkids drink beer when they come over for dinner. Family sagas can stretch on for a long time, until the personnel get sick of doing it. They are probably paying Macy and Joan Cusack a formidable and appreciating salary, and no one else on the show is very famous yet. So it seems like Shameless could reasonably go on as long as those people can get on the same soundstage.

Like any other show with a soap opera structure (anything from The OC to Downton Abbey to Mad Men), Shameless will keep people hooked who got in on the ground floor, because they’ve learned to care about these characters. It’s not like Game of Thrones*, or a show where there is a larger, succinct picture being put together. You just mix and match who is having sex with who — and there are a lot of possibilities — until it gets boring for everyone.

The cast of "Penny Dreadful"

Lauren: The one Showtime show that never really fit the channel’s normal model — and was incidentally their best — is Penny Dreadful. It, too, was gloriously pulpy — it regularly included knife and demon possession-fueled sex scenes, and one post-murder sex scene featured a blood-covered threesome. Characters said lines like “Liberty is a bitch that must be bedded on a mattress of corpses” and “In the end, we must be that thing the world demands of us.” But it was also elegant and artistic, perfectly conjuring a dark and strange Victorian London. It perfectly mixed the Showtime dirty-core with refined period piece sensibilities.

Now, did Showtime champion this gem? Did it let it run for seven plus seasons as it does for nearly every other show, like Shameless, Dexter, Weeds, Californication, or their six season reality show about fucking Gigolos? Of course not, it canceled it after three seasons and then pretended it wasn’t canceled. Gigolos and Shameless apparently matter more than unique storytelling.

Am I bitter about the way Penny Dreadful ended? Of course. But it doesn’t make it less true. As much as they pretend to value Art, all networks are companies at the end of the day. Showtime shows its cards more than the others, and depending on where you stand, that’s either something to scorn or admire.

I’m sure someone, somewhere, is still watching Shameless, but nobody would cry, or even notice, if it ended. And yet it beats on, boats against the current.

Winston: Yeah, I wonder what the “pale green light” is for Shameless… no, I don’t; green is the color of money when the light reflecting off of an Emmy statue hits it. That never gets old!