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Animal Torture as Entertainment? Shame on Showtime's Shameless!

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With the season premiere of Californication and the series premieres of the new Matt LeBlanc comedy Episodes and the new dramedy Shameless, Sunday, January 9, promises to be a very good night for the pay-cable network Showtime.

Unfortunately, it may be a very bad night for homeless animals.

In the opening minutes of Shameless, a well-produced adaptation of the acclaimed British comedy drama about an alcohol-saturated single dad and his six children, series lead William Macy in voice-over as his character Frank Gallagher introduces the kids and sets the darkly comic tone of the show. Some of what is said and later shown is indeed startling, given that Gallagher's kids, who range in age from infancy to young adulthood, are immersed in a world of sex, violence, drugs, drinking, child abandonment and criminal behavior. But none of this is as horrific as a quick shot of Carl, the second-youngest and apparently the most troubled of Gallagher's children, as he prepares to burn a stray cat with a blow torch, something we are lead to believe he does with some frequency.

Carl "loves animals," Gallagher explains, adding that the boy is "always dragging home some poor stray he found [and] taking [it] up to his room." The accompanying visual shows Carl in his room holding a stray cat in one hand and a blow torch in the other. As he ignites the torch a cat's cry is heard. It is one of the most sickening moments of scripted television entertainment in recent memory.

Make no mistake: There is much potentially objectionable content in Shameless, but within the context of the show it isn't necessarily offensive, given the underlying love and compassion many of the characters have for each other and the fact that many of them maintain a strong sense of humor in even the most dire of circumstances. More significantly, the specifics of their circumstances, however unpleasant, aren't there for shock value. All of the bad things these people do are richly and intimately explored as the series progresses -- except for this brief sequence of suggested animal torture. Everything about it indicates that the writers crafted it as something intended to be a quick hit of sick fun. (It even has a twisted punch line of sorts -- the cat's cry when Carl lights the torch.)

The scene adds nothing to the show or the character. I can't begin to imagine why it was written or filmed in the first place, but it could have ended up on the cutting room floor without altering the show in any way. So why is it there?

Here's a note to everyone involved with this show: There is nothing even remotely humorous about burning or otherwise torturing an animal.

I can't help but wonder why executives at Showtime and its parent company CBS Corporation saw fit to allow this presentation of suggested animal torture in an entertainment program. I'm also at a loss to explain why esteemed executive producer John Wells, an enormously talented and intelligent man whose credits include ER and The West Wing, would allow something so inhuman and irresponsible in one of his shows. I might be okay with it in an episode of this series (or any other) that would fully explore the horror of animal abuse and might remind kids (and adults) that torturing animals is never acceptable. But the way it is presented in Shameless is nothing less than shameful.