Here's an assignment for the screenwriters behind "Shameless" and its eye-popping stories: Discuss what the heck you've wrought, and how.
"No moral judgments," Mike O'Malley offers, citing a crucial principle from executive producer and fellow scribe John Wells. And keep digging until a nerve is struck.
"It's the most outrageous writers' room. We don't say we need to go back to work. We say we need to go deeper," O'Malley observed during a filmed round-table chat to be included on a December DVD of season two (now unfolding at 9 p.m. EST Sunday on Showtime.).
How deep? Consider the plot line in which desperately flawed patriarch Frank Gallagher (the flawless William H. Macy) schemed to get his hands on an ailing woman's pension by cheating her of a heart transplant — and then killed her with medically forbidden sex.
It was the on-screen realization of another Wells' tip to his crew: Remember that Frank is damaged goods and avoid getting "cuddly" with him in scripts. And when mulling over a story, ask, "What's the 'Shameless' version?"
That includes satirizing social norms through the impoverished Gallaghers, Wells said in an interview, and making room for a subtle undercurrent that, in a TV rarity, echoes the economic struggles of too many Americans.
On "Shameless," which also stars Emmy Rossum, the family's hardships and missteps can take outlandish turns. But the fiction never is made up out of whole cloth, Wells said: Every aspect of the comedy-drama stems from or is shaded by the life of its writers and, at times, actors.
"We dramatize it, we humorize it, but there's nothing we've done, not a single story, that somebody hasn't had experience with," said the veteran show runner (with "ER," "The West Wing" and "Southland" among his credits).
But don't call the authorities to report possible heartless sex by a "Shameless" scribe. The writers take moments from their lives and pull and shape them, taffy-like, into tales to fit fictional characters.
In general, Wells observed, writers offer up their memories and experience more easily than cast members, who can be "nervous" about sharing.
"Writers, by necessity, are always writing about things we know .... But actors often times are acting to get away from who they are," Wells said.
That's not the case with O'Malley, an actor and writer whose on-camera credits include the role of sensitive dad Burt Hummel on "Glee." And it's not true of Macy, who's been writing for more than 20 years with professional partner Steven Schachter.
Their projects include "Door to Door," a 2002 TV movie about a real-life Fuller Brush salesman with cerebral palsy that won the pair an Emmy Award for writing and brought Macy an acting trophy. Sunday's episode of "Shameless" is another Macy-Schachter collaboration.
"We thought it was a perfect show for Steven and me to write, a little out of our wheelhouse," said Macy, whose projects have leaned toward more gentle comedy and drama, minus the "Shameless" gut-punch.
Getting started on the episode with the show's other writers initially was a little "dicey," Macy said in an interview, because the usually freewheeling discussion was muted by concerns over how protective he might be of his screen image.
The team, including Nancy Pimental, Etan Frankel, LaToya Morgan, O'Malley and Wells, quickly was set straight.
"I've never had a problem with making a fool of myself, and that holds me in good sted. If the joke's on me, as long as it's a good joke, I'm cool with that," Macy said.
So it was "off to the races" with a handful of ideas that he and Schachter fashioned into a pivotal hour. In it, Frank's mother, Grammy Gallagher (guest star Louise Fletcher), comes to town and reveals how her son became the loser he is today.
Despite his much-honored acting career, including an Oscar nomination for "Fargo," Macy said his greatest career "high" came early with a play, "Mattress," that he wrote for the St. Nicholas Theatre Company in Chicago (which he helped found in the 1970s with, among others, David Mamet).
He was elated when "Mattress" scored its intended laughs with the audience.
"I felt I had created something that had weight and mass," Macy said, drawing a sharp contrast between acting and writing: "With a script you get it right. With acting you just keep striving. The actor doesn't worry about telling the whole story. The actor only worries telling this tiny little moment, fully and truthfully, and then you go to the next moment."
He shared a choice anecdote illustrating how actors can get confused about who does what.
While filming a TV movie he wrote with Schachter, an actress (whom Macy diplomatically declined to identify) started paraphrasing a long passage of dialogue with " 'you knows' and all this naturalistic trash," he recalled.
"I went up to the woman and said, 'Do you know I wrote the script?' She said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You write a script. In the meantime, say mine."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.