5 Troubling Questions Raised by Abuse Claims on Showtime’s 'SMILF'
New CBS Corp content chief David Nevins' handling of misconduct allegations on the set of the pay cable series calls into question how the network, producer ABC Studios and everyone else in Hollywood's power structure responds to the new normal.
SMILF is a very small show; most people have never heard of the Showtime series, which is set to premiere its second season Jan 20. But the handling — or mishandling — of allegations of misconduct on this half-hour dramedy based on the life of series creator and star Frankie Shaw raises some big questions about how several of Hollywood's most important institutions are reacting to such situations. This comes more than a year into the Time's Up movement, which has explored issues not only involving sexual harassment but other types of alleged abuse.
On Dec. 17, Disney's ABC Studios, which produces SMILF, pledged to investigate claims of abusive conduct on the set. The probe was prompted by THR's report that numerous employees had contacted Disney's anonymous tip line about an array of issues; that complaints had reached the major talent guilds, including allegations of separating writers by race; and that actress Samara Weaving had exited amid claims her contract was breached due to two mishandled sex scenes.
Showtime and ABC were notified of at least some of the questions regarding conduct on the set of SMILF in August when Rosie O'Donnell — who plays Shaw's mother on the series — raised concerns with network executive Amy Israel and executive producer Scott King.
While ABC Studios told THR it will investigate, Showtime declined to comment. Shaw said in a statement that she had worked to create an environment in which everyone felt safe, adding, "It pains me to learn that anyone felt uncomfortable on my set." Her attorney, Andrew Brettler, added, "There was never an intention or desire to group the writers" based on race.
1. How, now more than a year into the Time's Up movement, did Showtime decide it was acceptable to decline to comment on these allegations?
ABC Studios gave what should be the only possible response: that the company takes the matter seriously and will investigate. How should potential whistleblowers react when Showtime doesn't say those words, and instead an "insider" — anyone in media would guess that it was a Showtime publicist — responded to THR's story by telling another outlet that the network stands "100 percent completely behind" Shaw? To say that Showtime's "no comment" has a chilling effect — and remember that it is part of CBS Corp., a company with a very troubled culture of tolerating misconduct — is a major understatement.
2. If Showtime won't say that it will look into issues on a marginal show, what happens on a huge show with truly powerful talent?
This is a particularly urgent question as Showtime CEO David Nevins has taken the reins as chief creative officer of CBS. Given Showtime's apparent indifference to complaints from numerous members of the SMILF cast and crew, how can Nevins effect change in a much bigger job?
3. What about Disney and ABC?
Multiple sources tell THR that they made complaints to the Disney tip line regarding conduct on the SMILF set. How did Disney react? None of THR's sources were aware of a response, even though some received messages that issues had been addressed. When there finally was a seemingly limited inquiry into the treatment of Weaving during the filming of a sex scene in season two, Shaw seems to have offered a benign but misleading version of events. Weaving was released from her contract and it appears no further questions were asked. With numerous tip line complaints and the report of O'Donnell's concerns, this appears to be passive at the very least.
4. How real is ABC's claim that it will investigate?
So far, insiders on the show say they have not been contacted following THR's Dec. 17 report. "I've been waiting," says one. This is especially striking given the incendiary racial claims. In the recent past, ABC has lost major black talent: Shonda Rhimes, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Channing Dungey, the first black president of a major broadcast network. It's fair to say that this is not a good look for the network.
5. What about the accountability of talent reps?
What did Weaving's agents at WME and her manager, Todd Diener, do after the incidents in seasons one and two involving mishandled nude scenes? THR asked repeatedly and got no answers. When talent allegedly is mistreated, their reps have a duty to protect. WME was dragged publicly by Terry Crews, who said the agency failed him when he was groped by then-agent Adam Venit. When allegations of misconduct become public, reps should be prepared to explain what steps they took on their clients' behalf.
Shaw has been in Ireland prepping a potential third season of SMILF. ABC says the fate of the series is up to Showtime, though there is precedent for a production entity refusing to proceed with troubled talent: Warner Bros. recently declined to make Lethal Weapon for Fox if actor Clayne Crawford remained. There is no SMILF without Shaw, but can ABC and Showtime ensure a respectful environment with her?
Kim Masters is editor at large for The Hollywood Reporter.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.