'SMILF': TV Review
Frankie Shaw breaks out as a struggling single mom on Showtime's newest dramedy.
There is much to like in the pilot for Showtime's latest dramedy, SMILF, which was created by, stars and is directed and produced by Frankie Shaw (Mr. Robot), joining the ranks of like-minded "artisanal television" efforts by talented creators looking to put their distinctive stamps on stories for the small screen. But it's the two subsequent episodes of SMILF that Showtime made available that truly point to the series being special.
Shaw, playing an exaggerated version of herself, is Bridgette Bird, a slightly bedraggled, more than slightly struggling actress and single mother in South Boston with: a bi-racial child, Larry; a kinda-sorta interested baby daddy, Rafi (Miguel Gomez, so great in The Strain); a tough-love mom with mental health issues (Rosie O'Donnell); and a part-time job as a nanny to a wealthy woman (Connie Britton), who might be living the idealized version of Bridgette's life if Bridgett had used her writing skills to go to college instead of pursuing acting or her bigger dream of playing in the WNBA.
And, oh yeah, Bridgette is a victim of sexual abuse and suffers from an eating disorder she's attempting to keep at bay in trying times (raising a kid as a single mom without a lot of opportunity isn't easy).
There's also the side issue of really wanting to get laid, which is partly complicated by having her 3-year-old son Larry (as in Larry Bird) constantly in tow. SMILF — the acronym, in case you didn't know, for Single Mom I'd Like (to) Fuck — has a lot on its plate, with the pilot not fully letting viewers into the enormity of its scope.
Shaw is fantastic here — the series brings to life a short film she brought to the Sundance Film Festival, which generated raves — and there's lots of nuance to Bridgette over the first three episodes that Showtime made available to critics.
But when viewers first meet Bridgette, there's a danger that they might get the wrong impression, if any form of sympathy is the goal. Bridgette initially seems less a victim of circumstance than someone life happens to, and in return has no outwardly obvious desire to change the circumstances of her predicament. SMILF presents Bridgette as kind of a sad sack, but also a slacker of sorts. There are jokes about whether her vagina has been "blown out" by Larry's birth and whether this, along with being a single mom (on the wrong side of prosperous and frequently dressed in sweats), makes her less desirable. Add to that Shaw's kind of laconic delivery and Bridgette's love of smoking pot and masturbating, and it would be easy in the early going to believe there's not much else on the agenda and not exactly a rooting interest in the heroine.
But SMILF quickly, in the following two episodes, builds a strong case that there's a whole lot more to discover here. Shaw is such a dynamic presence, oddly beautiful without being blow-dried and lacquered with makeup, believable in sweats and slides but also transcending them. That trait is used, cleverly, as a joke when Bridgette meets Nelson (Samara Weaving), Rafi's new Australian girlfriend and social media sensation (because of her, um, nipples), and Nelson compliments Bridgette on having "a gritty quality."
It's another good sign that Nelson moves from being the hot girlfriend to a more realized — and funny — character in the next two episodes. Even more affirming is how SMILF allows O'Donnell, as Bridgette's mom, Tutu, to really blossom in complicated ways (particularly around signs of mental illness). Gomez and Britton also broaden their roles in the ensuing episodes. Bridgette's friend from her food support group, Eliza (Raven Goodwin), also emerges as an intriguing character (and it should be noted that Larry, as played by twins Anna and Alexandra Reimer, is just adorable; how the show, if it plays for multiple seasons, deals with the gender issue of the twins remains to be seen).
None of SMILF would work beyond the struggling single-mom trope if it weren't for Shaw truly announcing herself here as a creative force. With Bridgette, we get more than first imagined (there's such a great and creepy scene in the third episode that rivals anything on the other "artisanal television" series, like Master of None, Atlanta and Better Things) and her evident growth indicates that SMILF will pay off on its potential.
The best television is going in this direction — personal, intimate, not bound by traditional rules or storytelling. By the third episode, Shaw has managed to turn SMILF into something special — funny, sad, evocative. It's bleak, but humor undercuts some of that. We're not yet at the point, with three episodes, where Shaw's vision is definitive or her ambition fully realized. But getting there is already special. That third episode ends with an unexpectedly beautiful (and strangely uplifting) prolonged final scene that sets a tantalizingly deep hook.
Showtime looks to have found something special with SMILF.
Cast: Frankie Shaw, Rosie O'Donnell, Connie Britton, Miguel Gomez, Samara Weaving, Anna and Alexandra Reimer, Raven Goodwin
Created, written, produced and directed by: Frankie Shaw
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)