Created by and starring novice executive producer Frankie Shaw, the first season of this dysfunctional family sad-com unraveled layer after layer of just how intricately modern womanhood is embroidered into U.S. class stratification. Shaw’s Bridgette, a scrappy single mother, once dreamt of making it out of gritty South Boston to purse an acting career, but her pregnancy derailed those plans. A former private school kid (thanks to a scholarship), she nearly tasted the freedom of upward mobility, but now pays her bills tutoring the children of an obscenely affluent Ivy League family led by needy Ally (Connie Britton), a woman who uses her entitlement like a whip. Bridgette’s rough-hewn, overbearing mother (Rosie O’Donnell) keeps her tied to the old neighborhood, and although Tutu steamrolls her daughter at every turn — from baptizing her grandson without permission to strong-arming her way into Bridgette’s delivery room — she wears the battle scars of her own lifelong trauma.
For as good as SMILF‘s second season is — so realistically drawn, so flawlessly acted — it’s impossible not to read every scene with an annotation that my laughs may have been manufactured in an abusive environment. If SMILF were a bigger show, if it were helmed by a man, would tales of Shaw’s bullying be treated more or less seriously? For a century, Hollywood and the public at large have accepted — even celebrated — atrocious behavior from artists, as though it fuels the creative process. (“No pain, no gain.”) I can’t help but suspect these kinds of unprofessional demands might have been seen as par for the course under a male showrunner, even in #MeToo times, but because Shaw touts herself a feminist and a supporter of the Time’s Up movement, the stinking hypocrisy implied here might (sadly) be driving outrage more than the appalling details themselves. I’m glad the numerous claims are being investigated, even if they diminish the satisfaction gleaned from an otherwise excellent show.
Season two begins on a glib note: In a satirical fantasy sequence (one of many in the five episodes made available to critics), lingerie-clad Bridgette flirts with and cuddles up to a corpulent man wearing a hotel bathrobe, the camera slowly revealing his creepy, wooden Harvey Weinstein mask. For incest survivor Bridgette, Weinstein could represent the father who molested her or the industry that won’t let her succeed, but for us, his presence comes across more like curdled comedy. The producers probably think they’re audacious for including this provocative imagery and subtextual commentary on the #MeToo movement, but it comes across as callous for an artist to make light of his or her victims, especially when their own behavior is being called into question. Thankfully, from there the series jumps right back into form, revealing Bridgette in all her kitchen-sink messiness.
The heart of SMILF exists in all the little minutiae that bricks together Bridgette’s life. The authentically cluttered and dirty studio she shares with her toddler, Larry (played by twins Anna and Alexandra Reimer, truly some of the best performers in the cast). The desperate moments she spends alone masturbating or scouring social media or bingeing and purging junk food. The cute-manipulative ease she shares with those closest to her, from her oblivious employer and obdurate mother, to her brash bestie Eliza (Raven Goodwin) and her vulnerable ex Rafi (Miguel Gomez).
Wounded Bridgette, who seeks closure with the father who molested her, is also self-absorbed, irresponsible and inconsiderate: In episode two, she ghosts her date to get drunk with her boss, steals a Madonna statue from a church and forces her babysitters to miss their concert. But we don’t need to love or even like her; we only need her comical adventures and damaged relationships to enthrall us.
The organic chemistry among the cast lights the show ablaze. O’Donnell stands out as warm but barbed Tutu, who navigates grief in the first few episodes when her dementia-diagnosed second husband Joe (Blake Clark) dies by suicide, drowning in his soup while little Larry looks on with adorable confusion. In a blistering moment while paramedics remove his body from the home, Bridgette snaps at her mother, telling her she has “a history of leaving kids with the wrong men.” We’re introduced to Tutu’s bubbly blonde sister Jackie this season, played by the effortlessly funny Sherie Rene Scott, who acts as a chirpy foil for existential Tutu. Meanwhile, Connie Britton’s talent is so massive as petulant Ally, she can spend an entire episode in pursuit of a $23,000 Birkin handbag — yelling at shop clerks, reveling in awe at a purse — and we still ache to spend time with this sad little monster.
The best episodes of this season take us out of Bridgette’s chaotic present. Episode five is a beautiful, unvarnished flashback to the day Larry was born, concluding with Bridgette making a heartbreaking decision just as the baby is crowning. In episode three, we’re treated to a one-off “day-in-the-life” featuring Ally’s domestic employees, exasperated Haitian émigré Elsie (Numa Perrier), who cleans her palatial Brookline McMansion, and stony-faced softie Ida (Sisa Grey), who left her teenage daughter in Samoa to raise (and love) Ally’s children. The episode is a welcome retreat from Bridgette’s self-sabotaging hijinks, serving as a sort of ode to High Maintenance‘s microcosmic visions of New York City. But as much as I wished characters like Elsie and Ida had their own shows and weren’t just utilized as “novelty,” I also felt a bitter taste in my mouth at the idea of a white woman claiming solidarity with these working women of color, especially after reports of race-based exploitation on set.
SMILF is meant to discomfort you while simultaneously scratching at your compassion. In one cheeky scene from the premiere, Bridgette experiences a toilet emergency in an old acquaintance’s home, but in order to find the bathroom, she must first wind her way through the hoarding woman’s endless piles. We’re not asked to mock the hoarding itself, but the sheer logistics of circumnavigation here, and it will feel amusingly familiar to anyone who has been forced to acknowledge the ridiculous cracks in their own lives. (For example, my mother’s cremains once got lost for a month in the U.S. mail system.) For all its faults, SMILF reminds you that sometimes you just have to laugh along with life’s sick sense of humor.
Cast: Frankie Shaw, Rosie O’Donnell, Connie Britton, Raven Goodwin, Miguel Gomez, Samara Weaving, Anna Reimer, Alexandra Reimer, Sherie Rene Scott, Numa Perrier, Sisa Grey
Executive producers: Frankie Shaw, Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky, Claire Beitcher, Scott King, Michael London, Zach Strauss
Premieres: Sunday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)