Ignore its name. SMILF, Frankie Shaw's show, which premiered last night, is a crusty, tender masterpiece. The semi-autobiographical dramedy is Louie meets Transparent meets Catastrophe meets Better Things, except younger and much, much poorer. Shaw won the 2015 Short Film Jury Award at Sundance for the short film on which SMILF is based. Going by the first three episodes, Frankie Shaw — who writes, directs, produces, stars in, and serves as showrunner for SMILF — is a quadruple threat.
The half-hour Showtime series makes efficient work of its first six minutes. We open with Shaw's character Bridgette holding her own in a pickup game against some guys she's just met. The Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)" scores Bridgette's victory against a gorgeous man whose smile fades when he sees her son Larry in a stroller. Bridgette is a single mother, you see. And the show's ostensible premise — and retort to its title — is that the Single Mother I'd Love to F*** is a myth. It's she who wants to f***, and it's tough to find takers.
Shaw's gift for lacing hard or broken characters (like Shayla in Mr. Robot) with dopey openness gets showcased here. So is her creative, amazingly efficient direction: the sexy glory of that opening sequence — from Bridgette's initial "Cool Girl" majesty as she scores that basket and flashes her dimples — is rendered moot by Larry's mere existence. Shaw directs this transition from awesome to impotent via some unexpected shots, like a close-up of her messy ponytail that shows the bangs sticking to her forehead. Shaw looks great, but this is real sweat, not meet-cute sweat; this woman's messes are real.
By the six-minute mark, we've learned the basics: Larry's dad is a good father and they're close but not together; he had a relapse but he's been sober since. We're in South Boston. She lives in a studio. It's ... basic. Bridgette hasn't had sex in ages, and she's frustrated and worried about her post-pregnancy body. And her mother — played slightly off-kilter in a career-making performance by Rosie O'Donnell — doesn't think much of her daughter's arrangements.
Shaw plays Bridgette with a sweet drawling voice that clashes with her eyeliner, angularity, and snot rockets. An aspiring actor who tutors Harvard-bound high schoolers (and writes their college admission essays for them), Shaw doesn't totally make sense. But that too, feels real. She's young and talented and overwhelmed and filled with potential that's quietly curdling.
There aren't a lot of shows about poor young single motherhood. Gilmore Girls famously started at a point when being a single mom had stopped being quite so hard: Lorelei was established and Rory was raised. Frankly, the single mom has been such a pitiable category for so long that when we think of her at all, it's uncomfortable. Too much a sinner to be a saint, the single mom sinks under the waves of imagined bad decisions.
The series performs that confusion. Bridget is both young and old. She's anchored and flailing and stalled out. The show dramatizes the mundane agony of having a kid — the angst and risk of leaving home for a second when all you want is a snack and your kid's asleep, say. It also shows exactly why you might need to: How suppressing all your impulses sometimes backfires until you do some really dumb things.
Bridgette has dreams, of course: She worships Jennifer Azzi and wants to play ball or be an actress. But it's not going well. Her audition for an ad in which she plays a veteran with PTSD has so many layers of angst that she gets the part. It turns out not to have been quite what as advertised, however: "You're remembering the war!" the director says as he films her take a shower. "It's okay if the bathing suit falls down, just kinda go with it." But Bridgette — a consummate pro — keeps it easy and light, because that's her job. She supports rich kids applying for college and their mom (Connie Britton). She acts for skeevy dudes and transitions seamlessly to agonized, polite erotica. (Earlier, at the audition, when the director asks how she can cry so easily, she chirps that her father molested her.) You watch this character to see where her limits are — and hope she finds them.
If frustration abounds, what SMILF lacks is self-pity. Bridgette is sweet and harsh and clearly — unmistakably — a mess. Understandably so — she's living on the edge. When her son Larry gets a rash, her day is wrecked. The line at the clinic is long and hopeless and she has to go to work, so she leaves him with Rafi (Miguel Gomez), who ends up leaving their son in his new girlfriend's care. This plot doesn't unfold at all in the way you'd expect. Bridgette simply doesn't have the bandwidth to get mad at Rafi for leaving Larry with his latest flame; she accepts it and even finds much to be grateful for. SMILF sometimes veers into farce, but these are the kinds of details that feel real.
The writing is unexpected and fresh; it bubbles with grim but entirely believable compromises — the kind people make when they really are at the end of their rope and can't afford outrage. And they aren't all bad.