A ‘SMILF’ Struggles To Find Her Way In A New Showtime Comedy

There’s a potentially great show lurking not far beneath the surface of SMILF, bubbling up just often enough that you can envision the series — created by and starring Frankie Shaw as a Boston single mom wrestling with a variety of personal demons — becoming another intimate and memorable modern half-hour in the vein of Atlanta or Master of None or Better Things. But every time the stronger version of the series gets its head above water, it gets shoved back down by a puzzling creative choice that left me wondering if it’s worth waiting around to see if Shaw and company can achieve SMILF‘s full potential.

Proportionately, I tend to do more hope-watching of Showtime series than of any other prestige TV outfit. Sometimes, it’s hoping that a once-great show like Dexter or Homeland or Masters of Sex can recapture its early glory; at other times, it’s hoping that a series with tremendous promise but spotty execution can find a better use of its raw material. The first kind rarely works out, as Showtime has an uncanny knack for developing shows with limited creative shelf lives. The second has paid off, though, as shows like Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, and Shameless learned over time to focus on their strengths, even if their peaks didn’t last any longer than the Showtime series that started out well before stumbling.

SMILF (it debuts Sunday at 10; I’ve seen the first three episodes) tells the story of Bridgette Bird (Shaw), who lives in a squalid studio apartment with baby Larry (she’s basketball-crazy and lives in Boston, so her son is of course Larry Bird). Larry’s father Rafi (Miguel Gomez) is still in the picture and friendly, but he and Bridgette were a mess together, in part because he has a substance abuse problem he’s in treatment for, while she has an eating disorder she’s usually in denial about. (When she returns to her support group, she insists she’s just back for a visit, a sentiment the other members have clearly heard from her many times before.) She and her mother Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell) seem to get along primarily for Larry’s sake, and both are profoundly damaged by events neither likes to discuss much. Bridgette is barely solvent — “You look homeless great!” a former classmate tells her as a compliment when they randomly meet at a corner store — with her primary source of cash coming from tutoring the three spoiled kids of wealthy mom Ally (Connie Britton).

Though the series is based on the short film by Shaw (which won a prize at Sundance a few years back), it shares many traits in common with Shameless and many of Showtime’s other female-led comedies, both good and bad. On the positive side is a magnetic and vulnerable lead performance from Shaw herself (you might remember her as Elliot’s neighbor Shayla in Mr. Robot season one), a strong sense of its main character and her worldview, and a willingness to go to incredibly raw emotional places. On the negative: wild tonal shifts, extremely broad supporting characters who stick out next to the well-drawn lead, a certain self-consciously porny quality to the sex scenes (they should all come with subtitles congratulating the viewer on their purchase of a valuable Showtime subscription), and a tendency to go for shock value for its own sake.

These traits have persevered over multiple Showtime administrations, to the point where it seems less like executive heavy-handedness — Showtime, like its peers, prides itself on being a creator-friendly place to work — than on it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Manager: This seems like an idea you could sell to Showtime!
Showtime development exec: Yup, this seems like something we should buy!

In the early stages, unfortunately, the bad Showtime traits are winning out over the good ones. The scenes where Bridgette is alone with Larry — and thus, essentially, alone with all the things she doesn’t want to think about, like sex (when the series begins, she hasn’t had any since before giving birth) or food or money or her past — are remarkable: sad and specific. So are a handful of moments where she gets to interact with other grown-ups, like a scene in the third episode where she agrees to meet with a lonely middle-aged guy on Craigslist because she’s desperate for rent money, and is surprised to find herself opening up to him(*). But too much of the show seems content to go for easy punchlines or exaggerated supporting characters (even the wonderful Britton can only do so much playing a very familiar type of well-meaning but oblivious rich white lady), and after a while it becomes clear you’ll have to be willing to dig for the show’s treasures.

(*) Among other topics: like fellow tragicomic Masshole Will Hunting before her, she extols the virtues of Howard Zinn.

Bridgette herself, and those smaller and quieter moments, can make the digging feel worth it. Again, some Showtime series have figured themselves in time: Nurse Jackie eventually let its title character face the consequences of her actions (for a while, anyway), and Shameless learned to play up its impressive stable of younger actors and lean more into its dramatic side. Shaw’s a talent worth watching, so maybe SMILF can do the same. But it’s a lot harder to wait for shows to get good than it used to be.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.